15 years ago a young black tag student named Grzegorz Sokołowski came to test for his 1st Dan during a grading organised by Piotr Bernat (then 5th Dan) in his hometown of Świdnik, Poland. It was a small test with only four students taking part, but also one that was the beginning of a great story of friendship and cooperation.
– For Grzegorz, or Greg as he is called by his English-speaking friends, the grading was quite a challenge – says Piotr Bernat. – He was a complete outsider to our group and we were really building up our identity back then. The grading was pretty hard physically but he persevered. I remember thinking to myself “he can be a good instructor sometime in the future”. Actually, I didn’t remember that we had already met before, when he was competing in a friendly tournament for kids and juniors held by our school in 2004, taking silver in patterns as a blue belt junior. I was pretty surprised when I spotted Grzegorz while browsing through old tournament pictures!
During and immediately after the grading, Grzegorz wasn’t so sure about his performance:
I knew it was going to be demanding, but I felt like I didn’t belong there. The other participants were well-prepared while I was struggling with the simplest tasks. I couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t the right time for me to achieve the black belt. Nevertheless, I fought until the end and just before the exam results were announced I could see Piotr thinking of something intensely and I was pretty sure that he was just trying to find a nice way of telling me that I had failed. After some more time, he gave us some feedback on our performance. The others passed and got some minor remarks. When it was my turn, Piotr told me that he was in two minds about my result. He also thought that I wasn’t prepared enough to take the exam at that time and he shouldn’t give me the promotion. On the other hand, he told me that he believed I could take a lesson out of that experience and trusted that from that moment I would only become better.
Couple of years later Piotr Bernat and his assistant Bartek Daniel went to Pabianice to conduct their first seminar for a small club which was taken over by the most senior student Grzegorz Sokołowski after his instructor moved to the U.K. There was only one small training group consisting mostly of kids. The seminar finished with a grading to yellow belts and green tags. A year later a group of kids from Pabianice went to their first summer training camp organised by Piotr Bernat in Zakopane, a beautiful place in the Polish Tatra mountains. It was also the time when Grzegorz tested for 2nd Dan. Two years later, during another training camp, he was promoted to 3rd. Two schools – LKSW Dan from Świdnik and PKSW Azja from Pabianice – grew closer despite the distance of almost 300 kms between them. Annual training camps, joint seminars, tournaments for kids hosted in Pabianice every June together with a Kup grading became new traditions. In 2014 Piotr Bernat and Grzegorz Sokołowski hosted the first seminar with Master Don Dalton, 8th Dan at the time.
– I met GM Don Dalton first in 2000 during the Open World Championships in the Netherlands – recalls Piotr Bernat. – Our junior teams fought in the semifinals. The next meeting was 5 years later during the IUTF Irish Open – lots of great memories, a fantastic trip to Ireland and new friendships. When we were looking for a mentor on our way back into the ITF style, the choice was obvious.
Grandmaster Dalton won the hearts of the Polish practitioners with his down-to-earth view on TKD, friendly attitude, but also demanding classes. This is something that both Polish and Irish practitioners share – they like when their TKD not only looks good, but also feels good.
– Polish TKD students like to fight – says Piotr Bernat. – They enjoy hard workouts, they don’t mind hard contact in sparring. Many of them compete in Kickboxing as well. However, Grandmaster Dalton always shows us that it is possible to be good in sparring and also to excel in patterns. During his seminars there is always a good balance between both aspects of Taekwon-do, competitive and traditional. There are hard physical sessions but also a lot of theory when performing traditional techniques. What is also important – the theory is always put into practice right away. It’s not just sitting on the floor listening to long explanations, it’s always an explanation finishing with “let’s practice it now”.
The two schools have joined the newly formed ITF Union and Grandmaster Dalton became the grading examiner for them. After the first seminar, it was time for an International Instructor Course, and another tradition was born. Until the introduction of Covid restrictions, IICs were hosted in Poland every year.
– Our vision of Taekwon-do has the word “networking” all over it – says Piotr Bernat. – We just enjoy TKD full stop. We don’t care what group hosts an event, if we are invited and if there is a chance to take part, we are there. This is something that ITF Union is also about – no tight control, just a network of like-minded people.
The same idea seems to work between both schools in Poland. Piotr Bernat says jokingly that they are the smallest and most unusual Taekwon-do federation in Poland: one that has no president, one you cannot join, one that doesn’t issue colourful licences and also one that has no formal rules and regulations. The informal project of cooperation is called “Two Teams One Spirit” and continues for 10 years now. Both schools are full members under ITF Union, but also take part in all the possible events both in Poland and abroad. Their students also have a reputation competing in Polish WAKO events.
The Covid pandemics have stopped some of the international activities of the group. Until 2020 both schools regularly travelled to different international tournaments, with the yearly tradition of visiting the LTSI event hosted by Master Chris Snow in England every March.
We believe that we can give our students a chance not only to train, but also to explore the world and different cultures. They also gain self-confidence, they have to manage different tasks associated with travelling abroad, even if they are constantly supervised by the coaches. During our trips to the U.K. we always plan at least one day for sightseeing in London. After publishing a report from one of such trips on our Facebook profile one of our members commented that despite living in London for several years she never had a chance to visit some places we saw with our kids… This is definitely one of the things we miss the most under Covid restrictions – to travel freely and meet like-minded people from different countries sharing the same passion for Martial Arts.
On December 5th, Grzegorz Sokołowski together with some of his students stood there again before a grading panel consisting of Grandmaster Don Dalton and Master Juanito Jr Arsol, assisted by Piotr Bernat and James Waddington.
This time it was different to the grading 15 years before – says Piotr Bernat. – Greg knew exactly what to expect, was well-prepared and passed with flying colours. Moreover, some of his students also received higher grades – he has a number of 1st to 3rd Dan blackbelts training in his club now. From a beginner instructor, someone who was looking for direction, he became one of the best teachers around, a quality 5th Dan. From a student and teacher, we became partners in leading our schools. I am glad that I am also able to receive inspiration from Grzegorz and his team. Isn’t the ultimate aim of a TKD teacher to have a student that surpasses him or her?