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Rachel Sokoloff will tell you that her specialty is a good knife-hand chop to a piece of balsa wood.

That also is the way this 13-year-old attacks life.

"It feels exciting," the Amherst Middle School seventh-grader said. "I was surprised the first time (the wood) actually broke."

Three years after being introduced to tae kwon do during a demonstration at her elementary school, Rachel is a lot less surprised these days by her abilities to master the martial art. It has been both a challenge and an invaluable confidence builder for this youngster who was born with achondroplasia, a type of dwarfism. Neither Rachel's short stature nor her restricted range of motion proved to be a barrier to earning her black belt.

Rachel tested for her black belt Saturday in Grandmaster Sun Chong's World Class Tae Kwon Do on Sheridan Drive near Bailey Avenue. And even though it won't officially be awarded for another few months, Rachel has no doubt that it's hers.

"Oh, I know I got it," she said.

That kind of confidence has been an asset to her, said Chong, a former head coach for the national tae kwon do team and founder of the school where Rachel trains three to four times a week.

"She is a very courageous and determined young lady," Chong said. "Obviously, she has challenges, but she refuses to be treated as not normal. That's her parents' attitude, too."

Hannah Friedler and Mark Sokoloff always have indulged their daughter's many interests, including five years of piano lessons and summer golf lessons at the town-owned Audubon Golf Course. And Rachel, who celebrated her bat mitzvah a few weeks ago, enjoys being active. As a percussionist in the school band, she plays snare drums, timpani and xylophone.

Mark Sokoloff said he initially was skeptical when, after a trial membership, his only child expressed an interest in sticking with the tae kwon do lessons.

"It was good to see her pick up on something she wanted to do and follow it through," he said. "And the accomplishments have been a benefit."

Sokoloff also acknowledged that, despite a father's worry, he would not stop Rachel if she wanted to pursue tae kwon do.

"She's extremely stubborn," he said.

But Rachel is also very disciplined, according to Chong. She thrives on overcoming obstacles and bounced back even after surgery to repair a knee joint sidetracked her training for several months.

Rachel excels at delivering roundhouse kicks, Chong said.

"She does good forms, too," he added, referring to tae kwon do's choreographed movements.

Competitions may not be in her future, but Chong said Rachel still can pursue higher black-belt degrees.

Asked how she would like people to think of her, Rachel replied, "Just as a normal kid who does tae kwon do."


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