On Thursday, July 22, Master Jim Rennie excitedly introduced the kids from Whitecourt Taekwondo's first summer camp of 2021 to the eager audience before him. The showcase allowed students to show off what they learned as their parents cheered from the side of the demonstration room. Following a tough year that saw other taekwondo groups in the province shutter their doors permanently, Rennie said he is grateful for the support.
"We had a sell-out. We had a 25 person cap, and we hit that. We also had a waiting list for another one, so we will do that in August. There was just so much demand from people. We had people that aren't even in taekwondo come and join, and they had a lot of fun." Rennie said that he expects this September's enrolment to be the biggest year yet. "People are just itching to get back into things, and not all sports are going to be coming back probably, so there might even be a limited supply. I hope that all sporting groups, especially ones that cater to the youth in our community, will be able to have full gyms, full tracks and full rinks and that everybody can enjoy themselves and be happy and interacting again."
In speaking to the audience of parents and dignitaries, including Mayor Maryann Chichak, Rennie said they were very fortunate to have come out the other side of COVID. "We have good friends in other communities that couldn't carry through. They either didn't have landlords that were willing to work with them and couldn't meet their lease obligations and had to close or were just so desperate that they had to take other jobs and they no longer have the ability to teach."
He said that it worried him to see youth walking away from years of hard work. "Every person that is in some activity, whether it's music or martial arts, that has levels where you graduate up and up, once you lose momentum, it's hard. I think a lot of those people won't go back." Rennie spoke of a friend in Calgary who taught a demonstration team of high-level black belts. "They've all found individual things they can go on to do, so he's lost these people that he spent years and years building. The kids had to move on, and he lost that team. We are fortunate here that we could keep things going."
He thanked parents for helping with the fundraiser they did a few months ago and for bringing their kids back. He also spoke about the dedication of the children. "I did two-hour-long classes. I don't even teach adults that long. But we did that for four days in a row and did a ton of other activities, and there were zero complaints, and we still haven't used a band-aid. The kids are amazing."
The children did kicks, broke boards, somersaulted over their peers, and some managed kicks above their heads, flying through the air like birds. Parents and onlookers cheered as children proudly demonstrated all they had learned. If a child happened to stumble or miss breaking a board, they would try again. Upon success, the cheer was even more prominent as their reward for not giving up.
Rennie said that throughout COVID, they got as creative as possible to keep people active and engaged. "We were doing one on one classes, and I'm a Zoom expert now. We will go back to face to face, but I'm also holding classes weekly with people around the province. Black belts are training with me weekly on Zoom, and we will continue that because it makes it simpler. You don't have to drive, especially in the winter."
Rennie has been involved in taekwondo much of his life and said that watching people progress is the best part of teaching. "The kids did cartwheels, flying sidekicks and smashed boards. My body's not ready to do that anymore, but when I can teach other people to do it and make 100 people better than I ever was, it's awesome, and I love that. You don't get old when you can offer that."
The next summer camp will start in August, and if parents don't make it in time to register for that one, there is a backup plan. "If there is enough interest for a third summer camp, we will do it," said Rennie. Regular classes start up in September.
Rennie said that homeschool day classes will once again happen and that he is looking forward to seeing how many kids return. "I don't know how many will stay homeschooling, but in talking with friends who administer homeschooling programs, the majority are going to continue homeschooling. That excites me because that's a different set of kids, and I love teaching homeschool kids."
Some programs in the works include youth programs for three-and four-year-olds and taekwondo dancing for moms and their young children. "I'm working with a dance instructor right now on how we can use martial arts with dance and offer something fun that parents can do with their kids. I promise I won't be the instructor," laughed Rennie.
When COVID shut down so many schools and taekwondo clubs, Whitecourt became a hub of information, and many people now train alongside Whitecourt athletes. "We don't just have our Whitecourt community. About 20 different communities are working together now. We have a big draw, and it's exciting to see lots of new energy," smiled Rennie. To sign up for the second, or potential third, summer camp, message the Whitecourt Taekwondo Facebook page.
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press