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Family bonds over black belts

Mom, Dad and Stella Yao earn first-degree levels in tae kwon do at the same time.

January 08, 2014|By Brittany Levine, brittany.levine@latimes.com
  • Hugh, Stella, 9, and Tessa Yao, all first degree black belts, at JK Tai Kwon Do in Glendale on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. The three became black belts in December after completing a 7 hour advancement test, ending the test by breaking, with their hands, a block of concrete.
Hugh, Stella, 9, and Tessa Yao, all first degree black… (Tim Berger / Staff…)

At first, Stella Yao was frustrated when she struggled to crack a cement block in two with one hand as she tested for a black belt in tae kwon do, but then the 9-year-old saw her mother whack through the thick slab.

Stella took another stab at the challenge after that and broke the block in two.

“She cried a little, but she pushed through,” said Stella’s mother, Tessa Yao. “I was so proud of her.”

Stella, her mother and her father, Hugh Yao, all received first-degree black belts last month, becoming the first family to all get a black belt at the same time at JK Tae Kwon Do studio in Glendale.

It’s not uncommon for multiple members in a family to train in tae kwon do, but Jin Ki Lim, the owner of JK Tae Kwon Do’s five studios in Southern California and Acapulco, Mexico, said it’s the first time he’s seen a family achieve black belts at the same in the 22 years since he opened his academy.

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Lim said he thought it was a good idea for families to practice tae kwon do together to become more respectful of each other.

“It helps, especially in the [United States], where families have difficulties communicating,” said Lim, who years ago was a bodyguard for the president of South Korea.

It took the family roughly three years to get black belts — with Stella technically having a junior black belt because she is under 16. Hugh Yao was the first, who got into tae kwon do in order to keep active. However, after watching him a few times, his daughter and wife wanted to do it, too.

The family comes to the studio for two and a half hours, seven days a week, but they do sometimes take a Sunday off every now and then. When they’re not training there, they practice at home. The family will spar with each other and practice poses. They studied for their black-belt exam, which took seven hours over two days, together.

The exam required the Yaos to demonstrate several positions, kicking techniques to break wooden boards, falling motions and self-defense techniques.

Adults have to perform twice as many of each skill as children during the test and they also have to perform a self-defense technique used against knife attacks, which children don’t do.

But everyone has to break cement blocks.

The Yaos received the first of eight levels of black-belt designations. Those with a fourth-degree black belt are considered “masters” and eighth-degree earners are “grand masters.”

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