Slide Show: The newest (and youngest) black belt around

Whack! In the blink of an eye, 8-year-old Billy Donahue of Greenport had split two 1-inch-thick boards in two. But that was just one feat that demonstrated his prowess in the art of tae kwon do Saturday. When the trials were over, Billy stood triumphantly in the middle of the mat.

His small waist was now adorned with the mighty black belt.

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The Greenport Elementary School third-grader has been practicing the Korean martial art techniques for more than two years, starting initially three days a week and quickly expanding to six days a week at Expert Martial Arts in Aquebogue.

“We’re all really excited to see him perform,” instructor Carmen Jessup said on Friday, the day before Billy earned his belt. He had considered testing in December, but he and his instructors and family decided another few months of preparation would ensure his success.

Ms. Jessup described Billy as “nervous and excited” about a test that went beyond his physical prowess and ability to demonstrate his “indomitable spirit” to include foreign language skills and courtesy. He was required to learn many Korean terms, she said.

For a demanding hour and a half, Billy had to demonstrate self defense techniques, which included sparring and kicking. Beyond the physical elements, the boy’s spirit, self-control, discipline, perseverance, courtesy and respect, integrity, empathy and courage all were put to the test, Ms. Jessup said.

He also had to write an essay about what tae kwon do has done for him.

“Mostly, tae kwon do has given me self-esteem,” Billy wrote. “It makes me feel good about my physical condition and my ability to succeed at anything that I try. It’s helping me to be the best person that I can be.”

His father agreed. “His self-esteem is through the roof,” said Bill Donahue.

Billy began his training under Master Kim, who ran a martial arts business in the same business where Expert Martial Arts currently operates. The boy was determined from the beginning to learn the skills to teach and — in his mind, if it ever were necessary — to be able to protect his instructor. When Master Kim died a year ago, Billy continued his studies with masters Sung Choi and Joongwoo Kang, and Ms. Jessup.

Never once in his training has he asked to skip a session, Mr. Donahue said. The sport’s demands make it a family affair, with parents Bill and Brenda Donahue coordinating their son’s schedule and driving him to training sessions, religious lessons at St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport and Cub Scout activities.

They’re not complaining, because the discipline of tae kwon do and lessons on courtesy and respect are serving him well in school and all other aspects of his life.

“These guys provide such a positive mentoring to kids,” Mr. Donahue said about the instructors. Billy and other students also discuss the dangers of substance abuse, bullying and of unhealthy interactions with strangers, he said.
“He’s what you’d call a strong-willed child,” Mr. Donahue said. But he’s not referring to stubbornness, rather his son’s determination to put in the necessary time and effort to learn and perform ably.

“He’s a good boy,” Mr. Donahue said, with no small amount of pride in his voice.

Asked where he gets his bravery, Billy said, “My dad.” Mr. Donahue is a former chief and current member of the East Marion Fire Department.

When Billy isn’t training or doing schoolwork, he still finds time for kid stuff, his parents said, like bike riding, swimming, skiing and Lego construction. And he’s “a savant” at video games, Mr. Donahue said.

In fact, it was video games that first attracted Billy to tae kwon do. He wanted to start training at age 5, but his parents made him wait a year. At 6, his determination was undiminished, his father said.

Billy said his long-term goal is to join the ranks of the masters of tae kwon do.

Toward that end, he has several black belt levels yet to achieve.

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BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Black belt martial arts instructors and co-owners Sung Choi (left) and Joongwoo Kang administer the 'black belt' test to Billy Donahue (center).