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Break for a Breakthrough: Canadian hosts international martial arts demonstration

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EDMONTON — Over 100 martial artists from different corners of the world screamed one loud "kihap" and broke wooden boards in half as a symbol of breaking free from their pandemic fatigue.

The Canadian organizer of the online martial arts demonstration, called Break for a Breakthrough, says "kihap" is a shout in taekwondo that loosely translates to a collective spirited or energetic yell.

"You have to hit it with speed, perfect accuracy, focus and strength," said Kevin Olsen, who is also a master of taekwondo with a sixth-degree black belt.

The 53-year-old says when COVID-19 hit, martial artists from around the world and in Canada were devastated. They couldn't train the way they used to and many instructors of various martial arts weren't able to teach.

"It's pretty devastating to be losing people and once students stop training for whatever reason, it can be very difficult to get them back."

That's how he got the idea to create Break for a Breakthrough.

Young and old martial artists and instructors from Canada, India, Poland, and Malaysia joined the online demonstration Saturday afternoon to re-energize and reconnect with martial arts. 

While Olsen hosted the event from a taekwondo studio south of Edmonton, about 50 students in Whitecourt, Alta. stood outside in 0 C weather to punch and elbow a one-inch-thick board.

Another participant stood with a few inches of snow behind him and broken a cinder block, while children participated from their home in Malaysia.

Many were able to punch, backspin kick or elbow through the middle of the board right away, while it took some others a few tries to break it in half.

"You have to visualize putting your hand right through to the floor and deliver that technique with everything you've got. If you're lacking in any of those (skills), it's not going to happen," Olsen said.

The collective board breaking was appreciated by many participating.

"Master Kevin Olsen found a way to reinvigorate our practice," said Ron Dziwenka, a recruiter for the online event and a master of taekwondo himself.

"What we did today individually, also collectively, we focused our emotional, physical and mental energy to break a board and break COVID's hold on us."

Olsen has been practising taekwondo, a Korean form of combat which was developed in the 1950s and is mixed with various forms of martial arts, for 35 years.

"It really changed my life. It becomes part of your body, your mind and your spirit."

Olsen, who works as a property manager and also as a tandem master skydiving instructor who has fallen from the sky about 1,800 times, says there are two reasons why people break boards or other objects in martial arts.

"Generally everyone in taekwondo, and most karate schools too, they break boards for promotion of the art and to recruit people," says Olsen.

But they also do it to build skills.

"It's a test of your mental ability to concentrate and focus when you're nervous. And a very, very important thing, probably the single most important thing in taekwondo, is your ability to handle pressure."

He says participants who were able break the board on their first try would've felt a little sting in their hand. But if for those who didn't, it might've stung a lot.

"That's the other element of pressure ... you can actually hurt yourself."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 10, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press