January 25, 2006 - It's early in the evening and the nunchucks are flying in perfect unison at what is becoming Oro Valley's hub for martial arts. These young pseudo-assailants flail their padded weapon of choice in sync with each other, united in a warrior-like intensity.

At the ATA Black Belt Academy, 11133 N. La Canada Drive, a skilled team of professionals is turning average Oro Valley residents into disciplined and skilled martial art masters.

Also known as Karate For Kids, the northwest Tae Kwan Do center was the first of three of its kind in the Tucson metro area owned by W.J. Choi, a seventh degree black belt senior master.

"The philosophy behind the training really is that martial arts are just a tool," said Choi's partner Lee M. Feiles, who will earn his sixth degree black belt within the next four months. "It's a very fun tool. Kids love to yell and scream and jump around, but it's just a tool to teach, in my opinion, character development, which is the most important thing."

ATA rewards students for demonstrating life skills such as discipline, respect and courtesy, while building self-esteem and healthy bodies.

Since opening its original Arizona school in August of 2003, Choi has added two more schools, the most recent on the east side of town. More than 400 students have joined Choi's school in less than three years, with more than 200 at the Oro Valley location and 100 at the Foothills school, 6875 E. Sunrise Drive.

The schools have been successful in large part due to their attention to detail and a professional touch. Although they aren't the only martial arts studio in the Northwest, what separates the ATA Black Belt Academy from its competition are its professional full-time instructors and the organizational support of more than 35 years of consistent development.

After training in Korea for many years, Choi moved to the United States in 1984 and started his first school. Since then, he has had a hand in creating 30 such schools, starting in the Los Angeles area.

Ideally Choi would like to add several more schools to his Southern Arizona portfolio and is currently investigating his options in the Marana area for his next opening.

"Our specific goal, we'd like to open at least six in Tucson," said Choi, a member of the ATA Hall of Fame.

Tae Kwon Do can be an expensive sport to break into, but once invested, it becomes a relatively inexpensive activity over time. Memberships range from $100 to $200, depending on the style of classes.

"Compared to other sports, it's actually quite minimal and the cost is pretty reasonable," said Feiles. "You can train for several years on $200 of equipment."

Most students will take two classes a week. Belts - nine different colors starting with white and moving up to black - are earned in eight-week segments. Once a student earns all nine belts they begin working on the nine degrees of black belt.

Although most members are children, starting as young as 3 and a half years old, it isn't far-fetched to find students in their 70s in competition.

The school offers three levels of training. Children ages three and half to 6 train under the Tiny Tigers program, while ages 7 to 12 learn in the Karate For Kids Program. Teens and adults enter the ATA Black Belt Academy.

Aside from its discipline benefits, Tae Kwon Do is a healthy option for those looking to build core strength, agility and reap the rewards of strong cardio exercises.

"The forms we do are more complicated," said Hal Hudson, who began training at ATA after his son Sam, 12, and daughter Amanda, 9, joined. "It's not real hard-impact aerobic, but it's enough that you start to feel better."

Tae Kwon Do isn't confined to the classroom, however. There are numerous tournaments that allow students to compete against one another and showcase their knowledge and skill in front of an audience.

Hudson and Sam are taking their training to the next level, traveling to competitions throughout the state and Las Vegas.

School hours are 9 to 11 a.m. and 2 to 9 p.m. For more information Karate For Kids and the ATA Black Belt Academy in Oro Valley call 877-7767.

Christopher Wuensch is a sports writer for the EXPLORER. He can be reached at cwuensch@explorernews.com or at 797-4384, ext. 112.

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