Local youngsters excel at Pan-Am Championships

While six kids from the same North County martial arts studio combining to win 15 titles and several other medals at the Pan American Taekwondo Championships last month in Uruguay is an incredible accomplishment, the most impressive part is that no one in the taekwondo world was surprised.

That’s because the six athletes — 13-year-old Cameron Twomey, James Knee (12), Kane Church (12), Grace Dabir (10), Luke Knee (10) and Channah Zeitung (8) — train with Senior Master Ken Church at Church’s ATA Martial Arts, with locations in Carmel Valley and Encinitas.

Church’s students (there are nearly 900 of them currently) are the most decorated in the United States, if not worldwide. Since Church’s wife Patricia joined to compliment Ken’s teaching in 2002, the school has averaged more than 20 world titles per year, including posting 33 this season.

But for the Churches, it’s about more than winning titles, it is about preparing their students to succeed at life.

“All of the different championships, they are a small thing,” said Ken Church, a seventh-degree black belt and former world champion who was inducted into the American Taekwondo Association Hall of Fame in 2012.

“The bigger picture is understanding what martial arts training can really do, (learning to) overcome challenges and be great.”

The World Championships are held in Little Rock, Arkansas each summer, but the competition at the Pan American Championships might be even more fierce as many of the world’s top performers live in South America and don’t always have the means to travel to Arkansas.

“It takes a certain amount of confidence to be able to go to a South American country (and compete),” Ken Church said. “That’s why my son (Kane, for instance) goes annually to the Pan Ams, to make sure that he is fighting the best guys in the world.”

Kane Church, a second degree black belt who attends Horizon Prep in Rancho Santa Fe, was a silver medalist in Sparring at the recent Pan Am Championships after winning a world title in Arkansas a few months earlier. The master’s son has won multiple world titles.

Twomey led the local sextet with six gold medals at the Pan Ams, which were contested at the Punta Este Convention and Exhibition Center Sept. 9-11 in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Competing in her second Pan Am Championships, the Carmel Valley Middle School student took titles in Traditional Forms, Weapons (Kamas), Sparring, Creative Forms, Creative Weapons (Kamas) and Extreme Weapons (Kamas).

Zeitung, meanwhile, won five golds — in Traditional Forms, Weapons (Bo Staff), Extreme Weapons (Bo Staff) and Creative Forms and Weapons (Bo Staff) — and added two silvers. The Carmel Del Mar Elementary school student is a first degree black belt who appeared on Katie Couric’s show at age 4, when she was believed to be the youngest martial artist to perform on TV. Zeitung is ranked first in the world among black belts ages 8 and under.

Also among the 1,430 athletes from 20 countries competing at the Pan American Championships was Dabir, a first degree black belt who captured gold medals in Traditional Forms and Weapons (single Nunchuck) and fought her way to a bronze in Sparring. Dabir attends Notre Dame Academy in San Diego.

Pan Am competitors had to qualify in their age division and be ranked in the top 10 in the world to earn the berth.

The Knee brothers each met that criteria, then each brought home championships as James, a second degree black belt who goes to Earl Warren Middle School in Solana Beach, won a title in Traditional Forms as did Luke, a first degree black belt and student at Del Mar Heights Elementary.

“They all did great, they worked really, really hard,” said Ken Church. “You think about it, they traveled 14 or 17 hours to get there depending which way they went. The fortitude of these individuals is immense, the way they represent the country, their families and themselves.

“The experience is priceless.”

Patricia Church added: “Attending international championships such as the Pan Am in Uruguay provides the opportunity for our children to learn about different cultures while still representing their own country.”

And it was a team effort as the six kids cheered each other on and even gathered for an impromptu training session in their hotel ballroom the night before the event, helping each other practice.