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NERVES OF STEEL

I am quite a normal teen-ager, but if you were having a bad day and decided to attack me, you'd probably end up with a broken knee.

Yes, I am in the martial arts. Tae kwon-Do, to be exact. And this month I am a candidate for a first-degree black belt, called 1st Dan ("IL Dan") in Korean.

Tae kwon-Do originated in South Korea and was introduced to American soldiers during World War II by Korean General Choi Hong Hi. It means, literally, "the art of the hands and feet," and stresses personal growth and nonviolence.

I take Tae kwon-Do at the Robert Summers School of Tae kwon-Do in Amherst under Master Chuck Gorino. I have been training for more than three years and am proficient in three main subjects: forms, self-defense and sparring.

Forms are a long series of moves often used in self-defense. They promote balance and stamina and challenge memory. On the test I am required to know nine forms from each belt level and one additional musical form that I designed. Forms take from 30 seconds to more than a minute of non-stop movement to complete, and they might include more than 100 individual movements.

In addition, there are three types of self-defense. Each is a short series of moves that react to a grab, hold, punch or weapon threat by an attacker. They involve breaking the hold or stopping the punch and responding with a series of kicks, punches and grappling techniques to disable or distract the attacker long enough to run away. Self-defenses come from within the forms.

On the test I will be required to know the 14 self-defenses from within the forms, 14 pre-designed self-defenses deemed necessary by Master Robert Summers called "one-step-sparring," and nine additional one-steps that I have designed. Being a girl in the martial arts, I must account for things my male counterparts would not have to deal with when creating personal self-defenses: for example, if it's 7 a.m. and snowing, and I'm wearing a short skirt and heels, I cannot use a self-defense that has a jump-spinning-hook kick in it.

Sparring involves blocks, kicks and punches, and to the untrained eye, looks like a kickboxing match. The object is to score on your opponent using kicks and punches without being scored on by using defensive moves. However, sparring is not required on the test.

Also on the test is a favorite of the public: board-breaking. The necessary five board stations must include two flying kicks; i.e. you must break the board while both feet are off the ground.

I train on average four to five times a week with the other candidates. Matthew Franzek, 14, a student at St. Joseph Collegiate Institute, is also going for his first-degree black belt and we must do many things together on the test: one punching and the other doing a self-defense. We also perform our forms simultaneously. Dianne Blackwell and Heidi Poleck, who have been teaching and training with me since I was a white belt, are going for their second degree.

The test takes place at the school in front of Master Summers, a sixth-degree black belt. He comes up from his home school in Charlotte, N.C., to witness all tests. It will start out like most sports events with the national anthem, but continues with 50 push-ups to show mental and physical strength and discipline. One of my jobs is to shout commands, which basically involves yelling orders to who goes where when, and telling when to start the forms, etc. Many of the orders are in Korean.

Throughout the test, all our mental and physical skills are challenged. We won't be allowed to eat from 6 p.m. the previous day until after the 90-minute test, which ends at about 9 p.m.

This will be the most important night in my life so far, and also one of the most brutal. Standing up in front of family and friends, as well as my fellow Tae kwon-Do students, I am judged by a group of high-ranking back belts in an art form I have been practicing for years.

More than three years of hard work plus two months of fine-tuning and team-building boils down to this night: I either pass or I don't. And I want nothing more in the world than to pass.

Editor's note: Caitlin Bell is a freshman at Nardin Academy. She passed her black belt test.

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