MONROE — Ivan Sokolenko has done the math, and no, he and his brother, Peter, do not spend more time at Master Ji’s Taekwondo than they do at home.
But it’s close.
The Sokolenko brothers spend countless hours each day, seven days a week, bouncing on the balls of their feet and performing spin kicks as they work to perfect their craft. And it’s paying off in a big way.
The teenagers have reached a pinnacle in their sport as both fought their way onto the AAU Taekwondo National Team for the 2022-23 season.
Ivan, an 18-year-old who’s a recent graduate of Monroe High School, and Peter, a 16-year-old who’s a junior at Monroe, have spent the past eight years refining their taekwondo, a Korean martial art that has a heavy focus on kicks. This summer the brothers reached new heights as for the first time they both qualified for the AAU national team’s A team — Ivan in the senior (ages 18-32) 176.5-191.8 pound male division, Peter in the junior (ages 15-17) 130.2-138.9 pound male division — by finishing first at both the 2022 AAU Taekwondo National Championships on July 3-8 in Las Vegas and the 2022 AAU Taekwondo Team Trials on July 31-Aug. 3 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
As members of the A team they will represent the U.S. at international competitions in the coming year. For Ivan it’s his second straight year as a member of the A team (he competed in the junior age group last year), while Peter is an A teamer for the first time after being a B team member last year.
“It’s been quite a bit of a journey for us to come this far,” said Il Hwan Ji, the owner of Master Ji’s, who’s coached the Sokolenkos from the beginning of their taekwondo careers, “but we have a lot more to go.”
The Sokolenko family immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in 2005 when Ivan was a baby and before Peter was born — they have family members in Ukraine who are currently engaged in the war against invading Russia — landing first in Kirkland before settling in Monroe. It was shortly after they arrived in Monroe in 2014 that they discovered taekwondo, and in a variation of the usual path it was the younger brother who took the initiative.
“Peter was into superhero stuff and being a ninja, so as soon as he saw the Taekwondo place back in the old building on Main Street he begged my mom, and my mom said, ‘Either you both do it or neither of you do it,’” Ivan recalled. “So I kind of got dragged into it.”
“I wanted to be Spider-Man,” Peter said. “I made a list of everything I needed for that, and (Ivan) got dragged along, too.”
Ji knew what he had the moment he saw them — at least with one of them.
“When I first saw Peter I told a couple of my friends who aren’t into taekwondo and a couple of parents who were supporting the team, ‘He will do something in the future,’” said Ji, who competed internationally for his native South Korea before coming to the U.S. in 2008. “I see it from his eyes, from his attitude. He wasn’t good at it yet, but I could see what he had inside.
“Ivan wasn’t there at the moment,” Ji continued. “It took him two years for him to figure out he was good at one particular thing, and he started using that to win all the tournaments.”
As the brothers progressed, Ji needed to convince their parents to let him take the two to out-of-state tournaments. But now the Sokolenkos are almost full-time taekwondo athletes. On Monday through Thursday they spar from 2:30-4 p.m., then spend the next four hours helping out with classes for younger kids before finishing up with weightlifting and conditioning at 8 p.m. Fridays are shorter days, but Saturdays they train with Washington United, a sparring team that includes athletes from around the state, and Sunday training can be as long as six hours.
Ivan, now that he’s out of high school, is adding morning sessions that include yoga to aid in flexibility: “If you can’t be flexible you won’t be able to kick high, and because taekwondo is a martial art that’s mostly based around kicks it’s really important to be able to get your foot up to the body and head.”
Despite being brothers, the two have differing styles that reflect their contrasting personalities.
“(Ivan) is tall and strong, so he’s like a war machine kind of coming at you like a tank,” Peter said. “So it’s really hard to defend against him, especially when you get up close because he’s strong and he’ll just move you around.”
“(Peter’s) long kicks (are his strength),” Ivan said. “Since he’s gotten taller his long kicks have become more effective. He’s not as aggressive a fighter as I am, he likes to mostly stay back, keep his distance and use his long legs to pick off his opponents.”
Their personality differences sometimes lead to friction, but they’ve also helped drive them to get better.
“They have so many arguments,” Ji said. “But I think it brings some competition to it and they want to keep climbing up: “Oh yeah? I’m going to beat you!’”
While the brothers are current AAU national team members, their ultimate goals are even loftier. Ivan has begun working toward accumulating enough points from tournaments to be in contention for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but the more realistic goal for both is probably the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
“They’re working really hard toward making the USA national team and to go to the world championships in the future,” Ji said. “Hopefully we can see them on TV one day at the Olympic games, that’s what we’re trying to make work.”