The Kong Family

By Terry L. Wilson

At 13-years-old Kimberly, the daughter of Young Bo Kong, is truly a chip off the martial art block.  Trained in a very strict and traditional manner this young lady is herself a black belt champion. However, her real claim to fame is the way she uses her martial art training outside the dojang.

Kimberly is a budding classical concert pianist. Her flawless execution at the keyboard has put her in the winner circle at some of the nation’s most prestigious music competitions. At the ripe old age of 10, Kimberly was the youngest winner of the Duquesne Young Artist Competition and has also won grand prize in a world competition in 1998. Before Kimberly turned 11 she had performed as guest solo artist with Westmoreland Symphonic Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony earning her the moniker of a piano prodigy. Even famed pianist Marvin Hamlish was drawn to the youngster’s powerful performance, so much that he twice asked Kimberly to perform with him in concert.

“I started playing piano and studying Tae Kwon Do when I was five,” said Kimberly. “My father thought Tae Kwon Do would be good discipline for me and I could apply that discipline to my piano practice and school work.”

Kimberly had a burning desire to master the piano and needed no prompting from her parents to practice. In fact, often they must intervene and make her take breaks or she would sit in front of the ivories all night long. This budding young superstar of the concert hall credits her martial art training for her musical work ethic.

“I could play the piano all day if my parents would let me,” Kimberly said without taking her eyes off the black and white keys in front of her. “Tae Kwon Do has given me the discipline to sit still and practice for hours at a time. It’s also very important to be able to focus on the music and that is also something I developed through my martial arts training.”

While Kimberly’s father continues to work with his daughter to perfect her kicks and punches, Kimberly’s mom, Mi, is constantly by her side at the piano. Mi is a former Miss Korea and a very talented singer-musician. She helps guide her daughter through the endless sheets of music that Kimberly memorizes for each concert.

“My daughter has an amazing memory,” said proud father Young Bo Kong. “When she competes, Kimberly plays from memory. She has no sheet music in front of her and her performance often lasts between thirty and forty minutes. However, it is the emotion with which she plays that sets her apart from the others. Many famous orchestra conductors have said that Kimberly is able to bring the notes to life. One big reason for that is because her fingers are so strong from Tae Kwon Do training. When she strikes the keys that strength is translated into her music.”  

Kimberly’s father, Young Bo Kong, is a no-nonsense traditional teacher of Tae Kwon Do. Trained in Korea, Kong moved to the United States in the 1970’s where he immediately demonstrated his skill by winning the grand championship at the 1973 Pam American Games followed by becoming the North American Champion in 1974 and the Middleweight World Champion in 1976. Many have called Young Bo Kong the fastest kicker in the world. Although his flying feet have never been officially clocked, at age 47, they are still a blur to the eye.

"People have told me that I am the fastest kicker they have ever seen, but I don't know about that," Kong said modestly.  "I train very hard and what I do is the result of that training."

During his formative years it was common for Young Bo Kong to execute 4000 kicks a day in a single workout.  For this the Korean black belt, a six hour training day was not unusual or thought to be extreme.  It was, however, his focus on excellence that pushed him to be the very best in his field.  This is a train that's deeply embedded in the entire Kong family.  In addition to his speed, the Korean Tae Kwon Do master's power is awesome.  The combination of speed and power Young Bo Kong generates is evident in his breaking demonstrations.  Being able to break through solid objects tells the kicker that his or her form is effective in a combat situation. According to the eighth degree master, some students confuse power with force which results in ineffective kicks.

“One thing I see many people do is to push the bag when they kick it,” said Master Kong. “A push does not have any power. It may cause the bag to swing high but that is all for show. Such a kick would not severely injure an attacker. You must have snapping power, using your hip to generate the kind of force that will penetrate your target, not just push it. To perfect that kind of kick requires much practice.”

The benefits of Tae Kwon Do are not limited to the dojang; the same training that Kimberly used to help perfect her skills as a concert pianist were also used by some of the NFL’s best known football stars to improve their game.

Superstars like Pittsburgh Steelers Greg Lloyd, who was called by his peers the toughest man in the game, and Ravens star cornerback Rod Woodson are but two of the many top athletes who train under Master Kong at his dojang in Pittsburgh. They, too, have learned how to use Tae Kwon Do to improve their skills on a professional level.

“Tae Kwon Do and Master Kong were directly responsible for helping to extend my career in the NFL,” said black belt Greg Lloyd. “My focus improved and the stretching I learned greatly reduced my chance of getting injured during a game.”

“The stretching was a big help to me during the game day,” said Woodson. “Tae Kwon Do also helped enhance my hand eye coordination and ability to focus. All of these things are very important for a football player.”

The youngest Kong brother is Master Young Joon Kong. He, too, was a national and world class martial art champion who eventually translated his Tae Kwon Do skills into another sport. In 1983 he was the AAU National Champion. The ultimate honor for the youngest Kong brother came in 1988 when he was elected Team Captain for the U.S. Olympic Team.

 “I hate to admit it but my youngest brother is the strongest fighter in the family,” said Young Bo Kong. “His legs are so strong that he can take two steps, jump over a man’s head and deliver a couple of kicks in the process.”

