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Spotlight: UI prof a black belt

BY JON FRANK | JANUARY 20, 2011 7:10 AM

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Kit Gerken stands barefoot among fellow tae kwon do students at Chol Choe’s Black Belt Academy on a Thursday night. Children, young adults, and middle-age pupils make up the class, but Gerken’s snow-colored hair distinguishes her from her peers.

Despite being 70 years old, the University of Iowa associate professor is a regular here.

Dressed in a faded white robe with a black belt secured around her waistline, Gerken emulates a defense combo against a sparring partner pretending to strike. Evading her counterpart’s attack, the Morton, Ill., native follows with a left jab and then a quick series of strikes.

With a wide smile, she discusses the combination with her partner.

Gerken clearly remembers her first encounter with the martial art.

“I went in there, and I was breathing through my mouth,” said Gerkin, the director of training for the UI School Psychology Program when explaining the interest for tae kwon do, which resulted in a black belt in 2006.

“The level of fitness improved considerably just by learning to breathe.”

Gerken said she believes staying active is the key to staying healthy, a large factor in her passion for tae kwon do.

“I do periodic things. Like I did three RAGBRAIs. And then I got off my bike and stayed off for a while. I did rowing for a short time. I did jazzercise, things like that. And so I was actually going to sign up for yoga.”

The classes were full. Gerken turned to tae kwon do instead.

“I just wanted to try something new,” she said.

Described as “bubbly” by one of her students, her zest for life defines her.

“She was one of the reasons I came to [Iowa],” said UI graduate student Abigail Kramer. “She’s really excited all the time. And she always has a lot of energy. Always. No matter how late she’s been up.”

But what caused Gerken to develop such an affinity for tae kwon do?

She said the life philosophy separated it from other physical activity she’d done in the past. Its emphasis on respect held her attention when other sports and activities failed to do so.

“It’s good discipline for your body and your mind,” she said.

Her memory is tested whenever Choe requests a form in training. She said there are more than 500 different forms to memorize, and the challenge helps her cognitive abilities.

Choe, 54, has overseen Gerken’s development in tae kwon do for more than seven years.

“I always told her, when you come through the door, age is unimportant,” said the native of Seoul, South Korea, who has been practicing tae kwon do for more than 47 years. “In martial arts, we don’t care about age. Forget your age.”

Tae kwon do has permeated Gerken’s life. Although the associate professor takes only two lessons a week, the body movements she’s mastered are incorporated into her routine.

“All the stretching that I learned from there I still try to do every day,” she said. “Doing the stretching just makes me more alert. But I’m pretty hyper anyway.”


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