On verge of quitting the sport, Cecilia Lee’s family helps her pull through

It’s understandable why competing in the 2013 Canadian National Taekwondo Championships might have felt a little bittersweet for Cecilia Lee.

In 2012, after years of consistently finishing second to the same competitor, she contemplated retiring from the sport. The 2013 nationals might be, she thought, her final competition.

“I was at the point where I started thinking maybe I should stop,” Cecilia says. “I just wasn’t getting there.”

But after several years of disappointment and self-doubt, this year’s championships were different. Cecilia won the 53-kg bantam weight class competition and became, finally, a national champion.

Thoughts of retirement are now a thing of the past. Later this summer, Cecilia will represent Canada at the 2013 World Taekwondo Championships in Mexico — the first step, she hopes, towards a gaining a spot on 2016 Summer Olympics team.

‘A family honour’

Master plan: Training for many years under the tutelage of her father Chanwoo Lee, Cecilia has achieved a ranking of 5th degree Black Belt. She was the only Alberta athlete selected to represent Canada at the world taekwondo championships.

Photo courtesy of Cecilia LeeFor Cecilia, taekwondo has been much more than a sport. In many ways, it has been a way of life.

Born in South Korea, Cecilia immigrated to Canada with her family when she was nine years old. After living for a time in British Columbia, the family moved to Calgary in 2002 where her father Chan Woo Lee opened up Chan Lee’s Taekwondo School.

Chan Woo, who had achieved the martial arts rank of grandmaster in Korea, introduced Cecilia and her younger brother Angelo to taekwondo at an early age.

The siblings grew up with it and both have spent many hours training and teaching taekwondo alongside their father.

“Taekwondo originated in Korea,” Cecilia says. “It was like a family honour for me because, growing up, I watched my father teach taekwondo to many people.”

Her brother, who began competing in taekwondo tournaments when he was five years old, went on to become a Canadian national junior champion in both 2007 and 2008 before turning his athletic focus towards golf. Cecilia started practising taekwondo at the age of four, although she didn’t take it up as a competitive sport until she was in Grade 9.

Perennial Runner-up

Cecilia began competing at the sport’s junior level starting in 2005. In 2008, she made the move up to senior-level competition. Although Cecilia repeatedly achieved considerable success at the provincial level, a national championship proved an elusive prize.

“For about five years, I always came in second place. I would always lose to the same girl,” Cecilia says. “So there was a lot of rivalry. It was very stressful psychologically.

“I kept thinking ‘I am training hard — why can’t I beat her?’”

In 2012, after another silver medal at the senior nationals, Cecilia began to ponder her future in the sport. Concern for her family also began to play into consideration when Cecilia’s mother, Mikyong Sung, was diagnosed with gastric cancer.

“Instead of competing on my own, I felt I should move more towards the business side of our taekwondo school to help my family,” Cecilia says.

This past January, Cecilia went to the 2013 Canadian national taekwondo championships expecting to compete for one final time.

“It’s weird how life goes,” she says. “I honestly didn’t train as much for this year’s nationals because I kind of looked at it as my last competition.

“I was more focused on my family.”

Road to World Championships

In past years, Cecilia’s national championship would have also won her a spot on the

Canadian team for the taekwondo world championships. But a recent change in criteria for the national team meant that she was no longer guaranteed a spot. Under a new ranking system that awards performance points for all sanctioned taekwondo events, Cecilia faced several hurdles when it came to winning a coveted place on the world championship team.

“Because of the change in the ranking system, all the other competitors that went to nationals could compete at other international tournaments,” she says. “They could get more points than me, and then take the spot.

“And that is what happened.”

Finding herself several points behind the athlete she had defeated at the nationals, Cecilia was faced with a difficult decision.

“The next tournaments would be in Europe,” Cecilia says. “But I was debating if I should continue to compete.”

Initially reluctant to leave her mother, who was waiting for surgery, Cecilia discussed the issue with her family. She eventually decided to continue competing. After tournaments in Germany and the Netherlands in April, Cecilia was still behind in points. But in April, a bronze-medal performance at a tournament in Belgium changed everything. She acquired enough points to win a fight-off with her long-time rival for the coveted spot at the world championships.

“It was really tough,” Cecilia says. “But now I am there and I am going to the world championships.”

Family Support

Although Cecilia’s road to the world championships has not been easy, she says that the unwavering support and love of her family has made all the difference.

“It was a really happy moment for our family,” she says. “My mother cried. She said had she wanted to stop me from going to Europe because she needed me.

“But then she said, ‘If I had stopped you, you wouldn’t have got your medal and you wouldn’t be going to the world championships.’”

Admitting that she has sometimes struggled with self-doubt, Cecilia says that her brother — although three years younger than herself — has provided her with a great deal of inspiration to continue competing.

“He has really motivated me to do something with my life and my talent,” she says. “I used to watch him — this little guy at the driving range — hitting golf balls for hours at a time.”

“I looked at him and wondered what I was doing with my talent.”

Angelo, who is currently attending an American university on a golf scholarship, says that he is “very proud” of his sister.

“When I peaked in my taekwondo career and then retired, she kept going because she had a goal set for herself,” Angelo says. “Seeing her train and practice and put so much time into it, I have a lot of respect for her.

Discipline and Sacrifice

As for any world-class athlete, Angelo says that Cecilia’s success has required considerable personal discipline.

“Instead of going out with your friends or doing other things that might interest you, an athlete must put most of their time and energy into the sport,” Angelo says.

Competing in a weight-class based sport such as taekwondo puts additional restrictions on an athlete.

“It’s simple things like eating — being in weight classes, you have to watch your weight,” Angelo says. “You are always weighing yourself.

“Simple things like that, I consider to be big sacrifices.”

Taekwondo’s solitary nature can also be emotionally demanding on its competitors.

“Although you train with other taekwondo athletes, it’s an individual sport,” Angelo says. “When you are in the ring competing, it’s you and your coach — but you are the only one fighting the opponent.

“So it’s a very individual sport that requires a lot of discipline and patience.”

A Father’s Pride

For Chan Woo Lee, who was never able to compete in high-level taekwondo tournaments himself after sustaining an injury during junior high school, seeing both his children achieve athletic success has been very satisfying.

“Between them they have been Canadian National Champions, competed with Team Canada at a World Junior Championship, a Pan American Games and now the World Taekwondo Championships in Mexico,” Chan Woo says.

“As a father and a coach this has made me very proud of their dedication and the skill that they have.”

Chan Woo will continue to train his daughter as she works towards her next goals of competing in the Pan American Games, to be held in Toronto in 2015, and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“She is very talented and dedicated to her training,” Chan Woo says. “She pushes herself and she is very motivated to be the best as she can be.”

Cecilia Lee will also continue to teach at her family’s taekwondo school — another thing her father is proud of.

“She is a great coach, loves to teach kids,” Chan Woo says.

ktaylor@cjournal.ca