Don't be alarmed if you hear a roar in the University of Colorado Boulder Recreation Center. It might just be the CU Taekwondo Club kihaping -- a martial arts word for shouting -- as they perform striking techniques during practice.
At first glance the group looks like the Cobra Kai team ("No pain! No defeat! No mercy!") from the original "Karate Kid" movie. That is, until the sound of synchronized spinning kicks ripping through the air is interrupted by a contagious wave of laughter.
"It's not about the kicks and punches," said Cameron Carter, a member of the club who faced Olympians and internationally ranked fighters at the U.S. Open Taekwondo Championships in Las Vegas, Nev., in February. "It's about respect and discipline, which have also helped me in school."
After a successful tournament in Albuquerque in January -- nearly all CU Taekwondo members placed top three in their colored belt divisions, and seven took first place -- the team is looking to keep the momentum going, both this weekend at state qualifiers in Aurora, and in April, for the National Collegiate Taekwondo Championships in Colorado Springs.
But everyone in the club isn't a black belt facing elite competition, like Carter.
Orestes Reyes, the newest member, admits it was a little intimidating being the new guy, but only for the first 10 minutes of the first day. It's a great stress reliever, he said. Being a mechanical engineering major, he has a lot on his plate. Sometimes it feels like he has weight of the world on his shoulders, he said, but during practice he can let everything out.
Part of the team's success stems from the work-hard, play-hard atmosphere, said club president David Lee. They practice five times a week, 90 minutes at a time. But Lee also credited their increased success in recent years to their coach, 7th degree black belt Andre DeOliveira, who has only been with the team a few years. The coach's practices are efficient and accommodating to all skill levels, Lee said. He takes time to individually instruct the black belts at a fast pace, and then he switches gears to teach the newer fighters at a slower speed.
But it's not like a strict martial arts school, Lee said.
"There's instruction, but its more of a friend/family atmosphere," Lee said. "We're just a bunch of friends having fun and working hard together."
And like all club sports at CU, the Taekwondo Club relies on fundraising to pay for travel expenses. Lee says they do all sorts of jobs -- from working security at the basketball games to tutoring at local middle schools.
DeOliveira said he appreciates the camaraderie.
"This is the first time I feel like they've really connected," he said. "In the past it was more like come, train and go home. Now they finish class, they hang out, they talk to each other, they hug each other ... it's beautiful."
For Lee, taekwondo helped him be more assertive.He began at age 6 and was a shy kid, but as he progressed through the ranks, taekwondo gave him a confidence that carried over to his daily life, especially when being asked to take on a leadership role. "As a black belt you have a higher responsibility to be a teacher, a role model and a leader, just inherently," he said.
His teammates attest to this. "David's a really good captain...when we went down to Albuquerque he set up study sessions for us," said yellow belt teammate Nicole Wilson. When Carter traveled to Las Vegas to compete in the U.S. Open, Lee went with him to provide moral support.