COLUMBIA — Standing tall in his white karate uniform and black belt tied around his waist, martial arts instructor Russ Taft tells his students to yell louder.
They are practicing taekwondo moves at the Hockman's American Taekwondo Association Black Belt Academy in Columbia. Despite being a full-time instructor, Taft is also competing to become a champion.
Taft, from Centralia, will be competing on June 26 and 27 at the ATA's World Championships in Little Rock, Ark. Athletes from South Korea, Sweden, Canada, and other countries will compete in the tournament. Taft will be aiming to win the "triple crown," which consists of three different categories: forms, sparring and weapons competition.
"In my 25 years of practicing martial arts, I have not trained as hard for something as I am now," Taft said.
The ATA takes the top 10 competitors who acquire points for placing in various tournaments throughout the year. Competitors are separated by age and black belt ranking.
Taft got a late start and had to catch up. After competing in several tournaments, he eventually landed in the top 10 in all three categories in the age 30-39, second- and third-degree black belt division.
"I originally didn't plan on competing for world champion," Taft said. "But no one should underestimate me out there."
Taft works under sixth-degree black belt Jeff Hockman, who owns the taekwondo school in Columbia. Taft said Hockman was the one who encouraged him to start competing in tournaments despite starting late. Hockman praised Taft for his hard work and dedication to becoming a good competitor and instructor.
"In all my years of taking taekwondo, I have never seen someone work as hard as him at preparing for the world championship," he said. "When you think he would take the day off to recuperate, he does not."
In the weapons competition, Taft will be using a Chinese broadsword and will perform a specific sequence of moves which will be judged by higher-ranking black belts.
Taft said he originally did not want to compete in weapons competition, but was eventually convinced by Hockman to give it a shot, and he ended up with a No. 4 ranking.
"Mr. Taft is in the right frame of mind right now, and he has as good of chance as anyone of pulling it off," Hockman said.