It’s no easy feat to become a grandmaster in taekwondo, but Sung J. Choi has achieved that status and then some. Being a grandmaster means that the highest level of taekwondo has been achieved. Choi is a 9th Dan — or rank — of black belt.
Choi, along with Lee, his wife, are the owners of GM Choi Do Center in East Meadow. There he teaches taekwondo and hapkido. While taekwondo is the Korean art of punching and kicking for self-defense, hapkido, also Korean in origin, teaches self-defense with different techniques than taekwondo.
Choi grew up in Korea and had an early start with taekwondo. It was part of the culture, and most boys start learning early. He is from the original school of taekwondo Jidokwan, which was founded at the end of World War II and translates to “school of wisdom.”
Choi said that when he was learning taekwondo it was a different form than what is taught today. “We learned how to fight,” Choi said. “We learned how to protect ourselves. It was tougher than these kids learn.”
When he was 6 years old, he was already a junior black belt, and moved up the ranks from there. He became a 9th degree black belt sometime in the 1980s, he said. To achieve this, extensive training and testing by World Taekwondo is needed.
Aside from taekwondo and hapkido, he is also a boxing champion in the middleweight division and trained for the 1964 Summer Olympics held in Tokyo. Because of different circumstances, however, he didn’t go.
Choi served in the Vietnam War because of Korea’s mandatory service law, meaning all men between the ages of 18 and 28 need to perform military service, before coming to the United States in 1973. While he was in the service, he said, he taught American and Korean soldiers how to protect themselves.
In America he landed in Virginia because he had family there, Young Choi, his daughter, said. He opened up his first taekwondo studio in Baltimore around 1974. “He was basically one of the first grandmasters from Korea to bring taekwondo over to America,” Young said. “He knows all the old school martial arts grandmasters of the Korean masters in America.” He’s had a taekwondo studio wherever he’s lived, Young said.
“He comes from a very traditional martial arts background, and I feel like what’s taught now is kind of watered down and diluted,” Young said. “He really brings more of the traditional techniques and forms and nobody really teaches that style anymore.”
He kept his traditional style even when in Floral Park when he moved to New York in the 1980s, Young said. “We had that place the longest,” she said. “And now we’re here.” The Newbridge Road location opened in 2017, and along with classes, Sung practices natural medicine and Young does acupuncture.
There’s a long family line of acupuncture, according to Sung and Young. Sung learned acupuncture from his father and his father learned it from his father. Now, Young is carrying on the family line. “Acupuncture you have to be able to meditate and concentrate to adapt to making herbal medicine,” Sung said. “Taekwondo you have to learn good concentration to learn and teach it.” He said that the two are connected in many ways.
Sung said her father is great with the kids in his studio and that he’s much more lenient on them than he was with her growing up. “He was always so strict with us and made us do so many pushups,” Young recounted. “With the students now he’s so cute with them and laughs with them.”
“Grandmaster Choi is very disciplined, so he really teaches them how to be disciplined, how to pay attention, how to work on themselves and how to make themselves better every single class,” Sanan Gadirli, an East Meadow resident who brings his two daughters , Jayla, 9, and Farah, 7, to GM Choi Do Center. “He makes sure kids are respecting one another.”
The pandemic hasn’t been kind to the business, though, Young said. “When the pandemic first hit and the government was trying to help out small businesses through loans, we applied but got denied,” she said. “Because we opened up in 2017 we didn’t really have much income for the first few years, so my parents didn’t file the business taxes.”
When they did file them, she said, they were denied because the county said there was no proof that we were a business.
“We used to have a lot of students,” Sung said. “But the pandemic has caused a lot of them to not come back.”
Young said that they only have one student now who has been there since they opened and that Sung just wants to share his love of taekwondo with the community. “I’m teaching them how to respect parents, how to respect their friends and how to respect their school teacher,” Sung said. “Then I teach them how to self-defend themselves.”