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Thousands of fighters battle for national titles


© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 6, 2001

TAMPA -- Smack in the middle of the Tampa Convention Center, surrounded by 15 fights and hundreds of screaming people, tiny Kim Lee of Pennsylvania stood on a mat as a referee raised her arm in victory.

She had just won the black belt fin-weight division (92 pounds and under) at the 21st U.S. Junior Olympic Tae Kwon Do Championships, which also can be called "The Largest Tae Kwon Do Event in the World."

That's right, the largest, featuring nearly 5,000 kids between 6 and 17 years old from all 50 states.

To reach this competition, fighters had to place in the top three at the state level. To make the U.S. Junior Olympic squad, a fighter must win a black-belt division, as Lee did.

It's a big deal considering the next step is the Olympics, where tae kwon do made its medal debut in 200O. After Thursday's victory, Lee was hugged and congratulated by friends from her club, Mancino Academy in Erie, Pa. Friends like the Way family, father Dave, mother Cyndi, 10-year-old Michael (nicknamed "Cheetah" because he's so quick) and 15-year-old Amanda. Michael, a black belt, and Amanda also will compete this week, which is nothing new to the Ways, who, like many families, have built vacations around the event. Last year, it was San Antonio, Texas. The years before, Las Vegas, Orlando and Kentucky.

And how does Tampa compare?

"Lizards, hot and lightning," Mancino coach John Mancino said. Seriously, he said, "Tampa has been a wonderful host. They did a wonderful job with every detail, and the facility is fantastic. I've been to a lot of these events, and this one is as organized as well or better than all the other ones."

If it weren't organized, it would be mass chaos.

Thursday, only 600 kids competed, but the place was packed with fans milling in the halls buying head gear, T-shirts, hats, uniforms, tapes of bouts (Every bout is taped by overheard cameras.), chest pads, ankle braces. ...

In the competition area, 16 wrestling-sized mats are on the football field-sized floor, lit with overhead lamps and adjoined by a television screen that displays each bouts' score. Bleachers with roaring fans align the walls.

Before each round, fighters are escorted two-by-two to the mats. The loudspeaker announces the names and states, and the fighters are greeted by referees, several assigned to each mat, dressed in black suits with white shirts and red ties.

The bouts begin.

Organized? You better believe it.

People like Tampa Bay Sports Commission president Ross Bartow have put in many long days to make sure it was so.

"Until you see it and experience it, you have no idea what is involved," Bartow said. "This has required a lot of work from a lot of people. But it's been fun, and hopefully someday, we can host it again."

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