LYNNWOOD — In July, 19-year-old Isaak Whitworth won his first taekwondo national championship after devoting much of his young life to the study of the iconic martial art of Korea, the homeland of his father and instructor, Master Joe Ho Seop Whitworth, 44, who was adopted by a Renton family as an infant.
Isaak’s father wasn’t there to see his son’s crowning moment.
It would have been too painful for both of them.
Tracey Whitworth, Joe’s first wife and Isaak’s mother, died after a battle with liver cancer in 2009, just two months before Joe coached Isaak at the USA Taekwondo Nationals.
“Every time we looked at each other (at the tournament), we were just bawling our eyes out. I wasn’t doing him justice as a coach because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind,” Joe Whitworth said. “It’s just too hard for me to coach him when he competes on big stages. We’re thinking how his mom should have been there with us.”
Father and son took advantage of a scheduling quirk that found the two major amateur national taekwondo tournaments falling on the same week, going their separate ways this summer.
Joe helped 10 of his students at Lynnwood’s Northwest Black Belt Academy to USAT medals and acclaim in Salt Lake City on July 2-9, while Isaak, with coach Kevin Park in his corner, won the title in the Olympic Black Belt Division in the 119-127.9 pound weight class at the AAU Taekwondo National Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., during the same week.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 3, and it’s just been forever that he’s been my dad, my coach and my master,” said Isaak, who trained six days per week for the last year — while battling a partially torn hip labrum — in preparation for AAU Nationals. “I’ve never really thought about it because I don’t know what it’s like to not have my dad as my coach.”
Joe Whitworth has helped elevate Washington’s standing in the national taekwondo community, presiding over workouts of Washington United, a competition team made up of the elite students from Northwest Black Belt Academy and five other taekwondo academies in Snohomish and King counties.
Carrying out a plan he set in motion with since-retired coach Lionel Lee, Whitworth is employing the ‘iron sharpens iron’ maxim to collect athletes with similar talents and goals and have them train together to the benefit of the collective.
Whitworth, who helped guide the career of Bilal Hasan, a Mukilteo native who competed at the international level as recently as last year, coached Lynnwood native Montana Miller and Seattle’s Akilah Franklin to gold medals at USAT Nationals.
Miller won the sparring championship in the Cadet flyweight division, which is typically for girls ages 12-14. She’s 11.
Not only was Miller younger than all eight of her competitors in Salt Lake City, but she was the only one that wasn’t a black belt when she qualified for the tournament in March, earning that honor in the months between then and July.
“It was my first nationals, but I had another big tournament at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas,” said Miller, who attends Oak Heights Elementary in Lynnwood. “I was kind of nervous, but really excited.”
Franklin’s delight at winning the sparring championship at the Junior middleweight division as a 15-year-old was intensified by her utter shock, since she was under the impression she had lost the title bout.
In sparring competitions, athletes wear blue or red vests, and are referred to as ‘blue’ and ‘red’ with regards to match bout scoring.
“I was fighting as red all day, and I switched to blue in the championship fight,” said Franklin, who attends Summit Sierra High School in Seattle. “I just forgot. When I won, I thought I had lost.”
Needless to say, Franklin, who competed as a red belt in a field full of black belts, was thrilled to be wrong.