Aching for a return to taekwondo

Once devoted to taekwondo, Jules Stewart is ready for another comeback. But is it a good idea to step back into the fray at 75?

Jules Stewart is aching for a return to taekwondo. Picture: Felix Hoare.
Jules Stewart is aching for a return to taekwondo. Picture: Felix Hoare.
Jules Stewart is aching for a return to taekwondo. Picture: Felix Hoare.

What creature shuffles with a palsied gait, wallows in a hot bath laced with lavender oil and requires ten paces to stand up straight in the morning? Answer: a 59-year-old couch potato who has gone back to practising taekwondo.

“Why are you doing this?”

This, from a twenty-something Amazon holding a rigid plank position next to me on the floor, where I grunt through press-up number 12. Cheers, love.

Donato Nardizzi. Picture: Felix Hoare
Donato Nardizzi. Picture: Felix Hoare
Donato Nardizzi. Picture: Felix Hoare

I hold a black belt in taekwondo.

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The day of my grading, in 1980, I landed a very lucky side-kick to the chest of my sparring opponent, a huge Moroccan who was a bodyguard to the late King Hassan II. With a yelp, he executed a spectacular half pirouette and landed on his back. I hovered above him, fist raised like an exultant gladiator.

My day was made. The greatest joy was not tying the coveted black belt onto my uniform, nor was it the swell of pride as my children leapt about in admiration. No, I was living in Madrid, and the real thrill was having to register as a black belt with the police. I was licensed to kill.

It’s 20 years later. I am at the Kensington Leisure Centre in West London, age 59, when I spot a poster of a taekwondo master delivering a kick that could have stopped a Vickers tank.

Donato Nardizzi. Picture: Felix Hoare
Donato Nardizzi. Picture: Felix Hoare
Donato Nardizzi. Picture: Felix Hoare

This is Donato Nardizzi, a Ninth Dan Taekwondo Grand Master, one of 32 in the world. “Learn to defend yourself. Improve your level of fitness. Develop self-confidence.” All this for less than what I was spending on vitamin supplements.

After two decades of hibernation, I de-mothballed my uniform and dropped in at a martial arts supplies shop in Chinatown to pick up a white belt, ‘for a friend’.

On the evening of my first class, about a dozen people were limbering up on the floor, swinging their arms and hips, rotating their knees in tight circles. Master Nardizzi, an incredible specimen in his late thirties, lined us up in rows of four and after the ceremonial bow the evening’s activities got under way.

“Start running in a circle, anti-clockwise. Now!”

Then, “Drop to the floor, 15 press-ups. Now!”

Up again, trotting about the room.

“On your backs, 15 sit-ups. Now! Good. Keep running!”

“Squat jumps. Left leg, right leg. Now!”

“Star jumps. Now!”

More running.

“Lift those knees. Come on!”

Half an hour later I stumbled back into line, tottering like a storm-battered willow.

“All right, take a minute’s break.”

My heart rate had scarcely begun to decelerate when we were told to grab a hand pad for a round of kicks and punches. That was when I discovered how in 20 years my legs had seized up like a fossilised nutcracker.

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The difference is that a nutcracker’s task is to squeeze its legs together – mine was to stretch them apart. My long dormant hip and thigh muscles rebelled and when I ignored their protests they downed tools and coiled into knots.

The class finished with a sparring session. This is where I picked up some of my most exquisite bruises.

One evening, Master Nardizzi came up and said, “I’ll be your sparring partner tonight.” I could hardly believe my luck – the moment had come for me to strut my stuff. We faced one another and bowed. Master Nardizzi shouted, “Sichak!”, the Korean command to commence battle. I sprang about on my toes, feigning a jab here and there, darting back and forth, my eyes riveted on his to anticipate an attack signal. Master Nardizzi slid in and landed a light right jab on my shoulder. I jumped back and spun round to deliver a backward kick.

“Nice one,” he said. “You need to develop some more flexibility, but that was fast.”

Gosh. A Ninth Dan had just complimented me on my kicking speed. I had to fight down a lump in my throat. But wait a minute – where was he? A second ago we were sparring face-to-face. Now he was gone. I shot a glance over my shoulder. There he was, closing in fast. No worries. This called for a quick spin round to block an attack…

Suddenly the room went funny. Someone must have left the window open because a flock of honking geese sailed in and began circling overhead. I noticed they were all wearing black belts. And hello, what’s this?

My bell-ringer friend Nigel, clanging away in all four corners of the room at once. Of course, it was Sunday. It all had a pleasant and dreamlike quality. Except for my legs, which felt a bit queer, like wading through toffee.

“Need to be faster,” Master Nardizzi helpfully explained as he removed his heel from my solar plexus. A reminder not to get too cocky with an International Grand Master.

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Class dismissed. I stumbled into the changing room, forcing my lips into a rictus. “Well, that was a good one, what,” I chirped to the world at large.

“Yeah, great stuff,” a thirty-something-year-old, American hedge fund manager replied. “Hey, you’re like actually a black belt, right?”

I nodded, letting my eyes wander to an interesting sock someone had left on the floor.

“So, like, why are you doing this?”

After a long soak in a hot bath spiked with Neal’s Yard lavender oil, followed by a rubdown with Tiger Balm, I removed the ice-pack from the fridge, pulled on my Dr Scholl’s knee braces and Vulkan neoprene lumbar support and slumped onto the sofa, trussed up like a Christmas turkey and wondered…why am I doing this?

With two trashed knees, an aching sacroiliac, a wrenched calf ligament, a gammy sciatic nerve, several sprained toes and a welter of purplish bruises up and down my arms and legs, I didn’t see much point in giving up now. But sadly, I did.

Fast-forward 16 years.

Taekwondo is more than a sport – it is a calling that inspires devotion in a way only those who have donned the coveted black belt can understand. Here I am, at 75, propping up the bar at the Last Chance Saloon, aching (metaphorically speaking) to return to the dojo. But was it wise to risk sprains, contusions, fractures, cardiac arrest? I put the question to my GP, who raised an eyebrow.

“Hmm, you can expect injuries. But if you do it, just make sure you don’t tangle with any 20-year-olds.”

I rang one of my closest friends, whose judgement I trusted. He asked if I really wanted to put myself in harm’s way in what he kindly referred to as my ‘declining years’.

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I took the Tube to Leicester Square to seek advice from the international Kung Fu master Yap Leong.

“I think that is perhaps not a good idea, maybe because of your age. You could be wasting money.”

Right. My last stop was to meet Master Nardizzi, looking outrageously trim and robust a decade and a half on. I popped the question over a cappuccino.

“You’re keeping fit? No injuries, illnesses?” he said with a sympathetic smile. “Then why not go for it?”

The Ayes have it. n