OLD TOWN, Maine — Tristan Creeley has been kicking, jumping, sparring and sweating his way through the taekwondo circuit since he was 11 years old. As an adult, his passion for martial arts has continued to grow.
“I know there have been times when I entered my taekwondo class after having a rough day … and come out of it feeling like Superman,” he said.
At 39, he is a taekwondo superhero of sorts.
During the day, Creeley works as a middle school educational technician for students with severe cognitive disabilities. When the school day ends, he is a passionate taekwondo competitor and instructor at the Old Town-Orono YMCA.
Creeley spent last Christmas in New York City at an intensive, three-day training program, learning from some of the top taekwondo professionals in the world.
“I believe in looking outside of one’s backyard to find new and better ways of doing things,” he said. “It was all very humbling. I sparred with people light-years better than I was but, hopefully, I came out of it a stronger competitor and better coach.”
Creely recently won the black belt fighting division in the men’s 34-and-over category at the 2016 state championship, the last of nine tournaments throughout the year. He is rated No. 1 in his age division in fighting and forms by the State Martial Arts Ratings and Totals (SMART).
Creeley said the championship was a gratifying and affirming experience.
“I made a plan, stuck to it, worked very hard, made sacrifices and at the end of the year, did it.”
He added that thanks to the sport, he enjoys being able to do most of the things he could do at 18 — some of them even better.
“Big emphasis on some,” he said.
Taekwondo, a Korean martial art, has an emphasis on head-height kicks, jumping and spinning kicks, and fast-kicking techniques. “Tae” means foot, “kwan” means fist, and “do” means “way of,” with taekwondo translating to “the way of the foot and the fist.” It also requires a great deal of mental focus, with discipline and respect as two of the core values.
“The physical conditioning has never been the main challenge for me but being able to stay calm and be fully present in the moment has,” he said. “This year I felt like I made big strides in that area. Knowing I can manage my emotions and quiet the chatter in my head while competing is even more empowering than being faster or more powerful than my opponent.”
And even though he’s seeded No. 1, Creeley still has goals for his martial arts career. In addition to having a black belt in taekwondo, he competes on the open sport Karate circuit.
“My dream would be to get on a sponsored team and travel the North American circuit as well as compete overseas,” he said.
Creeley, who has been involved in martial arts for more than 25 years, teaches taekwondo to children at the Old Town-Orono YMCA. He hopes eventually to coach a successful youth sport karate team.
He’d love to find a sponsor who would be willing to financially support a team at the Y as he already has some students who will be traveling to southern Maine to compete in March.
Known to his students as “Mr. C,” he said teaching has been extremely rewarding.
“I love watching the moment when something clicks for a student, those ‘aha’ moments. I love being a part of that. I love seeing people do things they never thought they could, and the feeling of pride when that occurs,” he said.
Katie Rossignol’s son David, 5, has been one of Creeley’s students at the Y since September. He is one of the youngest in the class and is doing better with not only his chops and his kicks, but also with listening.
“Tristan is a great educator,” Rossignol said, adding that Creeley has to adjust his teaching style for the various ages in the class, but that he has a deep respect for the learning levels of all his students. “He makes it fun, and is so compassionate with his students,” she said.
Mikhail Prostatin, 7, is from Ukraine and this is his first year in the United States. His mother, Julia Clark, said that after training, Mikhail often likes to practice the moves he learned in class.
“No one made him do that,” Clark said. “His coach just makes the children interested.”
Clark said she wants her son to train hard, but also to have fun and learn responsibility.
Along with a few other students in the class, Mikhail will soon participate independently in his first competition.
“I’ve observed many classes and I see he has a special way he speaks with the children. They listen to him because he speaks with them like friends,” Clark said.
Old Town-Orono YMCA Youth Activities and Sports Director Jeremy Langley echoed that statement.
“He’s a good fit here,” he said. “He’s an educator, and has a way with kids that not a lot of people possess.”
Creeley teaches multiple sessions at the Y, offering semi-private lessons and sparring lessons to students of all ages.
The program has been active for about six months and has already expanded from eight to 14 students with the inclusion of intermediate and beginner classes. Langley would like to add an advanced class and a competing team.
Creeley, a Hudson native, has competed all over the country and trained for many years in California. Most of his methods are not found anywhere else in Maine.
“A lot of things in the sport I had to go out and find. I want to say to my students, ‘I did the searching for you, here it is!’”
Learning a sport like taekwondo, though difficult, is worthwhile.
“Kids will become more flexible, improve their hand-eye and foot-eye coordination, build strength and endurance, develop body awareness, [and] improve agility,” he said.
The class also serves to provide self-defense training, but Creeley discourages fighting of any kind beyond controlled sparring and said it is important that children have the tools to protect themselves if they were ever in danger.
Creeley said he never stops learning, an attitude that has served him well throughout his training and one he hopes to pass on to his students. His motto is simple and powerful, whether training in taekwondo or elsewhere: “Stay curious and have fun.”