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Full interview with Gordon White, 6th Dan Black Belt

So you’ve been studying Taekwondo for more than 25 years now, starting in … eighth grade? What motivated you to get involved with Taekwondo at the beginning?

gw_whitebeltI started Taekwondo May 13th, 1983. I was in the eighth grade. The 6th and 7th grades were tough on me: I was picked on and beat up a lot, and now was nervous about being a freshman in high school the following year. My older sister had a boyfriend who practiced Taekwondo, and he invited me to visit his school.

So my parents brought me over on Friday night. We talked to the instructor, who had me fill out a form. There was a list of about 20 different “benefits” of Taekwondo training. Self confidence, physical fitness, self defense, competition, etc. I checked off all but 1 or 2….(I think weight control was one that I left off). I signed up that night, and was hooked. For the next 2-1/2 years, my parents drove me to Winooski 3 to 5 times a week. While I had other interests (drumming, skiing, BMX biking …) which I continued to be involved in through High School, they quickly became a second priority to Taekwondo.

So, to actually answer the question. Self defense is what motivated me to walk in the door of a Taekwondo school, but what kept me there were number of things. I was good at it, but I also felt like belonged there. I was surrounded by 5 men in their twenties who were black belts, and in my eyes were like having 5 Bruce Lee’s to practice with. I wanted their physical skills, strength, and confidence, and my instructor made me feel like I was capable of achieving it. I was made to feel that I had tremendous potential, and that by practicing Taekwondo and dedicating myself to it, I would be successful in anything I wanted to pursue.

After 2-1/2 years this school was closed and moved to California. I joined another school for just under a year, and then joined the Blue Wave, which was another amazing community that immediately made me feel like I belonged. While my motivations and goals changed–instructing, competing, etc.–I guess once I started Taekwondo, NOT doing it was never an option.

It sounds like from the beginning, other people–your first instructor and the Blue Wave community, for instance–played a significant role in how you looked at Taekwondo and your commitment. How did those connections affect you? Were they instrumental in your training, or just nice to have?

Yes, without a doubt, part of my motivation was driven by my desire to to live up to someone else’s expectations. My parents, instructor, and coaches all played a very important role in me staying motivated and dedicated to continue with Taekwondo. Those that come before you have the experience to know what is possible–so they set high expectations for you, higher then perhaps you can imagine on your own. It’s fantastic, because it helps you do more than you would most likely accomplish otherwise. However, with it comes pressure. I see parents all the time who don’t think they are putting pressure on their kids, coaches who have a “low pressure” philosophy, but as long as there are caring instructors there will be pressure on the students.

While the relationship I had with Master Twing (my instructor) and Grandmaster Lee (his instructor) is part of why I continue to be involved in Taekwondo, it is by no means the only reason. There has to be a meeting in the middle–it’s a rare for the motivation and passion for something to be met with an equal amount of motivation and passion for teaching that thing, but when it does, it’s very special.

I would like to add that from the time I started Taekwondo and got my yellow belt, I intended to be a Taekwondo instructor. I was fortunate to find the Blue Wave and Master Twing–but if I had not, I don’t think it would have stopped me. I think I would have continued to search until I found an instructor that I could connect well with.

Luc, in reading Keyna’s favorite movie list, I was reminded of one of my all time favorite movies Searching for Bobby Fisher. This movie makes my point (below) more eloquently then I am able to write.

The main character, Josh Waitzkin, (this is based on a true story) has supportive parents and coaches, all who see his potential (he’s considered a gifted chess player) and are driven to support and push him, thus creating tremendous pressure for him. The conflict he feels between wanting to just enjoy chess and excel to the point that he thinks his coaches/parents want is very well portrayed in the film–if you have not see it, it’s very much worth checking out. Blockbuster had it; at least they did several months ago.

Over time, did your motivation to succeed at Taekwondo come to depend less on people outside you? You earned your black belt and began earning more advanced ranks, trained in Korea, sparred on the U.S. National team, won medals in international competitions, became instrumental in teaching and supporting the school Master Twing founded, progressed to sixth Dan (so far) … all of this must have taken a huge amount of effort, well beyond your initial training. Did your motivation change over time? Were there setbacks you had to get past?

(The parent influence is worth digging into – as an instructor – I see the entire spectrum…with a wide range of results – nothing scientific, and I don’t I have any answers…its just very interesting to watch.)

Yes. by the time I was in college, my desire to do well in Taekwondo was driven almost entirely by my own motivation. I think the trick with motivation is that if it’s a chore, it’s not really motivation: real motivation has to come from within. External influences can help, but I think this can turn into a feeling of responsibilty, or a fear of disapproval. No one was telling me to get up early to run–or give up social events on Friday night because I was traveling to a training session or tournament. I did these things on my own, because I wanted to. It never felt like a sacrifice for me.


