Charting Another New Frontier

July 15, 2014, 10:28 a.m. (ET)

By Ryan Lucas

As taekwondo players, Cheryl Kalanoc and Sharon Jewell were trailblazers. Their efforts on and off the mat in the 1980s helped advance the sport, which the International Olympic Committee later incorporated from its uncharted frontier of athletics.

Now, more than 25 years after they competed at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, when taekwondo served as a demonstration sport for the first time, Jewell and Kalanoc are pioneers on a new path.

Through work as referees, the pair is again trying to map the landscape of taekwondo. The two women served for all six days of sparring and poomsae last week at the 2014 USA Taekwondo National Championships in San Jose, Calif.

“It’s been good, and it’s been fun,” Jewell, who won a bronze medal in the middleweight category at the Seoul Games, said. “I wanted to get back involved in taekwondo, and several people had asked me to come back. Several of us were concerned about the direction of taekwondo, and I thought that as an Olympian I could step up to the plate.

“Very few Olympians have decided to come back to the sport and referee. Usually it’s with coaching or working in schools or camps, but I’ve always enjoyed refereeing.”

Both women are less than a year into their new endeavors in the sport. Both women feel as though they have renewed their place in the taekwondo world.

“This is my place, and this is where I need to be,” Kalanoc, who finished fifth at the Seoul Games in the finweight division, said. “I need to help build a foundation of referees who are former athletes and then help keep that foundation strong.”

Kalanoc spent almost two decades away from the sport after winning countless state and national tournaments over an 11-year span. Upon hearing from peers and administrators in late 2013, she was so eager she had to fight the notion of a comeback.

“I came back and was ready to go, and they told me, ‘You know we were only kidding, Cheryl,” she said with a laugh of training again. “But they said I could referee, and they started telling me how important that is and how the sport needs former athletes to become referees.

“Now that I’ve become a referee and am trying to become a better referee, I see how important it is for athletes to take that step and become referees. It just makes the sport stronger, I think.”

Jewell, who competed from 1978 to 1992 but also spent a long hiatus away from taekwondo, is excited to help streamline the sport for everyone involved. The game has gone through many alterations in the past 20 years, and all sides involved need well-versed mediators.

“The athletes have changed, the rules have changed, the technology has changed and the gear has changed,” Jewell said. “From a referee’s standpoint, I think the most challenging aspect is keeping everyone on the same page.

“You go to clinics and referees’ meetings, but then you come here and you have all these different constituents of the game, so the greatest challenge is keeping everyone together. Administrators of the game pass new rule changes all the time; coaches and athletes have to be aware of all the rule changes and how they can affect their performance, training and strategy; and the referees have to be able to implement all those changes.

“All three groups are always evolving. This (sport) is a living organism.”

And all of the interrelated parts of the sport have taken a positive approach to Kalamac’s and Jewell’s transition. Some established referees even began to greet them with levity.

“They’ve been calling it ‘The Dark Side,’” Kalanoc said with a laugh. “They’ve been saying, ‘Welcome to our dark side.’ There’s nothing dark about being a referee, though.”