At 72, Wayne Cooper isn’t the typical taekwondo student.
The retired father of seven daughters, a grandfather of nine and a Vietnam veteran, Cooper had always had an interest in martial arts but wondered if there was still time to make his dream a reality.
It turned out there was time, at the nearby Han Lee’s Taekwondo Academy, at 729 Barranco Drive in Castle Rock.
“I lived up the road and would drive by,” Cooper said. “One day, I stopped in. I was 68, 69 at the time and asked Master Lee, should I? Could I? So he took me in the back and put me through a physical test. He made me do push-ups and sit-ups, and he ended up saying ‘OK, come on.’ And with his support, I thought, OK, I’ll try.”
Being diabetic, Cooper always watched his diet and stayed in shape. He used to run three or four miles a day before his knees and ankles gave out. Eventually he switched over to an hour on the treadmill, as well as push-ups, sit-ups and weights.
“I can do 20 or 30 push-ups without a problem,” he said.
Now, more than four years later, Cooper is preparing to test for his black belt — in a grueling two-day event that will take place May 3-4 at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock.
“I was just amazed at his openness to try. At that age, something brand new, this is not mainstream stuff,” Grandmaster Han Lee said. “That’s what I love about him, just his attitude. Ever since then, he became my role model as well, I’m 52 myself, and when I’m his age I want to have that open-mindedness and be physically where he is.
“My philosophy is that I’ve got to be able to walk the walk and talk the talk. He’s doing that. He’s been just a tremendous role model for all the students. Imagine the young kids that see him come and practice.”
During his service in Vietnam, Cooper was wounded in three places, receiving gunshot injuries to his shoulder and head, and was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart.
His journey through taekwondo hasn’t been without sacrifice, either.
“There were three or four times when I could hardly stand up from injuries,” Cooper said. “I tore an arch ligament, but I kept coming. When I was in the military, some of the times I thought, if they would open the door, I would run and go AWOL and escape. And so the experience was somewhat similar here. It’s just, take it one day at a time and understand that the goal was to get the next belt and do the next form correctly and to build the knowledge.”
A black belt under Lee isn’t easy to come by.
He is one of the most successful taekwondo coaches in America.
Lee was the head coach at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs from 1993 to 2003 and coached the U.S. Olympic Team at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Lee was on the US National Team himself for eight years and competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal in 1988.
“I’ve invited family,” Cooper said. “I’m just focused on practicing and getting it done. I’m afraid to think about it. I don’t know how I’ll feel.
While most schools award black belts after two or two and a half years, the distinction takes four to be earned under Lee.
“It will be a motivating event for all the younger students to watch. I’m really excited,” Lee said. “It will be an honor for me to wrap that black belt around his waist.”