Junior Olympians Take Home Silver, Bronze
by Gabrielle V. Espiritu
Eyes have been glued to TV screens around the world as the 2012 Summer Olympic Games give plenty of reason to root for athletes representing one’s own country. But one does not have to go all the way to London to see outstanding athletes competing in their element. In fact, four local youngsters—Caden Burgard, Alexa Gervais, Ricky Vargas Jr. and Gaige Vargas—competed in the Amateur Athletic Union’s Junior Olympic Games in Houston, where the events were held July 25-Aug. 4.
These four dedicated athletes trained to compete in the sport that they love and are dedicated to—tae kwon do. At the end of competition, Burgard walked away with a silver medal in free sparring and Gervais earned bronze in both free sparring and form.
Way of the Hand and Foot
The kids train at Houma Martial Arts under the instruction of Al Hebert. Hebert started the advanced competitive tae kwon do team in 2000 to raise funds that could allow tae kwon do students to compete in national tournaments, as well as the AAU Junior Olympics. Both Hebert and Eric Aucoin, an instructor at Thibodaux Taekwondo, bring their students to the national championships and Junior Olympics.
Fundraisers like car washes and cookie dough sales, in addition to sponsored donations, help to send the students to compete in these tournaments.
In order for a student to go to the AAU Junior Olympic Games, he or she must place in the top eight in his or her division at the qualifier round. When Burgard, Gervais, Ricky Vargas Jr., Gaige Vargas and another student, Ty Verret, went to the qualifier in Houston in May, all five of them qualified to compete in the Junior Olympics. Verret did not compete in the event due to personal reasons, but the other four students competed in both the pumsae (a type of Korean martial art form) and Olympic sparring categories.
Art of Discipline
In preparation for the Junior Olympics, the students attended three-hour-long practices at Houma Martial Arts twice a week. Hebert said that he keeps the training for the big tournaments balanced, first making sure that the students have the proper skills before working on footwork. They also do cardio training in order to build endurance for the tournaments. Other classes focus solely on the students sparring with each other. Hebert also strives to remain very supportive of his young students.
“Some personalities need to be nurtured and some need to be challenged, but they’re always given positive reinforcement,” he said.
Tae kwon do training instills a high level of discipline in the students and helps them outside the martial arts studio as well to grow as disciplined and respectful young adults. Ten-year-old Burgard, who has been taking tae kwon do lessons since 2009 and is testing to become a black belt candidate this month, said that the mind and breathing processes he learned in tae kwon do help him to be more in control of his emotions and ultimately to be a better person as he matures and gets older.
While all four of the Olympic participants are extremely focused on their sport, they also have lots of fun with it. Even before class begins, the students have high energy and are ready to begin training. The energy continues through warm-ups and the intense training that follows. Gaige Vargas, who started tae kwon do over three years ago and is the youngest of the four at 8 years old, said that having fun is his favorite thing about the sport. Ricky Vargas Jr., who is 12, began taking tae kwon do lessons at the same time as his younger brother, and the two practice at home together. Ricky Vargas Jr. competed in the black belt division at the Junior Olympics, where divisions are determined based on a student’s belt and his or her weight.
“It’s a challenge, but at the same time it’s an accomplishment when we get to see the fruits of our labor,” Hebert said. “We get to see that the hard work and dedication pays off. We see them grow as adults and mature.”
The students are extremely driven as athletes; as soon as they begin their lessons, all joking ceases and they find their zone, dishing out powerful kicks and punches with careful technique. They are in their element, working to compete, but also having a blast.
“It doesn’t matter if I get gold, silver or bronze,” Burgard said. “To me, just being there is my gold medal.”