While Mihir Barlinge may not have won a medal at the 2018 USA Taekwondo National Championships, he walked away with something much greater — the determination to come back the following year and win one. Earlier this month, the rising Scarsdale High School freshman achieved his goal by taking home gold in sparring.
Barlinge beat out a field of 19 others in the cadet sparring 12-14-year-old red belt feather (41.1-45 kg) division, including the finals over runner-up Alejandro Maldonado of Cutting Edge Martial Arts in California.
“I felt really joyful,” Barlinge said. “I felt like I accomplished something and redeemed myself after last year. After last nationals when I lost I just wanted to get gold. I was determined to get gold this year.” The 5-foot-10, 14-year-old started training at Achieve Martial Arts, which is right down the street from Edgemont High School, when he was 11, and has come a long way since losing to a fellow schoolmate, Abner Xu of Edgemont, in his first very competitive tournament.
“I wanted to come back and try to beat him and that’s when I joined Team Elite [at Achieve],” Barlinge said.
Taekwondo is a high-energy contact form that is centered around landing kicks against your opponent.
“I lost [at nationals] and I wasn’t doing enough body shots because the head shots weren’t counting for me,” Barlinge said. “That’s why I lost. I came back and tried my hardest during training and this year I definitely did more body shots than last year.”
Like many students who end up in martial arts training, Barlinge had been bullied. “I just felt like I wanted to defend myself,” he said.
Not only does Barlinge have the confidence to stand up for himself, but he’s gained a passion for the sport that has given him new goals in life.
Rising 11th grader Xu, 16, was a defending gold medalist, but came away with silver in junior sparring 15-17 red belt bantam (48.1-51 kg) division against champion Adam Jose Garza of Extreme Martial Arts in California.
“My nervousness just got the better of me, so I lost,” Xu said. “I need to breathe calmly and not think about my opponents, not think they are so good. It was a close match, but I don’t think I really gave it my all.”
Xu returned home from Minnesota ready to work harder. He joined a gym, works on flexibility at home and runs to improve his conditioning. He’s even thinking of joining the track team at Edgemont.
Xu got his start at Achieve as a sixth-grader because his parents wanted him to learn self-defense. The only other sport he’d done before was soccer.
“I found it really interesting how you can turn your leg and it becomes a kick,” Xu said. “We also learned high blocks and low blocks. If a person is attacking you you can just block them. In school if there’s ever a bully I can stand up for myself.”
Xu is one of Kim’s most dedicated students, attending classes almost daily.
“Coming here I like the coaches,” Xu said. “I like their energy and how they teach me stuff I didn’t know before. I’d like to improve my sparring more as I become a higher belt. I’m kind of excited.”.”
Ten-year-old Luke Park from Edgemont was another local medalist. Park was second of 13 in youth sparring 10-11 red belt middle (35.1-40 kg) to Nikolas Miljkovic of Jyoti Everest Taekwondo in Michigan. Park also did not medal last year, showing how far he has progressed.
The other two medalists from Achieve are from Ardsley: 11-year-old Gabrielle An (gold in sparring) and 10-year-old Brennan Park (gold in sparring).
“They’re just hard-working kids,” Master Jason Kim said. “It seems like the kids that medalled are kids who are all in. We do scrimmages with other studios in the tri-state area and some of them we actually ended up fighting at nationals, so it was good practice, so they go to all the scrimmages, the seminars, the tournaments, and, of course, the training sessions here. They’re all in.”
Last year, in its first year attending nationals as a school, Team Achieve took home two gold and two bronze, this year three gold and two silver. Not only did the medal count nearly double, but the participation went from eight to 15 for the fledgling competing squad, called Team Elite.
“Half the team I brought to get experience,” Kim said. “I knew we were not going to medal with some of the kids. It’s just to build them up. It’s competing with some of the best because you only grow when you compete with people who are better than you. Competing on such a big stage with more spectators and a lot more competitors, so this year when they go to locals they’re like, ‘Hey, I’ve been on a bigger stage.’ The confidence is there now.”
From Kang’s to Achieve
In recent years, Master Kim has redefined his life and his business. He took over what was Kang’s Martial Arts, which had been in several locations in the area since the early 1970s, from Master Kang, who had trained him since high school, and gave the business new life by moving across the street on Central Avenue to a bigger space, giving the interior a facelift and an upgrade and introducing that competitive opportunity that many families are seeking for their kids.
The rebranding was important to Kim.
“I thought a school should mean something more than just a person’s last name,” he said. “He’s a phenomenal instructor, but for the average person who wants to train with a fitness goal to the athletes who want a more intense program that’s what they want — to achieve.”
Kim trained under Kang for a decade. He had moved to Edgemont from the Bronx in 1996 and gave up sports like football and basketball in order to focus on taekwondo.
The 2002 Edgemont graduate was working double duty as a Greenburgh Police officer and running the dojang for the first five years after taking over for Kang, who decided to retire from this area and focus on his school in Greenwich, Conn.
Kim was on the midnight shift so he could open up the school in the afternoons after catching some Zs at home in Hartsdale. It finally became too much for him to juggle. His health was suffering physically and mentally and he knew he had to make a difficult choice to leave the force after seven years on the job.
“I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to go follow my passion,’” he said. “I left that job and came here.”
Kim called it “a leap of faith” and he hasn’t looked back since.
Achieve trains kids as young as 3 years old and students well into their 60s, all with different missions on and off the mat. At 35, Kim finds himself right in the middle of the action, where he was meant to be all along.
According to Kim, the “actual definition” of taekwondo is “the way of kicking and punching.” He added, “It’s a self-defense striking-based martial art as opposed to grappling or wrestling. You stand up for it.”
Though the décor and name have been upgraded, the teaching style and traditionalism are all Kang’s influence.
“Kang was a traditionalist and nowadays days that’s hard to find because it’s watered down through the generations,” Kim said. “He still maintained that traditional aspect of it. It’s the real deal.
“It’s funny I’m saying this, but martial arts can get very sporty these days. He kept the traditions, kept it very street, very self-defense, more practical way of training. His way was dismantle, break, make them submit, kind of a jiu-jitsu kind of style, very hardcore street style of self-defense.”
The student has now become the master for sure.