By Mandy Stanage Shoptaw | Photography by Sarah Oden | Shot on location at American Taekwondo Association
Little Rock will welcome approximately 20,000 people during the ATA World Expo. The American Taekwondo Association is an international organization with headquarters in the Capital City and is celebrating its golden anniversary with 50 years of international training.
Founded in 1969 by Haeng Ung Lee, ATA relocated to Little Rock in 1977. Eternal Grand Master Lee passed away in 2000, but his widow Sun Cha Lee continues her husband’s vision for ATA. “Over the last 50 years we have grown from a small association to over 1,500 schools in 27 countries with 300,000 members worldwide,” Lee says. “In the next half century, I hope we can keep growing to reach the whole world, but most importantly, we want to help make people better and the world a better place, one black belt at a time!”
According to the ATA website, Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee introduced the Songahm philosophy of Taekwondo in 1983. This discipline includes physical, mental and emotional agility. Mrs. Lee elaborates, “The same values that guided Eternal Grand Master, and made him so charismatic to others, were the most important teachings he wanted to impart to his students: self-control, self-confidence, honor, integrity, courtesy and respect. These were values he truly lived, and he felt very deeply that it was more important to build character than muscle.”
And while ATA may be considered by many as only a sport, Mrs. Lee stresses the life-changing aspect of studying and practicing martial arts. “Many students have come to us with disordered lives, and then grew in self-discipline and confidence under ATA training.” She continues, “To me, though, I am most proud of the way we have embraced and supported those with special needs, whether physical or mental. We have been working hard to get ATA Taekwondo included in the International Special Olympics, and achieving that is my main goal now.” Mrs. Lee continues the legacy of her husband’s civic leadership through the H.U. Lee Foundation – providing scholarships and offering relief aid for those who have weathered natural disasters.
The H.U. Lee Memorial Gate and Garden, a project Mrs. Lee envisioned as a slice of Korea in Little Rock, is a beacon of the organization’s commitment to enriching the lives of all Arkansans. “One day, Barry Travis, then the CEO of the Little Rock Convention Bureau, asked if they could show the city’s appreciation for ATA and Eternal Grand Master in some way,” recalls Mrs. Lee. “My eyes lit up right away, and I said, ‘Why not a Korean Gate and Garden?’ When I said ATA would finance the project if Little Rock would maintain it, it became a reality.” The association brought in Korean craftsmen to build the gate and many of the statues that decorate the garden were donated as gifts from Korean friends and supporters.
If you’re downtown during the world expo later this month, it’s possible that you will run into ATA competitors. When asked what Mrs. Lee hopes visitors will take away from the Natural State she says, “The warmth of the people, the state’s outdoor wonders — lakes, mountains, cliffs and waterways — and our vibrant downtown Little Rock area.”