Sydney Reyes was 8-years-old and new to taekwondo when he showed he had what it takes to be successful in the sport.
A yellow belt, he had a difficult go the first time out against a more experienced competitor and left frustrated, but not deterred. In fact, it was just the opposite.
“It was his first match and he was upset and crying and then at night time, when I was putting him to bed, he said: ‘You know, we can do so much with this,’” said his father, Greg Reyes. “What kind of 8-year-old kid says that? So that was really the impetus for him then. He was on a team of black belts and they used to beat up on him, but he learned how to survive.”
And, soon after, thrive.
Heading into his senior year at DeMatha this fall, the 17-year-old Laurel resident proved prophetic. On July 5, Reyes won the bronze medal at the American Athletic Union National Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It’s his fifth junior national medal and qualifies him to compete in the AAU USA Team Trials, set for Sept. 8-10 in Florida. He’ll be one of five competitors in a round robin format vying for a spot on the AAU national team.
"In the team trials, everyone is good, so any mistakes are magnified. So that means you have to be very focused and know what you're doing, and it puts the competition way up," Reyes said.
The greatest satisfaction Reyes receives in taekwondo is the challenge of coming out on top in the one-on-one competition, but he also savors the preparation that goes into finding that success.
So while he maintains a 3.5 GPA and enjoys other extra-curricular activities at DeMatha — running track, playing the saxophone and participating in mock trials — he follows a stringent training regimen as a team member of Peak Performance, a highly touted nationwide program under the direction of former U.S. Olympic athlete and a current U.S. coach Juan Moreno.
The weekly requirements are demanding.
Two and sometimes three days a week, he wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and heads to DeMatha to work with athletic director Ed King on strength and conditioning. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he's in Annapolis to work with his Maryland Peak Performance Team under the program's Maryland/Delaware coach, Thomas Jenkins.
On Wednesdays, he works with his boxing coach, Nick Kisner. Saturdays, it's off to Dover, Del., to train more with Jenkins. On days off, he's watching film and working on the mental preparation side of the sport.
"One of my coaches said that each time you step on the mat you should be better than the last time, and I always keep that in the back of my mind," Reyes said. "So it's like, 'What can I do to get better today or what can I do to get better this week or this month or the next tournament or next year?' So I think that fuels me. I enjoy the hard training because I know I'm going to get better by doing it."
Jenkins has been impressed with Reyes' commitment and consistent progress he's made in the four years they've worked together.
"With Sydney, the one thing about him that's relevant is that you've been able to notice how he enjoys the process," he said. "He enjoys the process it takes to be fully prepared for combat in our sport and that's a main component of being successful."
Reyes has ambitions of qualifying for the Olympics and knows a path to it will take continued hard work — and some good fortune, as well.
While making the AAU national team would provide him with more opportunities to compete at a national level, USA Taekwondo is the governing body for the U.S. Olympic Team, so making that team is vital. This summer, he placed fifth out of 27 competitors in national championships before his third-place finish in the AAU championships.
He turns 18 in April, which would move him to the senior level to compete against older and more experienced competitors. The next Summer Games are in 2020 in Tokyo, followed by 2024 in Paris.
Working with Reyes at national camps the past four years, Moreno has been most impressed with the enthusiasm he displays, his discipline, ability to take criticism and how he deals with setbacks.
"Those are things that can make or break a lot of people. So, for me, I just love his mindset and how strong he is and how positive he is in the face of adversity. That's something that has helped him ride the ups and downs of competition," Moreno said.
Could Reyes fulfill his dream of reaching the Olympics?
Moreno said it's a possibility, but much more likely in the 2024 Games.
"That's a long time away and there's a lot of things that can happen in six or seven years. So what I do with a lot of athletes like him is look about three or four years out and we just kind of put a road map out there and say 'Hey, is this a feasible thing for you, is this in the cards?'"
And it might be for Reyes.
"Definitely, with what he has shown me to this point, his development and the progress he has made," Moreno said, "I don't see why not."