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Master Instructor John O’Kelly on Paying Attention to the Signs

Friday, June 25th, 2010

“I grew up in a little cow town without a stop light. When I went to Troy, New York for college, I thought it was a huge city. It was in Troy that I started to learn martial arts. I had always been interested in it, but started studying taekwondo at the age of 17. Ever since then, I have committed my life to martial arts and am now a sixth degree black belt.

The thing was that I did not want to be in the marital arts business anymore. I just wanted to teach.

“I opened my first martial arts school in 1985 outside of Albany, New York. The school grew to over 550 students and we had five classrooms and a staff of ten teachers. We did birthday parties, sleepovers, and parents’ night out. The thing was that I did not want to be in the marital arts business. I just wanted to teach. I eventually met someone in Washington, D.C. and ended up moving here and leaving my business. It felt like the right decision at the time for me.

“My first year down here, I kicked around and did a bunch of things, like kickboxing instruction. I later got a full-time job working for a health club. The whole time I was here, I saw these signs that I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was meant to teach martial arts. The marital arts has a strong connection to spirituality. You have to be aware of the things around you and what they mean in your life.

“One day, I was walking in Brookland and saw a store front with a ‘for rent’ sign. For me, that was the sign and moment when I knew that I needed to open a martial arts school in D.C. It was as simple as that. I was always amazed at how small the industry was in Washington. It was crazy to me that you could count the number of martial arts schools in the city on one hand. When I left the Albany area, which is roughly the same size as D.C., there were 63 martial arts schools. That was always surprising to me because there seemed to be so much interest here.

“So I left my job and opened my school, Northeast Taekwondo. Interestingly, that was the name of my school up in New York. There, it was named after the Capital District of New York, which is called the Great Northeast. Here, I happened to the open the studio in Northeast D.C., so it was another one of those signs that this was what I was supposed to be doing. This time, I wanted to do the school my way. I didn’t want to do the business of karate anymore or run around after people, especially now that there is a new Karate Kid movie. I just wanted to teach. I want this to be a place that sticks to the pure elements of martial arts and attracts those interested in learning.

“In my time in D.C., I have come to love this city and think it is a great place to live. Like the flag of South Korea, which is half blue and half red because of the theory of universal duality, you are going to have the good and the bad here. Sometimes I can get overwhelmed with city life, but all I have to do is drive down Constitution Avenue and see the monuments to think about how fortunate I am to live here and how much I love the city. There is not another city in the world like D.C.”

Master Instructor John O’Kelly is the owner of Northeast Taekwondo at 3520 12th Street Northeast.

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  1. I had the pleasure of being one of Jon’s students in upstate Ny in the early 90’s. After 4 years there, I blew out my knee and never went back. I hope someday to get my black belt..I was soooo close! It is great to see Jon is doing so well in D.C.! He is an amazing teacher and was born to do it!
    Michelle Nolan
    Clifton Park, N.Y.

    Comment by Michelle Regnier-Nolan — January 6, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

  2. I had the unbelievable honor of being a student of Master O’Kelly’s in upstate NY from the age of 12 through 22. I grew as a person and a student. He is an amazing person, instructor and athlete. From the small school it started out to well over 500 kids he knew every student and their entire family. Any place is honored to have him as a person and a teacher.

    Comment by Adriane Skiba — January 29, 2011 @ 3:34 pm

  3. I had the pleasure of knowing Jon before the Taekwondo bug bit. We shared many a good time, working in a local grocery store while going to school, playing sports (we should have known something was up when he started playing basketball with bare feet) and enjoying my alma mater in his home town of Oneonta, N.Y. Great memories of my Irish brother. Nice catching up to Jon, after all these years.
    P.S. We share the same hairline!

    Comment by Brian O'Connell — December 26, 2011 @ 9:46 pm

  4. Do you remember me from upstate New york. Made 2nd Black in Tae Kwon Do and Brown in Hapkido. You were a great teacher.They were great memories.

    Comment by Robert Joslin — October 24, 2012 @ 11:47 am

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