COLUMBIA — You don’t have to be Bruce Lee to break a wooden board with your bare hands.
“I hit it with my fist, and it snapped,” said Joe Reneker, 13, while reclining on a hospital bed at Rusk Rehabilitation Center after back surgery, unrelated to his taekwondo activities. “I wanted to break one for fun and ended up doing it. It doesn’t hardly hurt.”
Joe learned taekwondo at Hockman’s ATA Black Belt Academy, 2703 E. Broadway, where he started taking private lessons at age 6 with Jeff Hockman, the class master. Joe performed the board-splitting feat as part of a test to win a higher rank. Over the course of seven years, he has moved up nine levels, from white belt to recommended black belt.
Born with a disability, Joe has spent most of his childhood in a wheelchair. When he was 6, a woman in his neighborhood told his father, Jeff Reneker, about the academy. Father and son wanted to give it a shot.
“We’ve tried different forms of exercise, horseback riding, swimming in a pool, … but he really likes this one,” Reneker said.
Five students with disabilities are enrolled in the special programs at Hockman’s ATA Black Belt Academy, said Russ Taft, chief instructor. Among them are several with autism disorders. All the students either learn in a classroom setting or take private lessons modified for their medical conditions and families’ wishes.
“Depending on the disabilities, they fill out evaluations, then come to the first class, and we find out what their limitations are,” Taft said. "That’s how we adapt to them."
Modified moves don’t necessarily make training sessions easier. The students practice the forms, or the different series of taekwondo movements, with precision. They compete and spar against their teammates. For them, tae kwon do is both an exercise to help with muscle recovery and a serious sport.
"Encouragement of physical activity and sports is very beneficial for everyone and for this population, " said Evan Prost, clinical instructor in the MU physical therapy epartment. "Resting is an enemy. It has bad effects on your heart, joints, and you'll have slow reaction time."
Taft has seen other benefits.
“Self-esteem is probably the No. 1 thing I see," he said. "A lot of people feel better. We use the correct praise method, we watch them focus on the things they love and keep them motivated.”
It also helps the students develop confidence, make new friends and build new relationships, headded.
“I think in Columbia there’s a large need (for such programs) because there’s not a lot of things they can do with people with disability," Taft said. "We are working the life skills; we teach self-protection and fitness."
But for Joe, he just really loves the fun.
“You keep getting higher and higher in the belt," he said. "Every step is very exciting.”