Justin Benedik played nearly every sport he could imagine during his youth in Calvert County. His main focus was soccer, but the 2004 Patuxent graduate also dabbled in football, tennis, golf, lacrosse and "almost everything my parents could bring me to without having any time left."
But it wasn't until his senior year at Maryland that Benedik was introduced to wushu, the sport that changed his life.
Benedik attended a demonstration staged by the TerpWushu club in the grand ballroom of the Stamp Student Union and was immediately taken by the sport's dizzying combination of Chinese martial arts, acrobatics and gymnastics.
"Looking back, it had a huge impact on where things went for the past five years for me," Benedik said. "It's pretty amazing."
Five years and countless thousands of hours of training later, Benedik, 27, is a member of the U.S. national team that will compete in the 12th World Wushu Championships, which run Monday to Nov. 6 in Malaysia.
Benedik's rapid ascent from beginner to the world stage began soon after his initial exposure to the sport.
Intrigued by the demonstration, Benedik sought help from Jon Chung, the roommate who introduced him to wushu and himself a former member of the U.S. national team. Uncomfortable as a beginner, Benedik would participate in TerpWushu practices only after learning the basics in their apartment.
Chung could see Benedik's potential almost immediately.
"He was so athletically inclined that he could just kind of see things and understand how the movements broke down, which is critical for a sport like this," Chung said. "It's very tough. Even as a kid, it's hard, but the fact that he was so much older than the average kid that would usually start and was able to pick it up was amazing."
Benedik accompanied Chung and his sister Ashley, another world-class wushu competitor and Benedik's girlfriend, to training sessions at the Professional Martial Arts Academy in Sterling, Va., that summer. The level of skill there eclipsed what he had seen even in College Park.
"I would sit over on the side and just kind of watch," Benedik said. "They would always be like, 'Come and practice,' and I'm like, 'No. You guys are on the national team, I'm just starting.'"
Blending in was not an option — the 6-foot, blond-haired Benedik is conspicuous among his shorter, younger and predominantly Asian peers — so he arranged a series of private lessons from Jiang Bang Jun, the head coach at PMAA and a former Chinese national wushu champion.
Once he felt comfortable practicing with athletes who typically begin training at age 7, Benedik said, "I really got into it."
He threw himself wholeheartedly into wushu that first year, practicing almost every day for two to three hours before stretching at home for two to three more. All of which he had to fit into his schedule around his day job at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
A seemingly boundless capacity for hard work, coupled with his innate athleticism and sharp mind, accelerated Benedik's learning process, and the improvement was obvious.
"There was a big change in a really short time," Jiang said. "In wushu, for a beginner to get to this level takes a long time. He's really fast."
Benedik's continued improvement under Jiang and DingYuan Xu, another former champion, allowed him to raise his sights. Inspired by watching Ashley Chung compete in the 2009 World Wushu Championships, Benedik set as his goal the 2011 U.S. team trials in California.
In wushu competitions, athletes participate in one of two distinct disciplines: sanshou involves combat sparring between opponents, whereas taolu, which Benedik practices, involves floor routines, not unlike a modified version of gymnastics. Participants perform alone — sometimes bare-handed, sometimes wielding weapons — and are awarded points by judges.
After finishing fourth in the broadsword and staff competitions in his first tryout for the national team, Benedik resolved to use the experience as a teaching moment.
"It was definitely an eye-opener," he said. "Because you can train as hard as you can and land every jump solid and do everything without stumbling, but as soon as you get there, you have one shot to do one form in front of these people, and everyone's watching."