Jhoon Rhee, 1932 - 2018
The martial artist who popularized taekwondo in the U.S.
When Jhoon Rhee began teaching taekwondo in Washington, D.C., in 1962, the Korean martial art was virtually unknown in the U.S. Rhee kicked the sport into the mainstream. He set up 11 taekwondo studios in the capital and trained instructors who set up their own gyms across the nation. He went on to exchange fighting tips with Bruce Lee, teach Muhammad Ali a new punching technique, and train the action hero Chuck Norris. And for 45 years, Rhee provided free taekwondo lessons to some 250 members of Congress, including Joe Biden and Newt Gingrich. “I [gave] them free uniforms, free videotapes, my free time,” he said, “just to express my thanks to the U.S. for all it’s done for me.”
Born in Asan, in what is now South Korea, Rhee “eagerly studied martial arts” growing up, said The New York Times. He worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Air Force following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and eight years later moved to Texas to attend college. After launching his taekwondo business, Rhee became a “tireless ambassador” for the martial art. He “developed and manufactured pads to reduce injuries,” and devised martial arts “ballets” in which performers kicked and punched in time to classical music.
After selling his business in the 1980s, Rhee “focused on introducing taekwondo to the former Soviet Union,” said The Washington Post. He continued his grueling daily workout—which included at least 1,000 sit-ups, several hundred pushups, and countless kicks and punches—into old age. In 2002, the then-70-year-old Rhee impressed a visiting reporter by dropping into a split and then slowly bending forward until his face touched the floor, remarking, “I couldn’t do this 15 years ago.”