The blood had dried and been cleaned up by the time Damien Copenhaver got his $20,000 handshake. Minutes earlier, the third-degree Taekwondo black belt caught a well timed kick to the face during an exhibition sparring match. As it so often does, the money helped ease the pain.
Copenhaver, 15, finished second in both elite forms, a competition based on technique, and elite sparring at the Kukkimon Cup in Greenville late last month. His finish, academic standing and his more than a decade of taekwondo training earned him a $20,000 scholarship for excellence in martial arts to the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. The college, which previously hadn’t been on Copenhaver’s radar but now feels like a dream school, offers the only martial arts studies degree in the country.
“Who would reasonably pass up a $20,000 scholarship?” said Copenhaver, a rising Clayton High School junior who’s on pace to graduate in three years.
Johnston County has produced world class athletes and bonafide sports stars, but a five-figure martial arts scholarship is a new one.
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For the uninitiated, Copenhaver offers layman’s descriptions for the forms and sparring competitions: forms is the pretty one; sparring is two people in gear trying to kick one another. He started training at 3 years old at a YMCA in his native Maryland, because, according to his mom, Kathryn Copenhaver-Oelrich, he liked to kick and punch. He had burned out by 4 under the pressure of his first belt test but came back at 5 when the family moved to North Carolina.
“As a kid, it was just something to do because it was fun,” Copenhaver said. “Now I can’t really imagine doing anything else. I might do other things, but I could give up any one of them. Taekwondo is one of the most important things to me.”
The Eastern North Carolina taekwondo culture is intimate, Copenhaver said, with students sticking together and forming tight bonds. For the past year, he’s trained at Flying Tiger in Garner under Master Man Seo.
“There’s a sense of community,” he said. “The people that stay with it, they’re linked.”
Taekwondo focuses on kicking, and Copenhaver described it as more of a sport and art form than some of the other martial arts. Compared to many of the popular sports in America, he thinks some of the discipline of taekwondo could be refreshing.
“I view taekwondo as more of a sport, the others as more self-defense,” Copenhaver said. “It’s more disciplined. In taekwondo, before and after a match, you’re going to bow to your opponent and the judges. In football, you see open fights. If you hit someone outside of a match, you’re blacklisted, and you’re not competing anymore.”
At Bridgeport, Copenhaver plans to pursue criminology and advance in martial arts. His dream of becoming a lawyer with a black belt in taekwondo sounds ready made for a prime-time television drama. The scholarship is renewable for four years and may require him to compete for the school, but his mom said that isn’t definitive. Copenhaver could reach master status by next year and said he has his sights on the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Him mom is happy the scholarship has lifted some of the financial burden from the family. She’s even happier knowing he won it doing something he loves.
“We’re pretty stoked about it ourselves,” she said. “Honestly, the thing that is most interesting is it’s going to allow him to continue a sport he loves through college.”
Drew Jackson; 919-553-7234 ext. 104; @jdrewjackson