Cold feet but warm hearts for Whitecourt Taekwondo

·5 min read

For over thirty years, members of Whitecourt Taekwondo have kicked off each new year in a very unique way. No matter how cold the thermometer shows it is outside, members put on their uniforms and head to the door. For many, the final step involves not putting on their socks or shoes. Not everyone chooses to go without shoes, but even those who don't still show their true northern strength by working outside in the wintery air.

"It would be a great project if we could find somebody that works at the library to go back in all the old January first newspapers because there's got to be one of them that says the year of our first event," explained Master Jim Rennie. "It's at least over 30 years because when I was 19, I went to Thailand to train, and I flew out on January 1st. I did the workout in the snow that day before leaving in the afternoon. I remember on that long, long flight my toes were so itchy, and the people in the airplane beside me must've thought I had some kind of foot disease because I had my socks off and I was rubbing my toes together," laughed Rennie. "They were so itchy from the cold that we had that year."

For Master Jeremy Wilhelm, enjoyment comes from finding ways to express the tenets of Taekwondo: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. "Sometimes, when we are doing activities, we struggle to find ways to utilize all of those tenets. Taekwondo in the snow is one way to show three of them: perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. When you are out there working in the snow, you can use those tenets and show them to the public but also yourself that you are living those tenets in your life."

Wilhelm said he doesn't know anyone else doing the same chilly exercise each January 1st. "I don't know any other taekwondo club or another martial arts group that does an activity like this. I'm sure there is somewhere in the world, but I don't know who they are, and I know many of them. It's a point of pride for us to show our club and that we are very strong martial artists. We can be proud of that, and this is a way of showing that to everyone."

One of Wilhelm's favourite parts is seeing young kids take part and go so far as removing their socks and shoes like many of the adults. "When I started doing it twenty-five years ago, we didn't have many kids there. I was probably one of the youngest at 13 or 14, and I was an anomaly. It was typically the older, crazy guys doing it," he laughed. "Seeing the kids doing it today is awesome. They have the indomitable spirit to come out and do it. I don't think I could've done it at their age."

One of those taking part with his bare feet was Jason Steenhart. "It's really fun. It pushes you against your limits sometimes. I like doing the workout, especially the push-ups and jumping jacks," he explained. His brother, Ryan, said his favourite was the patterns.

For Cameron Bourdages, being outside in the snow and having fun helps him forget about the cold. His brother Joseph said he liked doing it except for one part. "Push-ups in the snow aren't fun because I get snow on my face," he said with a smile. Their mom Stacie is in Taekwondo with her boys, and the tradition is extra special for her. 'I enjoy it because it happens on my birthday. It's a fun way to show off our taekwondo skills and show that we can do it in the snow. It's amazing. Seeing the kids do it makes me feel like I should push myself harder."

Moments before heading out, Wilhelm said this year was somewhere in the top five for being the coldest. "There are some years where it might be less cold, but the snow was crusty, and those are the hardest years because it chews up your feet. Some years we might've done it when it was minus 40 in nice soft snow, so it isn't so bad. We will see what today is like. We aren't going to be in deep snow this year, but we are going to be exposed a bit more, so it might be colder." Rennie said he was the opposite. "I don't like the fluffy snow because it melts so quick and then freezes on your feet, so we all have our own opinion on what we rate as the nastiest snow. The temperature isn't the worst part. It's the snow, and what it does to your feet, I think."

Then it was time to head outside. A few loud "let's do this" chants helped hype up the group as they quickly got into position in the back parking lot. The entire workout lasted only a couple of minutes, and as soon as Master Wilhelm hollered that it was done, everyone ran towards the Dojang door. Wilhelm said it wasn't too bad and joked that they could do it again, to which a few kids agreed. Then the group went back out to take a picture, with everyone barefoot, after only a few minutes of reprieve inside the building. That was when the pain really kicked in. Master Wilhelm said his feet were burning as he got back inside for the second time.

Jason Steenhart,11, said that though his feet were frozen, 2022 was one of the best years. "My feet were frozen by the time we started doing push-ups. They went numb. But it's still one of the best years. Last year it was so crusty, we had ice shards digging into our feet, and it was deep snow. This year was way better." What a way to kick off the year!

Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press

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