Training for Italy

By on January 21, 2015

LR20150122_CTaekwondo4Local girls to compete in Taekwon-Do World Championship

Hannah Appel of Lititz helps Nicole Buitrago of Ephrata practice her kicking drills. (photo by Lenay Ruhl)

Hannah Appel of Lititz helps Nicole Buitrago of Ephrata practice her kicking drills. (photo by Lenay Ruhl)

Nicole Buitrago and Hannah Appel recently placed in a national Taekwon-Do competition and will go on to compete at the World Championship in Italy this May. They are both black belts training at Advantage Taekwon-Do in Lititz under international instructor Luis Mejia.

Not your average high school students, Buitrago and Appel have been spending at least one hour a day, Monday through Thursday, training. With Italy on the horizon, those sessions have been bumped up to two hours.

“It becomes more intense, and not just with Taekwon-Do-related stuff, but with stamina building and cardio things,” said Buitrago. “When you’re in the ring fighting for two minutes, it’s a lot harder than it sounds. You’re moving around the whole time, kicking and punching, so you need to have good stamina.”

Buitrago, an Ephrata High School senior is 17 years old and has been doing Taekwon-Do for 12 years. This will be her second world travel for competition. She went to Jamaica in 2014 for the World Cup, a competition different from the World Championship in that any black belt can sign up for it. The upcoming championship in Italy requires placement at a national level. Buitrago placed first in patterns and third in sparring at the national competition in Houston, Texas in December.

Appel, her fellow black belt, placed first in sparring and second in patterns. Appel is 15 years old and switched to Warwick’s Virtual Academy so that she can focus on Taekwon-Do training. She is currently in 10th grade, and this will be her second world travel as well. She competed in the World Championship in Spain in 2013.

“It’s my entire life,” said Appel. “Other than school, I do nothing but Taekwon-Do.”

Luis Mejia opened Advantage Taekwon-Do in Lititz 10 years ago. Originally from Colombia, South America, he has been training since he was eight years old. He traveled to the United States for the first time in 1999 for a competition in Orlando.

“I fell in love with the U.S.,” he said. After finishing college in his country, he came back to North America, visiting New York City for a week, living in Santa Monica, Calif. for three years, and finally settling in Lititz. He had a friend here, and the farmland reminded him of his country. “I love the peace here,” he said.

Classes at his school are grouped by skill level. They have the Pandas, which are students three to six years old. Then there are Beginners, Intermediate, Advanced and Black Belt. Achieving black belt status is just the beginning. Mejia is a fifth band black belt. Each band takes a year of training to achieve. Buitrago and Appel are both first band black belts, and they are considered juniors because they are under 18.

“It takes lots of training and years for an instructor to send students to World Championships,” said Mejia. He has dedicated a lot of time to Buitrago and Appel, accompanying them to competitions and training extra hours.

“It takes a lot of time away from my family and the school,” said Mejia. “I do it for the love of the art.” When he was young someone did it for him.

Appel’s mother, Jennifer, attends most of the evening practices, and was there Thursday, Jan. 15. She talked about the respect that the students have for Mejia, because he’s a very passionate teacher.

Buitrago and Appel are both responsible for fundraising and paying their own way to the competition. The school will have a stand at Lititz’s upcoming Fire & Ice Festival. They will be raffling off services donated by local businesses and have a donation jar. Their goal is to raise enough money through multiple fundraisers to pay for their travel, and Mejia’s. Covering his expense is their biggest priority.

“We’d really like to be able to do that for him,” said Jennifer.

As she talked about her daughter, upbeat dance music played from the Pandora station the girls selected for training. They practiced several kick styles for sparring. Next, they moved into practicing patterns. The girls each strategically formed kicks and arm movements. They moved together, almost like a dance. With each motion came a sound effect. Mejia explained that sound is to release proper breathing and creates power in the movement.

Throughout the practice the girls both expressed serious determination in their faces, but were still laughing and smiling. Senior black belt John Richardson helped them with their kicks. Training at the school since 2007, Richardson assists Mejia in teaching classes and leads them while Mejia is traveling.

Both of the girls are inspired by Buitrago’s older brother, Joshua, who also trained at the school before going away to college. Joshua went to Argentina as a national team member and then went on to New Zealand. He won the World Championship in patterns as a second band black belt.

“He’s actually been my role model in Taekwon-Do for all these years,” said Buitrago.

Jennifer recalled watching Joshua win on a live feed at the school. She remembered laughing to herself when her daughter said, “I’m going to be the next world champion, just like Josh.”

It wasn’t long before Jennifer and her husband were watching their daughter at a national competition in Connecticut.

“When she won, I remember my husband and I looking at each other and our jaws dropped. ‘She’s going to Spain.’”

“It was amazing when she put her mind to it,” said Jennifer.

Both of the girls talked about how much the martial art does for them beyond the physical aspect, such as self-determination, confidence and improved focus.

“The values that it teaches you, not many other sports do,” said Buitrago. “It teaches you to be responsible and always have integrity, even when people aren’t looking.”

Both of the girls want to continue Taekwon-Do after high school. Buitrago is currently applying to colleges, and she wants to major in information technology. Appel, although she has a few years of high school left, wants to work in canine or homicide law enforcement.

There are times when they struggle with balancing school and Taekwon-Do, and they don’t feel like training, but they push forward.

“I want to win with all my heart, so I kinda just push that aside and go anyway, because that’s my dream,” said Appel.

Both of the girls are excited for their trip to Italy, where they will be reunited with friends they met during their past Taekwon-Do travels.

About 1,500 people are expected to compete in Italy. When competing, everyone starts as a perfect 10 and then each mistake results as a point deduction from .5 to 1, depending on the severity. Mejia stressed that the upcoming competition is the best of the best. They are professionals.

“I will say that I am really proud of them and how far they have come,” he said of Buitrago and Appel. “With hard training they can achieve their dream of being world champions.”

Lenay Ruhl is a freelance feature reporter for the Record Express. She welcomes reader feedback at

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