Always Leading by Example

July 10, 2014, 12:31 p.m. (ET)

By Ryan Lucas

Every day, almost everywhere in the world, players and coaches scale the many levels in the hierarchy of taekwondo.

But no athlete or teacher ever ascends beyond the doctrine of the sport. Like a canopy of stars in the night sky, the tenets of discipline, respect, indomitable spirit, integrity and courtesy, among others, spread far and wide overhead.

Three lifelong students humbled themselves before that all-encompassing universe last week at the 2014 USA Taekwondo National Championships in San Jose, Calif. For Scott Browning, Will Pace and Lemma Raya, the achievement of fifth-degree black belt means more in the larger framework of setting examples for others than in individual accolades.

After all, what is a master of any aspect of life but a master student?

“It’s good for my students to see that I also go through due process,” Master Browning, who runs the Vancouver (Wash.) Taekwondo Academy and has dedicated 30 years to the sport, said. “I’m not just the guy who cracks the whip and gives the orders; I’m also the guy who takes the orders and abides by the same principles.”

Each member of the honored trio went through years of testing and training to reach the rank of fifth dan. Each one seeks to disperse that fortune of knowledge to his athletes.

“I teach my students honor and discipline,” Master Raya, who moved to the United States from his birthplace of Ethiopia and teaches at King TaeKwonDo in Porter Ranch, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, said. “I want to be the best person I can be and be an example for my students.”

“I push my students and continue to ask them to get better, and this kind of gave me the opportunity to practice what I preach to them,” Master Pace, who’s spent 34 years in the sport and now runs Pace Academy Taekwondo in Salt Lake City, said. “It just adds to my credibility to know that I’ve done it.”

Pace competed for 12 years before making the switch to coaching and teaching. His academy includes more than 100 students, many of whom will continue to participate through next week at the 2014 National Championships.

In his youth, Pace learned from his masters and watched them rise through the upper strata of the sport. In turn, several of his protégés witnessed his feat this week.

“I was fortunate enough to have some very strong masters who did some testing in front of me,” Pace said. “I watched masters train and do things like this, and now my students got that same opportunity.”

Browning, who competed at his first National Championships in 1988 and his last in 2010, wants to maintain his pursuit of learning in taekwondo at an unrelenting pace. Much like his two peers, his goals to train others are limitless.

“My ambitions are taekwondo at an elite level,” Browning, who trains approximately 60 students at his school, said. “I train athletes for high performance, so it means that I get fewer students. The grassroots is more challenging in that respect.”

Also immersed in all levels of the sport, Raya will strive to become a grandmaster. His objective is 2020 or 2021 for that ultimate benchmark, which will entail even more work than his latest achievement.

“In taekwondo, you can never stop learning,” Raya, who trains more than 100 students, said. “There’s always something new to experience, and you can then pass that knowledge on to all the people possible.”

Still, regardless of the immeasurable amount of wisdom available in the sport, the three teachers are centered in the moment.

“I’d like to continue to further my dan ranking, but the short-term goal is to be the best coach I can be,” Pace said. “I just want to continue to lead by example.”

“You have to lead by example,” Browning said. “It’s good for my students to know that I can do all that I make them strive for, too.”

“It’s best to be the best coach you can be,” Raya said. “That’s why we do this.”