Most everyone has heard of the Karate Kid from Hollywood, but few people yet know about the emerging Taekwondo Dude from Lawrenceville.
Playing the part of Daniel LaRusso is 8-year-old Tommy Olszak, a 2nd-grader at Ben Franklin School. Taking on the role of Mr. Miyagi is Master Robert Danao, an international Taekwondo icon and one of the most highly respected masters from the Philippines and beyond.
In November, the two combined for one of the great youth upsets in the sport, when Olszak won the gold medal in his 8/9-year-old age group at the Governor’s Cup 6th Manhattan International Open at Baruch College in New York City. The event consisted of three forms: board breaking, poomsae and sparring. Taekwondo’s fourth form—weapons—was not included in the competition.
Olszak took a bronze in board breaking, which is done with feet and hands, and a silver in poomsae, which showcases basic forms and carefully ritualized motions that have been passed down from generations. The highlight came when he defeated his Korean opponent in the sparring gold medal finals. As Tommy’s dad, Tom Olszak, noted, “sparring is the gold standard, everyone is interested in sparring because it takes into account everything.”
And here was Olszak, a “mere” brown belt from America, taking on a second-degree black belt from America being coached by a master from Korea, where Taekwondo reigns supreme. Despite his elevated status—high brown belt is surpassed only by two reds and then black—Olszak was considered an outsider because he was what is referred to as a colored belt rather than black. Olszak had already run the gauntlet of physical attacks, where the more experienced international competitors would try intimidation tactics by illegally kicking at his head rather than the body, which is covered with armor.
“It was like in the Karate Kid, where they tried to hurt him to take him out, so their number one guy would win,” Tom Olszak said. “Master Robert told me afterward that’s normal etiquette. It’s portrayed as a bad thing but it’s really about winning for the dojon (club). They were trying to make him cry, quit, and they were willing to lose a point (by going for the head). I was getting upset, but Master Robert had it under control.”
As did Tommy.
“Before the match, my Master told me what to do and tried to calm me down, and I did (calm down),” he said.
Olszak’s finals opponent displayed smooth, well-choreographed kicks that would have scored four points had they landed. “They were a beauty to behold, but they couldn’t get Tommy because Master Robert had given him such great coaching over the years, that Tommy just ducked him, dipped inside, and gave him a roundhouse kick for two points,” Tom Olszak said. “He just repeated the process—shower, rinse, repeat.”
The final was two one-minute sparring sessions. After the first minute it was tied at 5-5 and Master Robert instructed Olszak to stay on his side of the floor so he could continue to advise. When the dust cleared, Olszak had a 14-6 victory and Master Robert embraced his pupil with unabashed excitement, pride and admiration.
Olszak himself was smiling, but there were no arms in the air or fist pumping.
“I worked really hard, and I knew I was gonna win because I’d been training a lot,” he said. “I was a little excited and a little nervous before the match. It was a little of both. But I knew the master told me my forms over and over, so I could remember everything.”
Winning as underdog is only half the story, with the other part being the relationship he and Master Robert have developed.
As a former baseball standout for Hopewell Valley Central High School, who spent a season in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system, Tom wanted to expose his son to athletics at an early age. Prior to Olszak turning two, he was already learning how to swim, do gymnastics and perform in Taekwondo. He also played baseball, although Olszak was never too big on dad’s sport.
Taekwondo was a different story, however.
“I enjoy it,” Olszak said. “I can get some medals in it. And also I can train hard and I can get my muscles moving, get my body moving.”
Olszak began taking lessons at World KM Taekwondo in Lawrenceville, and he enjoyed it, but he was not making huge progress until four years ago when Master Robert came on the scene. Danao is a former world champion who retired undefeated, and was part of the Philippines team that upset the Koreans in their national sport one year. He has been the subject of a book and, Tom Olszak said when he entered the competition area with Olszak, heads turned as he was one of the event’s true celebrity masters.
“My son and him just hit it off, like Mister Miyagi and the Karate Kid,” Tom said. “They’ve almost got their own language going with each other. He came in here and you could see this guy is world class. It’s unbelievable he landed here in Lawrence. Everybody improved rapidly, he implemented different programs and it was great development.
“Tommy developed, but no different than the other kids. Master Robert has introduced these kids to away tournaments, and Tommy started to do that.”
Olszak went undefeated in several New Jersey tournaments, bringing home a number of gold medals. His efforts were enough for Danao to recommend him to do battle against international competition in the Governor’s Cup.
“Master Robert thought he was ready,” Tom said. “It was basically, if you want to take a shot, that’s the big time, let’s see what your kid’s got. Are you willing or not willing?’ We just said ‘Let’s go for it, what have we got to lose?’ I always believe you learn just as much from a good loss. Even if he lost, he gets the experience.
“He wrestled for the township last year and he was 3-13. But we go to these high schools and there were three and four hundred people in the gym, so he got used to competing in front of a crowd of people. And that helped in Manhattan, there were like 4,000 people there.”
One of the disadvantages Olszak faced, is that he competed against 7-year-olds all last summer, and did not turn 8 until the fall. Thus, he was suddenly going against competition that was two years older in the 8-9 division.
In his low-key way, however, Olszak handled it.
“I didn’t think about it,” he said. “I was just focusing on what they do and what I had to do.”
Master Robert could not be reached for comment as he returned to the Philippines to be with his family shortly after the tournament. He plans on returning in April. Olszak continues to train, saying “Sometimes I do it all week, sometimes just like, four or five times a week.”
“Just” four or five times?
“Yeah,” Tom laughed. “It’s a lot of work.”
And while Olszak misses his instructor greatly, he keeps in touch and actually sent Danao’s daughter a fidget spinner when he found out that she wanted one.
“They said she’d be very happy if she got one,” Olszak said. “So I sent her one.”
Now that’s a class move. That may even have Daniel LaRusso beat.