Two Guilderland taekwondo students win national acclaim, pass on the art to others

— Photo from Michelle Stafford

Kinetic: Michelle Stafford, at left, spars with an opponent in 2014 at a tournament in Boston.

GUILDERLAND — Michelle Stafford and Austin Wolfgang — both of whom studied taekwondo at Guilderland martial arts schools and recently won national recognition — began at the urging of family members.

Stafford’s parents enrolled her and her two younger brothers at Guilderland Martial Arts seven years ago, because, she said, “They wanted us to do something with our lives other than watch TV and play video games, which I’m thankful for.”

Taekwondo developed in Korea after World War II and the Japanese occupation, and combines elements of several ancient martial arts.

Stafford and her brothers got their black belts together in November 2014. Her brothers continue to study traditional martial arts, but she is the only one in the family who chose to pursue sparring at the national level, she said.

She got a gold medal in Olympic-style sparring in her division, which is welterweight women ages 18 to 32, at the Amateur Athletic Union national championships in Fort Lauderdale, Florida during the first week in July, earning her a place on the AAU USA national team for 2017 through 2018.

“I do it because I love it,” Stafford said. “It allows you to travel and meet new people.” If she has a chance to compete in tournaments overseas this year, “that’d be fantastic,” she said.

Stafford is going into her fourth year of training with Coach Tim Tocco — an AAU national team regional assistant coach — at Peak Performance in Scotia.

She maintains her connection with Guilderland Martial Arts — run by fifth-degree black belt Robert Rice, who is also a math teacher at Guilderland High School — by teaching there part-time. “The atmosphere there is inspiring,” she said, “because you have all these young kids looking up to you, so it makes you want to be the best you can be.”

A rising junior at the University at Albany who graduated from Voorheesville’s high school in 2015, Stafford is studying anthropology with a minor in linguistics. Her plans for the future? “I think it’d be cool to open up a taekwondo school, to be honest,” she said.


— Photo from Austin Wolfgang 
Austin Wolfgang of Albany studies 
taekwondo at Guilderland’s Pil Sung, like his grandmother, Nina Beauchaine of Glenmont, shown here with him in a photo from his days as a blue belt; he is now one step away from testing for his black belt. Wolfgang and his grandmother are also qualified as judges and officiate at tournaments. 


Black-belt grandmother leads the way

Wolfgang’s grandmother gave him lessons three years ago as a 12th birthday present. He had studied karate for a few years when younger, but then switched schools and wasn’t able to go any more, he said. For his 12th birthday, his grandmother, who is a fifth-degree black belt, got him lessons at Pil Sung Taekwondo, where she also trains.

At the 2017 AAU national taekwondo championships this month, he was the only athlete from New York State to earn a medal as a competitor and to also be accepted as a judge.

Wolfgang earned a bronze medal in the age 15 to 17 advanced heavyweight Olympic-style sparring division and another bronze medal in the 15-to-17 advanced-forms division. He also worked for five days at the national championships as a corner judge.

A holder of a D-class official’s license he was one of the youngest people in the country accepted to judge at Nationals, according to head instructor and fifth-degree black belt Joe Hasan of Pil Sung.

Wolfgang is now 15 and will be a junior at Albany High School. An advanced red belt, he is a step away from testing for his black belt.

He also plays lacrosse, but says of taekwondo, “I like it — it’s an individual sport, so I feel like I control it myself.” He also likes the atmosphere at Pil Sung, which he called “like a family.”

He started judging partly because his grandmother also does it, he said, and partly because he likes the sport of taekwondo and wants to “get more involved and give back to it and make it fun for all the younger kids coming up.”

His plan for the future is to become a pediatric surgeon. He is an assistant instructor at the taekwondo school, he says, and he likes working with children. “So I kind of want to keep working with them,” he explained.


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