Epitomizing Greatness

July 11, 2014, 11:23 a.m. (ET)

By Ryan Lucas

Deep in the labyrinthine halls of the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, immersed in the constant pressure and endless noise of a national event, Zachery Budde centered his thoughts last weekend.

Then and now, another gold medal to his credit, the teenager’s mindset is unchanging.

Success in sports can be dizzying at times. And few 17-year-old athletes can set their equilibrium and see the focal point of competition with such clarity.

Whether coaching young athletes or fighting at an elite level Budde strives to have fun and help others. The standout—who received the 2014 Chris Canning Award of Excellence last week at the USA Taekwondo National Championships in San Jose, Calif.—refuses to let the obsession to win fray his nerves or sway his values.

“If you expect to win every time, it’s not always going to work out for you,” the soon-to-be high school senior from Maple Grove, Minn., said last Sunday in San Jose. “But if you go out there and have fun and do your best, you can always be happy with yourself at the end of the day.”

These days, Budde has countless reasons to be pleased with his own efforts.

Eager from the beginning

At age 4, Budde was an augur of sorts with martial arts. His declaration of a future accomplishment soon formed the structure of his strength and potential in taekwondo.

“I told my parents before I even started in taekwondo that I was going to be a black belt,” he said. “When I got to that point I made sure that I hit every single deadline so I could test and get there when I could, and I ended up getting my black belt.”

While that exact moment of foresight is just a vague sketch in the overall scenery of his memories, Budde does know that the goal pulled him into the sport for good.

“My family tells me about it, so I don’t remember it clearly,” he said. “With taekwondo, it just becomes a big part of your life, so it just grows from there.”

Not long after his parents enrolled him in a course with Grandmaster Eui Lee at the local parks and recreation department, Budde blossomed into a star pupil. As the years passed and his prowess grew, he learned to transplant his elements of success into younger peers.

“From there, I went to wanting to do my best as a black belt and helping younger kids compete,” Budde said. “I wanted to become an all-around martial artist.”

Now, as a member of the USA Taekwondo Junior National Team with a catalog of medals and academic achievements to his credit, the young man continues to create larger ambitions.

“My motivation is mainly to just have fun and do my best,” Budde, who on Monday won his second consecutive gold medal in the Junior World Class Sparring division at the USA Taekwondo National Championships, said. “Every tournament’s a new tournament, and anything can happen, so I just go out there and have fun.

“I want to try to get to the Olympics, but you never know. Either way, I’m just going to be happy with what comes and accepting as it goes. All you can do is just keep trying.”

Giving back

Generosity is a talent.

After years of honing his skill in giving to others, Budde is a consummate volunteer and coach—one of the overarching reasons for his selection as the Chris Canning Award of Excellence.

“He’s back there with his kids in the holding area and giving pointers and getting lunches for them and holding targets,” USA Taekwondo Assistant National Team Coach Sherman Nelson said. “He’s talked to me often about the mission trips he’s gone on to help and serve other people, and you just don’t hear that coming from a lot of teenagers in our culture today.

“He’s an incredible young man with a wonderful spirit.”

In the minds of the USA Taekwondo Selection Committee, Budde embodies all the characteristics of the award’s guidelines.

“He’s a great taekwondo player, but he’s an even better person,” USA Taekwondo Olympic Coach Jason Poos said. “He’s one of the most positive people I’ve ever been with on a national team, and that kind of thing is infectious.

“He helps the team stay positive and helps others around him, and it shows in the respect he gives other people. I think a lot of stems from his relationship with his parents. He’s the kind of guy that this award was made for.”

As a coach at World Taekwondo Academy in his hometown, Budde works with numerous athletes between the ages of 3 and 15. In each student, he tries to instill the same indefatigable approach to training and having fun that he brings to the mat.

“I have kids at nationals this year, and I’ve seen them grow from white belts to black belts and second-degree black belts,” Budde said. “Now they’re competing at this level and winning their fights. They may not medal, but they’re enjoying their time and happy with the results.

“To me, it’s more of an accomplishment to watch that and be a part of their lives and help that much.”

Although a distant blip on the timeline of his life, Budde believes that he will coach taekwondo athletes on a full-time basis someday.

“Coaching and teaching would be great things for me,” Budde said. “You’d just get to see how many lives you can affect so easily and how you can change them for the better.”

Loving his family and keeping his head

Budde credits his family as the greatest source of his inspiration.

“He comes from a household where love is taught and kindness is taught and manners are taught,” Nelson said. “He brings those qualities to all areas of his life.”

Budde has applied for admission to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., with the answer to arrive in February 2015. Aside from the lure of competing in taekwondo around the world as a representative of the armed services, he also seeks to trail the imprints of his grandfathers’ footsteps.

“They were both in the navy, and I just want to carry on their tradition,” Budde said. “You get to see the world and do taekwondo, so it would be a great experience.”

First in the Osseo High School class of 2015 with a grade point average of 4.028, Budde says he’s eager to pursue taekwondo and academics at the next level. As always, however, he plans to follow the beacon of his logic along the way.

“If you focus on only winning—not looking around, meeting people, seeing all there is to see in the sport and being happy to be part of it—you will burn out,” Budde said. “I just want to see the world, be with my family and friends and enjoy what I’m doing.”

Counting on personal strength

During competition, Budde leans on his sturdy framework of self-confidence and muscle memory. Years of training six days per week allows him to stay comfortable in the moment.

“You just have to trust your body to do what it does and what it’s been trained to do,” he said. “If your body’s ready and you’re mentally ready, you’ve got everything you need, and it’ll work itself out.

“You also have to listen to your coach; you always have a second set of eyes, and you have to respect that.”

And while the wins continue to come, Budde is ever-wary of the notion that victory trumps all else. Like a snake devouring its own tail, that circuitous thinking can define—and contribute to the eventual decline of—many athletes.

“You win a tournament, but what are you going to do after that? You’re going to try to win again, and it becomes an endless circle,” Budde said. “I’ve seen people do it, and I’ve seen people push others away as they do it, so it becomes an endless circle that doesn’t always turn out very well.

“But if you have fun with it and do the best you can do, you’ll always be happy—no matter if you win or lose. You just can’t take everything super personally; you have to take everything as a learning experience.”

In the inimitable essence of a champion, as Budde learns, he also defines his greatness.

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