For over 40 years, the sharp "kiais" and the smack of feet and knuckles against punching bags have been reverberating across the Northeast Taekwon-Do Academy in Rotterdam.
But there’s one student whose kicks seem to be making the most noise.
“I think pound for pound, she’s the strongest student,” said grandmaster Les Zampino, the owner of the studio.
The student in question is Ava Fasolino and at 15 years old she’s the youngest in the academy to receive her fourth-degree black belt. For those not in the know, it takes years of practice to get a black belt, let alone a fourth-degree black belt.
Ava is far from the only student that Zampino has brought up, though. He started the Academy in 1977 before there were very many taekwondo schools in the area. It wasn’t until he met Master Sang W. Lim shortly after he graduated from Mont Pleasant High School that Zampino even knew about the sport himself.
“A friend of mine said that a Korean instructor had just come to the state and he was going to open a taekwondo school, which I had never even heard the term,” Zampino said.
He was one of Lim’s first students and he immediately loved it.
“I saw him do a demonstration and I was just absolutely amazed at what I was seeing in all the breaking techniques, the flexibility and the speed and power,” Zampino said. It took about five years to earn his black belt, but soon after Zampino opened up his studio.
He continued training and gaining black belt degrees, as he recommends all his students do. It takes about five years to get a first-degree black belt, which involves testing in front of several black belts and grandmasters. After that, it takes two years to get a second degree, and four to get a third and fourth.
It’s another reason that Ava stands out as a student. She’s been attending the Academy since she was 4 years old.
“I put her in ballet shoes and a tutu and she hated it,” said Kristen Fasolino, Ava’s mom.
But the very first taekwondo class she took, she loved and, though Ava stuck with dance for a little while when push came to shove and it became too much to balance both sports, taekwondo won.
“I always loved being active and I always had so much energy when I was a kid. [With] all my other sports I did I always had someone I knew, but when I came here I escaped from everything that was going on. It was the one thing I did where none of my other friends were in it. It was just me,” Ava said.
Over the years, she’s won several regional competitions, including the Forms Grand Championship, in which she competed against all age groups, as well as the Adirondack Championship at Hudson Valley Community College. These tournaments involve not only forms but sparring.
Now, she is an assistant, helping out with various classes; both adult students and young students. It's taken some time to get used to being treated as a teacher, especially by older students, especially when she goes home and goes back to being a regular teenager. But Zampino said the respect is well-deserved.
“There’s a physical aspect and a mental aspect. I tell the students that they need a good balance,” Zampino said.
Ava has both. Zampino also pointed out that while some black belts are concerned with rank rather than working hard for the sake of the sport itself, Ava has always been able to balance that.
She’s going to continue on with taekwondo and will be pursuing her fifth degree, in between basketball, softball and volleyball practice and her school work at Mohonasen High School. Someone with a fifth-degree black belt is considered a master, but there is a minimum age of 21. She’ll be eligible in terms of skill level at 19-years-old, but she won’t be considered a master quite yet.
But that’s okay with Ava. There’s plenty of kicks to land, forms to practice and people to teach in the meantime.