Hidden legend heads up taekwondo school

Grandmaster Soo Kim has been practicing taekwondo for more than 55 years and teaches the Peoria area his art in his school, located at 1207 W. Main St.
photos by Kyle Stone

Don’t let its beauty shop storefront fool you; Soo Kim Taekwondo, located at 1207 W. Main St, is home to one of the world’s most respected practitioners of taekwondo: Grandmaster Soo Kim.

Elected to the U.S. Taekwondo Grandmasters Society Hall of Fame in 2014, Kim has been practicing taekwondo for more than 55 years.

“I come from South Korea,” Kim said. “I was amazed by someone who could do [things] like Superman. I was thinking, ‘If I learn martial arts, maybe I can be like Superman.’ Since then, I never stopped.”

Kim said as he progressed through his training, he began competing in the art. Eventually, Kim said he rose to be one of the best competitors in South Korea in the early ‘70s.

“When I was a high school student, I [realized I] had become good,” Kim said. “I competed at [Korean] nationals, and I became the [Korean] national champion, too.”

Not only did Kim compete in the art, but he also said he has traveled to train soldiers in taekwondo.

“In 1971, I went to [South] Vietnam, and I taught there to American G.I. and [South] Vietnamese,” Kim said.

Kim also said he participated in the planning for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics.

“I was there for Seoul, the first time taekwondo became a demonstration sport in the Olympics,” Kim said. “At that time, I helped Korea.”

Kim found his way to the U.S. in 1974 due to an American immigration sponsor selecting him to teach taekwondo. While here, Kim said he also got back into competing.

“I came here and taught for a couple months,” Kim said. “I also won a big tournament in New York and won some money. I became Grand Champion [of the U.S.].”

Kim said he originally taught in Wisconsin but later moved to Peoria because his sponsor suggested it. Then, Kim opened his first school in Peoria on Glen Avenue.

“I visited, and then I opened a school,” Kim said. “Since then, that was 1976, I’ve been [in Peoria]. I moved [to the Main Street location] because I needed more space. I bought this building in 1981.”

While Kim’s school is on Main Street, Kim said he often receives calls to travel to locations around the world to teach his art.

“I’m here, and then I go everywhere,” Kim said. “[I’ve been to] Boston, India and Cyprus. They invite me, I go and I teach [for] just the weekend, and then I come back.”

Kim said he feels rewarded to be able to spread his knowledge and skill with those who may need it in more ways than just the techniques of the art.

“After I became the champion or master instructor, I felt I knew what people needed so I could help,” Kim said. “Not just to try to teach them how to punch other people, [but] just to try to teach how to avoid [getting hurt] … I’m very lucky.”

Other than teaching, Kim now serves as the secretary general of the U.S. Taekwondo Grandmasters Society. He said the position allows him to help taekwondo grow in the U.S.

“I think I know how to help,” Kim said. “I know what’s going on in the world of taekwondo, and I want to help U.S. taekwondo. If they need help, I want to help them.”

Kim said he is grateful for the life he has been able to live because of his commitment to taekwondo.

“I’m very lucky,” Kim said. “Taekwondo has given me food, a car, a house – everything.”

Kim said his love for taekwondo derives from the life skills it can provide to those who practice it.

“Your attitude is very important,” Kim said. “You have [to have] good positive attitude. Whatever you want to do, you can achieve if you really determine your mind and spend the time. Not just a week or one year but 10 years. In 10 years, you will be an expert.”