By Paul Danzer
One of the first steps to reaching heights in the martial art of hapkido is learning to fall.
Which explains why Vancouver teens Enzo LaFont and Aiden Bartocci have spent their summer learning to land correctly.
The two are preparing to represent the United States at the first Cheongju World Martial Arts Masterships, an Olympics-style martial arts festival to be held Sept. 2-8 in South Korea. LaFont and Bartocci are two of four members of the USA hapkido team.
Master Sung W. Lim of Vancouver’s King Tiger Martial Arts is a coach for the team. LaFont, 16, and Bartocci, 17, have trained under Lim for several years. Lim and Master C.Y. Lee of Wilsonville, Ore., were asked to form a USA team. Despite a national call for candidates, the four who are making the trip are students of the coaches.
“I’m not looking to conquer the world. I’m looking to send them out and make friends and expand their viewpoint,” Lim said. “They’ve lived in Vancouver all their lives, so getting to see that there is a whole world out there of very diverse people who have something in common.”
Those techniques include joint locks, grappling and throwing. Hapkido has been a sort of underground martial art according to Lim, used by Korean police and military organizations as training for self defense. It emphasizes leverage over strength.
“Probably the falling, eight hours a day of being thrown around” has been the most challenging part of the preparation, LaFont said.
Bartocci agreed that it took some time to get comfortable landing so it didn’t hurt, to reach the point where his mind didn’t panic but simply recognized “oh, that’s the ground.”
Lim describes hapkido as a form of gymnastics. In addition to hands-on techniques, the athletes must perform aerial acrobatics and will be judged on their charisma and their attitudes throughout the competition.
In addition to the physical challenge and the financial commitment needed to represent the USA at this new festival of martial arts, Bartocci and La Font spent about 40 hours each week since June training. Demonstrating techniques meant to incapacitate requires precision in order to avoid injury.
Lim said teaching when and how to use muscle tension is the key to keeping his students healthy when they are thrown or restrained by a wrist lock or other technique.
As Bartocci explained, when demonstrating a wrist lock it is imperative to jump in order to avoid suffering a broken arm.
Having mastered such difficult and potentially dangerous moves, LaFont and Bartucci say they are ready to take on the world — to meet and compete against world-class practitioners of hapkido.
“I’m not nervous at all,” La Font said. “I’m very excited.”
Bartocci agreed he feels prepared and is “absolutely thrilled for this life-changing experience.”
Lim has focused on developing the basic skills for the team, which includes Oregon residents Daniel Garris and C.J. Fleck. Lee has choreographed the presentations on which the team will be judged.
Bartocci and LaFont will participate in the self defense demonstration contest, which will involve five rounds where each of them performs three hapkido techniques. They will be competing against more than 30 teams from around the world in an elimination bracket, but even if they are quickly eliminated, they said that the effort will be worth it.
LaFont, 16, attends Washington Virtual Academy, an online high school. Bartocci, 17, attends La Salle, a Catholic high school in Milwaukie, Ore. Lim sees the Vancouver teens as pioneers and noted that their six or seven years of training is the minimum needed to compete.