Young Bo Kong went on to say that his baby brother also has a mean streak that often left his opponents laying flat on their backs.

“Young Joon has a mean streak in him whenever he fights,” said the elder Kong. “I remember when he was fighting in the U.S. Nationals and his opponent threw a roundhouse kick to my brother’s chest. Joon jumped over his head, spun around in mid-air and landed a hooking kick to his head and knocked him out. Even with all of the protective gear, his opponent could not withstand my brother’s power.”

Like the Kong’s entire family, brother Joon has a strong desire to win, but even if winning is not in the cards, quitting is never an option. This never-say-die-attitude was clearly demonstrated in the final match of the 1988 World Championships.

“In the semi-final round my brother broke his ankle,” said Young Bo Kong. “It was so painful that he was unable to stand, let alone fight, but he refused to quit. Instead of forfeiting, Joon stood there and let his opponent beat him up. He thought it was better to do that than to just give up. The guy he was fighting just tore Joon apart and he lost the match but, in doing so, he demonstrated the true spirit of Tae Kwon Do and the spirit of our family.”

Shortly after breaking his ankle Young Joon Kong decided to hang up his black belt and pick up some golf clubs. Although he had never played a hole in his life, the Tae Kwon Do champion decided he wanted to become a golf pro and that was that. Joon approached the game with the same dedication that made him a martial arts champion.

“We could not believe he wanted to stop Tae Kwon Do to be a professional golfer,” recalled Young Bo Kong.

“He would spend ten to twelve hours a day on the greens learning the game. Three years from the day he began golfing, Joon returned to Asia and turned pro. He did not think he was good enough to compete in America so he went home to begin his new career. Two years later he was a leading player in Asia. In 1998, he won the Asian PGA tournament and every year since he has been rated in the top ten.”

Master Kong went on to say that the skills his brother learned in Tae Kwon Do greatly helped him in his new profession.

“As a martial arts champion, Joon was not intimidated by others so that was in his favor when he played against better known golfers. And Tae Kwon Do gives you good hand to eye coordination and focus. That, and good balance are all part of martial arts training and all of those things my brother has used to become a winning professional golfer.”  

Although martial arts have been practiced by the Kong family for generations both Young Bo Kong and Young Joon Kong agree that they owe all of their success to their big brother, Grandmaster Kong Young Il. It was under his watchful eye that he guided his siblings down the path of Tae Kwon Do whether they wanted to go or not. Young Bo Kong recounted many times he did not want to train, but his big brother insisted and both he and brother Joon followed suit.

The elder Kong began training at age nine. His first teacher was General Woo, a strict individual who taught traditional Tae Kwon Do in the old-fashioned way.

“Training was very strict,” recalled Grandmaster Kong Young Il. “For more than a month I was only allowed to clean the walls and floors of the school. We had to prove that we had proper discipline to learn Tae Kwon Do before he would teach us.”

Eventually Grandmaster Kong was able to put down the scrub brush and began training in earnest. He stayed with General Woo until he entered college. At that time, Kong became captain of his university’s Tae Kwon Do team. His fighting skills earned him the title of National Champion of Korea, an honor he held and defended from 1963 to 1966. During that time he also became the Tae Kwon Do instructor for the famous Korean Army ROK team.

Leaving his homeland for the United States in the late 1960’s, Grandmaster Kong was one of the first to introduce Tae Kwon Do to America.

“There was no Tae Kwon Do in the United States when I first came here,” said Grandmaster Kong. “I was the first one to use the Tae Kwon Do sign. I never-ever used Karate, only Tae Kwon Do sign.

“Americans had no knowledge of our Korean martial art,” recalled Grandmaster Kong. “When I told people I was teaching Tae Kwon Do they thought it was some kind of Asian cooking class. So, I had to do many demonstrations to introduce Tae Kwon Do to Americans.”

His demonstrations were a smashing success that resulted in the brothers operating the largest martial arts organization in the United States at that time. However, when his master, General Choi Hong Hi, requested that Kong put on a series of worldwide demonstrations to promote Tae Kwon Do, Kong complied; unfortunately, his chain of schools suffered in his absence.

“I traveled from 1973 to 1975 touring more than 100 countries doing demonstrations and promoting Tae Kwon Do,” said Grandmaster Kong. “Unfortunately, my school did not do well without me to oversee them. I eventually moved to Los Angeles where I now have a large school.”

Over the years, Grandmaster Kong has made numerous contributions to his traditional art, including the revision of Tae Kwon Do hand techniques.

“When I trained (in) Tae Kwon Do in Korea we would always kick and never used our hands very well,” said Grandmaster Kong. “However, after spending some time in the United States I began to see how effective boxing techniques were. In Tae Kwon Do, our hands were so stiff and we always chambered our fists on the hip; same in Karate. This was not effective. Why punch from your chest? I learned that it was better to punch from the chest and to stay relaxed until moment of impact; same with the kick. So, I began teaching a different way to punch: Relax the entire body then, at the last moment, put your whole force into the target.”

Striving for excellence is a family attribute that is genetically built into the Kong family. The foundation for their drive to achieve and succeed is all attributed to the physical, mental and spiritual foundation of Tae Kwon Do.