Obstacles for me in Taekwondo: college got in the way, I suppose. I graduated high school in 1987, took a year off to do Taekwondo* (and some other things) and started at UVM in the fall of 1988. College got in the way of Taekwondo, and it actually links well to this conversation. My first two years of college were done out of responsibility–not motivation. All I wanted to do was Taekwondo: studying was not high on my list, but my feeling of responsibilty to my parents to “get a four year degree” had me putting in minimum effort to get by. It was a bumpy road – 6 years for a four year degree including some time off and a year abroad, but in the end, Taekwondo is what provided the real motivation for me to finish school. I FINALLY claimed a major, “small business management,” which allowed me to link what I was learning, to what I eventually saw myself doing, owning a Taekwondo School.

Another obstacle for me was the lack of training partners and travel distances. When I started Taekwondo in 1983, I was able to train 4 or 5 days a week. But in 1986, I began training with Master Twing in Randolph, Vermont, a 100-mile round trip. I was only getting down 1 or 2 times a week–when Grandmaster Lee arrived in late 1987 and came back again in 1988, I would often spend weekends at Master Twing’s house, training with Grandmaster Lee in the basement. Eventually Grandmaster Lee lived with the owners of a Blue Wave School in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, the Menards. I would head there every Friday night for sparring training. When I began at UVM, in the fall of 1988, I had a small Taekwondo School in a church in Essex, Vermont (I had started it in 1987 during my year off). There were about 10 to 12 students. We met twice a week and often took group trips to St. Johnsbury on Friday night. This school was a bit of a mess though–it was a group of high school and college students, and we trained to compete. My primary goal was to create a group of people that would be good training partners for me (which … is not how you grow a school, by the way).

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By 1990, I had failed to place at Nationals after 3 attempts, 1987, 1988, 1990. I missed 1989 due to knee surgery–another obstacle, I suppose. I felt like I should be on the podium, but something was missing–the people that were placing had something I didn’t, and it wasn’t physical skill: it was confidence. While I spent all of my training time sparring with people that were not as good as I was, the best players were from big cities, training with teams of national level competitors. This was the difference. The only time I had experienced this was in 1987: Grandmaster Lee took myself and one other black belt to Korea for 6 weeks. We traveled around the country, training at different schools and getting our butts kicked on a regular basis. The dramatic increase in skill and confidence I gained just in these 6 weeks was something I needed much more of.

I headed to the International Education office at UVM and asked what my options were for a year abroad in Korea. I was given information for attending Yonsei University, and started making plans for it. In order to go, I needed to get my grades up at UVM (I did); I needed to close my Taekwondo School (one of my students, Tim Warren, wanted to open a school in Milton, which gave me a place to send my students); I needed to continue to train as hard as I could–I still had nationals to attend and if I hoped to keep up in Korea, I wanted a good foundation–and lastly, I needed to earn as much money as I could, because I would not be working for the year there. I waited tables at the Peking Duck, picking up extra shifts. I worked there starting in my second year of college and continued through the year after I graduated.

Just to throw a monkey wrench into my plans, I placed 3rd at the 1991 nationals. This allowed me to go to the Team Trials. Team Trials took the top 4 place winners in each division from nationals and two wild card slots (typically the previous year’s team winner and one other) and had them round robin for the team spot. After much deliberation with my parents and my instructors, we decided I would not go. Team Trials fell near the time I would be leaving for Korea, it was an added expense, and took time away from me earning money for my year abroad … Master Twing and Mr. Menard desperately wanted me to go; my parents felt I should focus on the year coming up in Korea. Interestingly, I spoke with my dad about this about a year ago, and he said he wishes now that I had gone: knowing what we know about peaks and plateaus of competitors, it was a valuable experience that should not have been passed up. But–live and learn.

Testing for 3rd dan

Testing for 3rd dan

So, I landed in Seoul, Korea in late summer, 1991. I got settled in and quickly realized this was the best thing I could have ever done. I got set up in the dorm, and Grandmaster Lee set me up with one of his juniors who coached a high school team, where I attended practice 4 and sometimes 5 days a week (20 – 30 hours a week). Academic work was light, but interesting–unfortunately, I had to give up Korean Language class the second semester because it was interfering with my Taekwondo schedule.

I woke up every morning in Korea ready to hit the ground running for whatever Taekwondo experience I could get . It was hard. I got homesick, and some cultural things freaked me out (it was not uncommon for the coach to discipline the students with a baseball bat across the back of the legs), but these obstacles were squashed by desire to work and excel at Taekwondo. I guess it’s like being hungry and not feeling like there is enough food in the house–and then you go to an all-you-can-eat buffet, your eyes get big, and you dive in, knowing there is more food here then you are ever going to be able to eat, but you still want to get your money’s worth: that is what my year in Korea was like. There was more Taekwondo there then I could ever consume in a year, but I tried.

