Redheaded Blackbelt



black belt

I am an athlete. A simple phrase but I use it for comfort and encouragement almost every day.


I wasn’t always an athlete. The child chosen last for team sports, I still stood, eyes downcast, when one of the team captains picked the lumbering fat kid. Because I could be counted on to fall or close my eyes in a critical spot, no one wanted me on their team. I couldn’t hit or catch a ball. I fell off bikes and never learned to dive in spite of spending half my summers at the river.


One of my first memories is of playing with the neighborhood kids and standing with my mouth agape as the ball came straight at me. The white blur whacked me in the forehead. My toes flung themselves into the air and I lay in the grass gasping and vowing never to play again. But, now, I am an athlete. I am not a home run hitting, sky-high jumping athlete. But I am an athlete.


Hauled into Tang Soo Do against my better judgment, I expected to embarrass myself. “I’m no athlete,” I told myself throat choked with fear of failure and tears. Yet, as I worked at this sport, as I tried my hardest and constantly felt inadequate, clumsy, and foolish, I found myself having fun. But it didn’t happen easily. Right before my first test, I approached my Sah Bum Nim in tears. I told her I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have enough stamina. I wouldn’t be able to finish the test. “If I didn’t think you were good enough, I wouldn’t let you test. You’ll be fine.”


I passed. My kids were proud of me and I was proud of me.


Maybe all those 40 years that I thought of myself as a reader not a runner, a writer not a wrestler, a redhead not a black belt were the result of not persevering at any athletic endeavor. Still, I didn’t think of myself as an athlete. Never thought I could be one.


Eventually, though I realized that sometimes my body would almost do what I instructed. I would look in the mirrors that lined one wall of the dojang and be astonished to realize that the figure who approximated someone in a martial arts movie was—-me! I began to dream I might be a black belt some day. Becoming passionate about the sport, I extolled its virtues to any victim I could find. I noticed tighter muscles and a straighter back. One day I was telling my best friend the things I could do—twenty boy pushups without stopping, defending myself against a knife attack, and I’d even won a first place medal in sparring. “Wow,” she said, “whoever would have thought you’d be an athlete.”


I started to laugh, after all, my accomplishments were small compared to others in my class but, from then on, I began to look at myself differently. One day, I realized that my knee high front kicks occasionally reached shoulder high. “I am an athlete,” I breathed to myself in wonder.


Now, wearing the black belt is an outward symbol of an inward reality–work at something long and hard enough and you become what you strive to be…at least in your own mind. My secret comfort phrase “I am an athlete” has become such a part of my identity that, when I describe myself to others, I dare to use it.


“My name is Kym Kemp. I love to read. Someday I hope to write books. I’m a redhead. Oh, yeah, and I’m an athlete.”



  • Hi Kym,

    Your narrative of your newfound connection with your body was a joy to read. My writing voice has atrophied, but what I’d like to express is that we now share an awareness: when exercised, the body is truly an extension of the will.

  • Well, my will is somewhat handicapped when facing chocolate chip cookies. And, my first reaction when I saw you had posted on this was, “I’ve been found out… a REAL athlete is actually reading this.” But,I do partially share the belief of body as outward extension of the inward…”

    Although what that says about my interior….

  • Howdy Kym,

    It’s good to see another one of us (red-heads, I mean) who started out as “athletically challenged”, kick off their old attitude about moving their body and achieve success doing just that. Keep it up! Your success will bring more success. That was my experience and, believe me, I remember that damn ball in the middle of my forehead too! 🙂

    (NOTE: Between my gray and my bald “spot” I may no longer necessarily be recognizable as a red-head but that is still my self image.”

  • Yes, I suspect I will be a redhead long after the copper turns to steel.

    Thank you for the encouragement. Every time I go to class is an exercise in humiliation but when I only compare myself with myself, I am constantly amazed at how far this non-athlete has come.

    Thank God the ball days are over. . . I hope!

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  • I was the lumbering fat kid in elementary school…and let me tell you, it was always so nice not to be picked last. But, I’m glad you’ve gotten in touch with your inner athlete. Kudos!

  • The horror of standing there hoping that someone would like you enough to take pity on you before the last captain said, “Oh alright, I’ll take her/him” that was enough to give me bad dreams for years. As a teacher today, I don’t let kids pick sides. I draw names or assign or anything so that there isn’t a mini vote on who is least useful, least popular, least…whatever the popular kids decide. God, that is degrading.

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