With his movements sharp, controlled and powerful, Demitri de la Cruz looks every bit the part of a taekwondo champion.
Last week, he moved around Church's ATA Martial Arts studio in Carmel Valley with a sea of young taekwondo students' eyes on him - they watched how fiercely he struck out his hands and how strongly he kicked his leg, his foot completely flexed.
Although he is only 10 years old, de la Cruz has achieved second-degree black belt status and in June won a gold medal as a first-degree black belt at the Taekwondo World Championship in Little Rock, Ark. Next year, he'll compete for his second gold in the second-degree black belt division.
For every 100 people who try martial arts, about 3.8 percent get their black belts, said ATA owner Trish Church, making this young champ's accomplishments very impressive.
"Demitri is very special," said Church. "Where he will go in martial arts is pretty incredible."
Strong work ethic
In addition to being a fifth grader at Santa Fe Montessori in Solana Beach and playing soccer with the Del Mar/ Carmel Valley Sharks, de la Cruz practices two to three times a week in class and takes private lessons with Church at the studio in Piazza Carmel.
"She pushes me very hard, above my limit to make me do more than what I think I can do," said de la Cruz. "She helps me get better."
His pit bull-like drive has wowed Church. She said at times they have worked so hard they are both in tears but they believe it's worth it to keep winning gold.
"He is a phenomenal martial artist and his work ethic is beyond amazing for his age," Church said, noting he can already perform extreme martial arts moves like back handsprings and aerial kicks.
Church even thinks he could be in movies.
The champion has been doing taekwondo since he was six years old after his mom took him to watch a class.
"They were doing lots of cool kicks and forms and I wanted to do it too," de la Cruz said.
In competition, where de la Cruz is undefeated, martial artists are tested in forms, weapons and sparring. De la Cruz defines a form in taekwondo as "a bunch of moves put together."
In the weapon round, de la Cruz uses a kama, which resembles a sickle, but with a longer handle. The blade is dull, of course.
In competition, judges look at hand technique, the feet, overall attitude, strength and yells. De la Cruz said his attitude on stage is one of great focus.
"He's got a great stage presence," Church said.
The youngster's favorite part of taekwondo is the traditional forms, although Church thinks he has a real future in extreme martial arts.
De la Cruz's accomplishments in taekwondo have inspired his family. His mom Michelle now takes classes, dad Norman is about to start and his five-year-old brother Darion has earned his yellow belt.
Darion was among the group of kids watching Demitri work in the studio last week - following his big brother's every move.