Eric Helms and Ki Ho Park may not appear threatening, but one look at this pair on a sparring mat is enough to dispel that notion.
They are, for the most part, typical teen-agers. Helms, a tall, slender 16-year-old, is heading into his senior year at Mount Hebron High School, where he's a good student and a three-sport athlete. Park, a small, slightly built, 15-year-old, just finished his freshman year at Hebron. He will probably be a soccer teammate of Helms this fall.
Where Helms and Park differ from the average teen-ager is their mastery of another pursuit -- tae kwon do, a Korean self-defense system much like karate.
And when they travel to Orlando, Fla., Wednesday to compete in the Junior National Olympics Tae Kwon Do Championships, Helms and Parks will attempt to stand out once more.
They have excelled in tae kwon do for several years. Both have already earned a second-degree black belt. Both are already three-time state champions. And both constantly dream about winning a gold medal in tae kwon do at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. It was first introduced as a competitive Olympic sport in 1988.
"If you get a first place in the nationals, you are ranked No. 1 in the country, and you are given permission to come to the Olympic training center," Park said. "We're aiming for that [the Olympics]. That's all we train for. Every year, we train like there's not going to be a next year."
Helms and Park, who practice their art at Nam's Tae Kwon Do in Ellicott City, are not shy about training. They each jog three to five miles a day. And somehow, between going to class and playing sports at Hebron, doing homework and working part-time jobs, they spend three to four hours a day focusing on tae kwon do.
They are able to manage such rigorous schedules, they say, largely because of the self-discipline tae kwon do teaches. They each first studied it at the age of 9.
"My dad is a real strict guy, so I didn't have much trouble being disciplined," said Helms, a 5-foot-11, 150-pounder who earned his black belt at 11 and runs five miles to Nam's gym before his martial arts workout. "I still stay after class and work a little harder than everyone else. Sometimes I get sick from working too hard. You have to be real driven."
Park added, "Tae kwon do is an individual sport. You have to train by yourself. You've got to be fresh every day. If you slack off in practice, you fall apart."
As a sport, tae kwon do is judged like a boxing match, only the competitors rely mainly on scoring blows with their feet instead of gloves. Opponents wear headgear and colored chest protectors. Points are scored when telling blows -- those that knock an opponent off-balance, for example -- are landed to the head or colored sections of the chest. Matches consist of three, two-minute rounds.
At the nationals, Helms and Parks will compete against approximately 150 others in their respective weight classes.
"I look at tae kwon do in two parts, self-defense and sport. I treat this mostly as a sport, but we take time to do both," Helms said.
While they concentrate on perfecting on-the-mat techniques that could win them an Olympic medal, Helms and Park admit, somewhat bashfully, that they take pride in knowing they can defend themselves skillfully on the street.
Helms says he has never had to resort to tae kwon do in such a situation. He and Park hang out together at Hebron, where no one has ever threatened them.
"I'm a real quiet guy in school. I stay out of trouble," Helms said. "Most people know Eric knows tae kwon do, and they don't fool with it."
Park, who is 5-5, weighs only 115 pounds and has owned a black belt since he was 12, used to get into fights frequently years ago.
"Once I learned tae kwon do, I walked away from fights," he said.
A little over a year ago in Baltimore, however, Park couldn't walk away. A much larger man made the mistake of grabbing him.
Park dropped his attacker with an accurate, side kick to the stomach. He then walked away, leaving the man on the ground, clutching his midsection.
"He couldn't do anything after that," Park said. "He was having too much trouble breathing."