From Heart Attack to Black Belt

How does a 56 year old man go from a massive heart attack to a black belt in TaeKwonDo? Dan Roberts, who achieved this great feat in January of 1998 at Shinn's TaeKwonDo in Okemos, Michigan, attributes his accomplishments "to the tenets of TaeKwonDo, perseverance in particular, and a lot of support from his wife, Mary Lu."

Dan's journey began in 1990 when his world, as he knew it, was turned upside down after a massive heart attack. "It's amazing what goes through your mind after your life is threatened. I knew I had to change my lifestyle to include an exercise program, but quite frankly, I was afraid to become physi- cally active after my heart attack. I started in the cardiac rehabilitation program at Lansing Community College but didn't feel challenged. I needed to do something that would be life-altering, something that would include short and long term goals, and encompass my mind, body and spirit." That's when Dan thought of martial arts. Dan's son studied martial arts as a child and he had a good deal of respect for the philosophy taught as part of the art.

Dan spent five years getiing his black belt in TaeKwonDo. He began studying under Grand Master J. Kim at Lansing Community College in 1993, attending class one day a week. He later augmented his training at Michigan State University where Grand Master Kim also taught. However, because he was in an environment where most of the students were young by comparison, Dan began investigating other options. That's when he found Master D. S. Shinn at Shinn's TaeKwonDo Academy in Okemos. Master Shinn shared the style and ideals taught by Grand Maste Kim so he could provide Dan with the quality of instruction he was seeking, give him more personal instruction with an opportunity for long term advanced study, and allow Dan to train with people closer to his age. So, in 1996 Dan began training with Master Shinn, who awarded him his black belt in January 1998.

Becoming more physically active after his heart attack was not the only challenge Dan had to overcome. He is a disabled veteran, having served in the Army during the Vietnam era, where he lost fourty-per-cent of the mobility in his left shoulder. He spent a year in the hospital undergoing multiple surgeries as his shoulder was being reconstructed using bone grafts from his hip. The resulting arthritis in his shoulder and hip makes most training-time painful. But that doesn't stop Dan from pushing forward - without as much as a complaint about the pain. "That's where the tenets of TaeKwonDo come in," according to Dan. "My father first introduced me to perseverance. He told me if you start something you finish it." Did Dan ever want to give up? "No, never even considered it. There were times I got discouraged, when it felt like I was running into a wall as I was trying to perfect a technique or physical challenge, but then the wall crumbles and you get past it. Sometimes I think I will reach a point that I say 'this is the best I can do', but I don't think that time will ever come because I just keep working harder to improve. I can't say enough about my training mates because I learn from everyone at the academy, regardless of their age or level of experience."

During his black belt test, Dan was asked what TaeKwonDo meant to him. He responded, "A whole new way of life. Not only physically, but how I look at life and the people in it - I have a different outlook on life now and I am more content." Mary Lu, his wife, concurs, "Dan is more tolerant than he used to be and has developed more patience. I notice this most when he is working with our son, Ken. He has become a better teacher, is more calm. He used to expect perfection, now he is more satisfied with himself and those around him."

What were some of Dan's most memorable moments? "Commpeting in the mid- Michigan Tournament was an unforgettable experience for me - actually, competing in a competition at my age! My biggest concern was to perform good enough so that I didn't embarrass my school or classmates. I was matched with a black belt instructor who I believed really wanted to knock me out.

We fought a two-minute round with the no-knockout and no-blood-drawing rule dropped for our competition. I was determinded that I was not going to let him knock me out, and I didn't. I was actually able to stay in the round and do a a pretty good job. Going to the Great Lakes Games is also a thrill for me. It's good to help out and to see my teammates compete."

When asked to describe his experience when awarded his black belt, Dan responded, "I don't know if I can describe it. I was proud, but it was also a humbling experience because I know I have so much to work on and to learn. You could liken it to getting a degree in college - I have put that much time into it, actually more, because when you study TaeKwonDo, you don't take breaks. If I were to use one word to describe it, humbling would fit best, but much more profound."

What words of wisdom can Dan offer to others his age, or younger, about what TaeKwonDo has meant to him? "Start younger, I am convinced that if I had started TaeKwonDo in school, I would have done better because it would have taught me to be more determined. I am dyslexic and really struggled in school. I know I would have tried to do better had TaeKwonDo been a part of my life. Living the tenets of TaeKwonDo helps young members develop a strong moral fabric in their character. Training with older members provides younger students with positive role models - something lacking for many youths in society today. It begins with the Master one trains under, in my case, Master Shinn. There is something he brings to the environment of the school that is hard to describe, but each student experiences. It is a family experience with Master Shinn, the strong, sage father, who teaches the martial way. This is strange to say, as Master Shinn is young enough to be my son, but he is a father to all of us."

By Rosie Spagnuolo Bickert,
Training Mate