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Trusting, Praying, Working: A Mother’s Black Belt Journey

Inspired by her son’s faith in her, a fifty-something woman conquers self-doubt and masters taekwondo.

Sherie Huffman and her son, Eric, inspired and encouraged each other.

I held the ice pack against my knee inside our tent 12,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada. I’d twisted it crossing a glacier with my husband, Grover, and our two sons, slipping and falling on a sun-softened patch of snow.

Up until then it had been a great trip, the first time in years I’d been in good enough shape to backpack. We’d planned on hiking another five days, but now because of me that wouldn’t be happening.

Grover poked his head inside the tent. “Any better?” he asked.

I shook my head no and gingerly pulled off the ice. Overnight my 49-year-old knee had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. It was at least six shades of purple.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve ruined everything. I should have known I wasn’t strong enough to do this yet!”

Grover patted my arm. “Stop it, Sherie. You’ve come a long way,” he said. “I’m going for help. Don’t worry.”

I watched him hurry down the path. The nearest trailhead was six miles away. The boys, Aaron, 15, and Eric, 10, came inside and wrapped their arms around me.

“It’s okay, Mom,” Eric said. But I couldn’t help feeling that I’d let them down. I should have never attempted something like this. Fifteen days hiking in the mountains? There were things you just didn’t do at my age, not with my problems.

Eventually a helicopter whisked me down the mountain to the hospital.

“Nothing’s broken,” the ER doctor said, “but it is a severe sprain. You’re going to be on crutches for about six weeks and it’ll be five or six months before you can do any running or jumping.”

My heart sank. Five or six months? All that work to get in shape. And for what? I was going to be right back where I’d started.

At home I set up camp again—on the couch with my ice pack. This wasn’t how it was supposed to turn out. I was closing in on 50 and tired of feeling old, overweight and out of shape.

I wanted to be the active, energetic woman I’d once been, the one who fell in love with Grover backpacking in the mountains, who used to go exploring with the kids. So I’d asked God to help me rediscover that part of myself. The answer was stranger than anything I could have dreamed up.

Nearly two years ago for Christmas we’d given Eric and Aaron introductory taekwondo lessons. After the first sessions, Aaron decided to stick with baseball. But Eric signed up for more classes.

Three times a week I drove him to Master Park’s studio. I watched him struggle to learn the kicks. One day he got so twisted up he collapsed on the mat. But he got right back up. Before long he was breaking boards. I was so proud of him.

The more I watched Eric practice the more I thought, That looks like fun. And then, Maybe I can do taekwondo too. I casually mentioned to Eric that perhaps I could take some classes. His eyes lit up.

“That would be really cool, Mom!” he said.

Day one. Eric ran ahead of me into the training room, but I lingered nervously in the doorway, feeling like a beluga whale dressed in the white uniform I’d borrowed from Aaron.

One student cracked a board with his bare hand. Another stretched his leg above his head with a kick that would be the envy of a Rockette. I’ll never be able to do that.

I was about to beat a retreat to my car, but Master Park spotted me. “Mrs. Huffman,” he said with an exuberant wave, “so glad you could join us!”

The room fell silent as the entire class looked at me. Too late, I thought.

Those first few weeks were more punishing than any mountain I’d ever climbed. It was all I could do not to fall on my face. I could feel Eric’s eyes on me. So many times I’d told him to persevere in his young life. Now I sensed him pushing me. I couldn’t quit in front of him.

We practiced together at home. Each week I kicked a little higher. Punched a little harder. Learned more forms, series of moves done in a set pattern. Then one day Master Park held an inch-thick board in front of me. 

“To break this with your hand you must first imagine it in your mind,” he said. “Then aim at a spot six inches beyond the board.”

What made him think I could do this? I closed my eyes and took a long, deep breath. I pictured my open hand slicing through the air, me letting out a deep guttural roar, just as I hit the board. I opened my eyes, brought my hand down in a single smooth movement. CRAACK! The plank fell in two.

Amazing. It was like picturing something in your prayers and then seeing it happen. I did it!

Before the big test for my yellow belt I told the students in my Sunday school class I was nervous and asked them to pray for me. The next week, when the kids saw me, they shouted, “You did it!” I didn’t have to tell them. They knew.

I earned my green belt. Then blue. Red. I was dashing up the stairs at home one day when it hit me. I wasn’t the slightest bit winded. When had that happened?

I caught myself practicing back kicks while I did dishes, working through complicated forms while I waited for the washer’s spin cycle to end.

One day I saw a woman’s reflection in a store window. She had her shoulders thrown back. Head held high. A bounce in her step. It was me. The new me. I felt like I could do anything.

Then Grover suggested that the whole family go backpacking together.

“Sure,” I said without thinking twice. “Sounds like fun.” We started with some 10-day hikes to East Lake. Then to Bear Creek Spire. Fifteen days in Bear Basin? No problem, I figured.

No problem? Look where I ended up. On the couch, pressing an ice pack to my knee, out of commission for Lord knew how long.

The guys all had their own things to do. Baseball. Hiking. And of course taekwondo. Day after day, I sat there and brooded, aimlessly clicking through TV shows. Eric would be going for his black belt soon. What did I have to look forward to now? Taekwondo obviously wasn’t the answer to my prayers. Not for someone my age.

One afternoon Eric came in hot and sweaty after a bike ride.

“Mom, we need to schedule our next belt test,” he said, catching his breath.

“I don’t think so, honey,” I said. Couldn’t he tell that kicking and jumping were out of the question?

“Mom!” he said. “You’re not quitting, are you? You’re the one who always told me it was okay to fall. That I just needed to get up and try harder.”

I looked at my son’s face, his pleading gaze. He’d never stopped seeing me as a confident mom who could break boards, not even with my knee wrapped in ice.

I thought of how far both of us had come together. On the cusp of earning our black belts. There had been struggles and setbacks. But wasn’t that the case with almost any goal worth striving and praying for?

You pictured the outcome you wanted, focused on it, then trusted in God’s guidance. But you still had to work at it to see your way through.

“Come here, Eric,” I said, giving him a hug. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

It took months of grueling rehab. Quit? You bet I wanted to. But I didn’t.

Eric and I passed the test. Then at the black belt presentation ceremony Master Park brought out five boards lashed together.

“Break them,” he told me. Suddenly I heard a whisper of the fear that had once held me back. And just as suddenly a verse entered my mind: “I can do all things…”

I leaned back on my left leg, bracing myself on the knee I’d so badly injured. Would it hold?

I kicked my right leg straight out in one quick, fluid motion. CRAACK! All five boards splintered down the center.

Master Park nodded. “You’ve learned well,” he said.

“It’s a process,” I wanted to tell him. A process of trusting, praying, working. And I’m still learning, discovering how strong I can become and how far God can take me if I keep at it. Back to the mountain someday, I hope. I don’t plan on taking a helicopter down this time.


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