I started to feel some pressure to perform, however–it was completely unintentional–but I got loads of letters from the Blue Wave. Everyone was very proud of me being in Korea and training hard, but the expectation was that I was going to come back and mop up the competition at the Nationals. I came home from Korea to attend 1992 nationals, there was a big fundraiser to get me there, and everyone expected me to do well … but I didn’t. I fought OK, but lost my second match of the day. It was very disapointing, and while I knew that no one was disappointed “in me,” many people were still disappointed for me. I headed back to Korea to finish out my final months at Yonsei–interestingly, still very motivated and excited to be there …


When I got back to Vermont, I was happy to be home but anxious about the upcoming year. I needed to focus on school again, but I still had my heart set on doing well at nationals and attending Team Trials. I had set a goal for myself to attend a world-level event and place. Considering I had only placed at nationals once, this was a pretty big step.

Some changes in how I was living helped: I moved back home, I didn’t re-open my Taekwondo School, and I only worked weekends. The following year, I placed at Nationals, and went to Team Trials and placed second, earning a spot on national B Team, and was picked to represent the US at the World Games in The Hague, Netherlands.

So, now that I have given you far more history then you asked for, I will try to answer your question about changes in motivation. It’s very difficult for me to say I was motivated by a single goal: my goal was to make the US Team, but that was not all I was motivated by. I loved Taekwondo, loved how it made me feel, loved the people in it and the relationships I had with them. All these things played into my motivation to continue to train, get better, and simply do my best, had there been no competitive aspect to Taekwondo. Had my only real motivation been competitive, I don’t think I would have been so involved in the Blue Wave Association. I was very close with Master Twing. When he got sick with cancer, he asked that I become president of the Blue Wave Association, not because of my physical ability, but because he knew that I wanted the Blue Wave to be successful, to grow and continue to be a positive influence in people’s lives.


You had mentioned that even in college you were looking forward to running a Taekwondo school, and today we see you as head of the Blue Wave Taekwondo association, with scores of students learning from you regularly in Burlington and others from a dozen Blue Wave locations throughout New England studying with you at least twice a year at the Blue Wave summer and winter camps. I imagine that both competing and running Blue Wave have been challenging and involving for you, but they must provide different kinds of satisfaction. How did you transition from competing to teaching, and what keeps you going year to year teaching multiple nights a week while juggling family, a full-time day job, and other obligations?

Luc, Sorry for the delay in responding to this – the reason its taking me so long to get back to you, falls in well with this conversation. I have been busy getting the Taekwondo fall schedule up and running, attempting to solidify a new working relationship with an equipment supplier, getting the details straight for the Black Belt Conference taking place in November, and trying to secure a location for Winter Camp 2010. So “why” I do it is something I often ask myself and I am not sure I have a good answer for.

Transition from competitor to teaching was a natural process for me. As I said, I always imagined myself teaching, and teaching was something I did for a long time. Grandmaster Lee and Master Twing worked with me and expected me to help spread the information, and I think from the start it was very rewarding to teach, and I also felt responsible, Taekwondo was something (I felt) had given me so much, and this was my duty to give back.

In 1998 I fought at the Massachusetts State Championships. I had 3 fights to win the division. It was a lot of fun, I fought well, and when it was all over, I told Calvin (my wife) that I was pretty sure that I was done competing. I knew what it took to get to a high level of competition, and also what it took to stay there. It has to be your priority, your job to train and compete, and something inside me said that I’d had enough. It was around the same time, however, that I was getting very excited at the prospect of teaching and having my own school. I felt ready to teach: I felt like I had a lot of experience and depth and could be a good instructor. Having Master Twing’s overwhelming vote of confidence simply reinforced what I was feeling. Teaching, running a school and building the Blue Wave was the next place for me to place my passion for Taekwondo.

It’s interesting: you often hear that teaching is such a selfless job, you have to put the students first, but honestly it’s not entirely selfless. Teaching has made me understand Taekwondo far better then if I had just remained a practitioner. I think this is what is part of the motivation for me. I still get something from it, so there is still a selfish element. The satisfaction comes in seeing the school grow, watching the student progress and the competitor’s performance improve. There is a certain amount of pride in knowing that you have something to do with it. You share in the success and failure of every individual in the gym. The ups are wonderful, and downs equally disappointing.

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Since Taekwondo can’t pay the bills for me (at least not teaching it the way I want to teach) giving up my day job is not an option, so the only other option is to cut back on Taekwondo, and I often wonder if I should give up some Taekwondo–have more time to relax, more time with my family, etc. I heard a quote in a movie one time that made sense to me:

“It’s not about doing right or doing wrong: it’s what what you do and what you don’t do.”

Right now, this is what I am doing, and as long as I get up in the morning and more often then not am looking forward to the Taekwondo tasks ahead, I will probably keep doing it.

So the point is that yes, teaching is about the students, building the Blue Wave is about the members, and coaching is about the athletes, but it is impossible to give these things 110% without it fueling you back, keeping you excited about what you are doing and giving you knowledge and experience that adds to the person you are. I don’t know, some day I might have the same type of revelation that I had in 1998, and it will be time for what is next, but right now, I have to finish this email: Junior Athlete Training Program starts up tonight, and I’m excited to work with my students.

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