By Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta
Nicholas Heinstohn, 11, of Budd Lake, and Srivalli Zalluri, 13, of Hackettstown, are blackbelts in taekwondo and plan to compete in the U.S. Open tournament in Las Vegas from Jan. 30 to Feb. 4, 2017.
Both students practice at the Dragon Den in Budd Lake. The Dragon Den is owned by Samantha Thomas who is also a trainer. Thomas, who has had the studio for four years, said that “both students definitely put in the hard work and don’t miss a single practice.”
At the tournament, Nicholas will be fighting/sparing and Srivalli will be doing Poomsae – a form of patterns that goes with the black belt level. Srivalli will also be doing a free style choreographed piece. She’s been training since she was nine.
What set Nicholas and Srivalli apart from the others, aside from all the hard work to get to the level they are at, is that they and their parents are willing to travel. Thomas said, “The parents get really involved watching what they eat; being responsible with the schoolwork.”
While Nicholas, who is very much into sports, is more seasoned at taekwondo, this is the first time Srivalli is doing something of this magnitude.
“She gets perfect grades,” said Thomas. “She’s into giving everything her best. She’s very dedicated to what we’re working on right now.”
Though there will always be hurdles, Thomas said the taekwondo group tries to maintain as a team by encouraging each other.
“That’s what sets us apart from other schools,” she said. “There’s a lot of martial arts schools in the area. We’re the only ones who compete at the level we do. We’re part of the U.S. Association of Taekwondo. That’s how the kids are getting into high level.”
Thomas, herself, has been practicing 15 years.
“For me, growing up, it was my passion,” she said, “coupled along with wanting to impact kids’ lives and give them opportunities and reach their fullest potential as people, using taekwondo as my tool to help the kids in the community.”
The U.S. Open is an international competition with competitors from all over the world, but Nicholas and Srivalli had no doubt they’d get in.
“It’s very elite-level competition,” said Thomas. “For them [Nicholas and Srivalli], they very much expected it because they put in the effort and they worked for it. I try to instill in them that every opportunity is theirs for the taking. They were a little confident they were going to win.”
Thomas is indeed pleased with her students. She said, “I see how much they push themselves. It makes me very proud that they are learning to set their own goals, starting from such a young age to be ambitious, but in a good way.”
Since there is so much travel involved and taekwondo is an expensive sport, the Dragon Den is fundraising for their team to help support the athletes. Thomas said, “We have a Go Fund Me page that goes directly to them.”
For more information, visit: https://www.dragonsdenmartialarts.com/.