Former world taekwon-do champion Christine Young is bringing martial arts to the masses, while making her own return to the world stage. Suzanne McFadden reports.
She was born in Balclutha, and grew up in Levin; a kid who wanted to do “cool kicks” like she saw in the movies.
But two decades on from being crowned a world taekwon-do champion, Christine Young will finally get to represent New Zealand at a World Cup.
Although she’s a true blue Kiwi, Young moved to England in the 1990s, where she worked as a chartered accountant and joined the Oxford University taekwon-do club. She was then chosen to represent England at three world championships, each year winning a medal.
Nowadays, Young is back in New Zealand and has swapped her business suit for a dobok – the traditional taekwon-do uniform – in her full-time role as an instructor and owner of a martial arts ‘centre of excellence’ in Tauranga.
A former New Zealand team coach, she’s also returned to competition, and later this month the 48-year-old will compete for New Zealand at the ITF World Cup in Sydney.
“Maybe my technique is a little old-style,” she laughs. “The younger athletes are a bit more dynamic. But I think I have the mental toughness and the core foundation of technical skills. Just like Martina Navratilova could go out on the tennis court and still be like ‘wow!’
“It’s really challenging at this age. Just finding the time, which I’m sure all athletes who aren’t professional say they struggle with too. Juggling all the other responsibilities in your life, being organised, and sticking to the plan. It’s definitely a new challenge.”
While the Oceania age-group champion enjoys the thrill of competing and the challenge of training, her real ambition lies with getting more New Zealanders – especially women and girls – involved in martial arts.
“With martial arts, it’s a journey of wellbeing. Building your own confidence and self-esteem, and a healthy lifestyle. So many people come on this journey and it helps them in their stressful daily lives,” she says.
Young has been on her own journey since 1985, when she was a teenager in Levin who gave martial arts a go at high school. “I tried karate, but ended up doing taekwon-do, because it had the coolest kicks,” she says.
Within five years, she’d gained her black belt (today, she’s a 6th Dan). After studying accountancy at Victoria University in Wellington, Young moved to England when her then-husband got a scholarship to Oxford University.
Continuing to train in the art of taekwon-do with the university club, she then “stumbled” into the English team. In 1997, she won the world title with the women’s power breaking team – perfecting the art of smashing boards with a kick, punch or knife-hand strike. That victory was especially memorable, she says, because her friends in the New Zealand women’s team were also on the podium next to her, having won bronze.
At the 2003 world champs, the order was reversed, with Young and the England team collecting bronze, and New Zealand taking the gold.
Two years later, Young won an individual bronze medal in patterns – “like synchronised swimming but on land,” she explains.
After 10 years working in England, Young came home and settled in Tauranga looking for a better work-life balance. She started a taekwon-do club, teaching in local school halls after work.
Over the next six years, a steady stream of her students reached the ranks of black belt and international competition. One of her very first students, Kara Timmer, went on to become a junior and senior world champion, and is now an assistant coach for the New Zealand taekwon-do team.
But Young dreamed of having a permanent centre of excellence – not just for taekwon-do, but a multitude of martial arts. So five years ago, she teamed up with one of her students, Scott Coburn, to create the Martial Arts Academy in central Tauranga. They’ve just opened a second studio in Papamoa, and Young hopes to one day see her academies dotted throughout the country.
“I like to think we are pioneering the professionalism of martial arts,” she says.
“So many people do martial arts in New Zealand, but we realised a lot of them were doing it at the school hall with volunteer instructors – amazing teachers who love their sport with a passion, but had to drag around a car-full of equipment,” she says.
“So we created a space where people can pay their membership, and if they’re not sure which martial arts suits them, they can try them all. And we pay the instructors. It’s really pioneering.”
The martial arts at Young’s academy range from the gentle art of aikido, with its purely defensive techniques; to the core martial arts of karate, taekwon-do and kungfu; and the more combative boxing and kickboxing – “the sports Kiwis always enjoy for their grittiness,” Young says.
Half of the academy’s instructors are women – including Young, the head taekwon-do instructor of around 150 students. Her youngest pupil is four years old. She recently took a group of students to South Korea to experience the culture in the home of taekwon-do.
Each year, on International Women’s Day, Young stages free self-defence classes for women. “We give them an inspirational message to celebrate the strength and diversity of womanhood,” she says.
She also works with local schools and police to run a youth programme called the ‘Three Rs – Respect, Responsibility and Resilience’.
“Through martial arts we teach young people about respect, taking responsibility for their actions, the consequences of their actions, and general character values that may help them in life,” she says.
When she’s not instructing, Young is the high performance advisor to the New Zealand taekwon-do team, and an international umpire. On top of that, there is training for her own World Cup campaign. She’s one of 15 from the academy who will compete in Sydney.
At the Oceania Championships in July, Young won three of her events and took out the best overall black belt trophy in the over 45 division.
“I like to think competition is a way to reflect on ourselves. After all, our biggest competition is ourselves,” she says.
“Martial arts have given me strength; I love the fitness and healthy lifestyle aspect of it. But it’s also given me the ability to teach. It’s a great part of what I can do to guide the next generation.”