Running On Volunteer Work

July 15, 2014, 10:39 a.m. (ET)

By Ryan Lucas

For Olympic sports organizations, athletes are the lifeblood of any major event.

From the perspective of nonprofit entities, however, volunteers form the limbs that piece together and maneuver all the moving parts of those competitions.

The 2014 USA Taekwondo National Championships led thousands of athletes, coaches, referees, administrators, staff members and fans to and through the San Jose McEnery Convention Center. Often behind the scenes, sometimes on the floor, hundreds of volunteers toiled like wheelwork for days on end.

All week, sore feet and fatigued minds became the norm for these helpers.

“I tell people that these are the seven or eight hardest days of my year,” USA Taekwondo National Team Assistant Coach Sherman Nelson who, with Olympic Coach Jason Poos and National Collegiate Taekwondo Association Advisory Board Member Rex Hatfield, ran the tournament’s oversight committee, said.

“It’s not easy to move 3,800 to 4,000 athletes from outside through all the processes that we have to the medal stand.”

In the end, the ultimate objective is always the same: to promote taekwondo and showcase its top competitors from across the country.

“I want people to love taekwondo the way that I love it,” Nelson said. “I want to help create an experience that help people love it like I do; this is my 28th year (at nationals), and I’m madly in love with taekwondo, and I want other people to have that same passion.”

Here are the testimonials of two other people, both volunteers, who now share Nelson’s enthusiasm for the sport:

Cassie Roberts

Cassie Roberts keeps one of her first mementos from a USA Taekwondo National Championship tournament in her home—even though it’s split in two.

“It’s a tradition that when you break your first board, the coaches sign it,” Roberts, who just wrapped up work at her sixth nationals, said. “I have one at my house with a lot of tournament committee member signatures on it.”

A resident of Austin, Texas, Roberts volunteered for her first nationals when her town hosted the event in 2009. The following summer, she did an internship for USA Taekwondo while completing a master’s degree in sports management at the University of Texas.

Now, as a director of partnership for Saffire Events, a company that specializes in website development at events, she considers taekwondo akin to a favorite hobby—even though she’s never competed.

“That makes me really unique on our tournament committee, since most members have a taekwondo school or coach in the sport,” Roberts said. “I have a completely different background. When I come here to work a tournament, it’s like an alternate life.

“That’s another reason I really enjoy it, though, since it exposes me to something totally different than I’m used to for two or three weeks out of the year.”

Every year, Roberts dedicates her time to USA Taekwondo because she believes in the sport’s many positive attributes.

“I really love taekwondo because I think it promotes a lot of discipline and respect, and it’s really fun to watch,” she said. “I think it’s the best martial art, for sure.”

Larry Wilson

The teaching methods are far different. But the messages within the curricula are similar.

For 32 years, Larry Wilson sought to promote leadership qualities in students as a teacher in educational development at the University of Illinois. Now, for the second straight year, he’s taken part in another enterprise of higher learning—albeit one that uses headgear and chest protectors on a mat.

“Throughout my professional career, I worked in many development programs, and I see many of the same qualities in taekwondo and the leadership traits that those programs tried to instill in young people, so it’s kind of a natural fit that way,” Wilson, a resident of Evanston, Ill., said.

Wilson, who also volunteers for the Illinois chapter of the American Shorthorn Association, said taekwondo made an enduring impression on him last year at the 2013 National Championships—his first experience with the sport.

“The first thing I noticed in Chicago was the respect in the culture and the tradition of that—not only in the coaches and athletes, but in everyone else associated with it,” Wilson, who oversaw the volunteers on the floor at this year’s event, said. “Then there’s the athletic prowess of it and the ability to defend oneself.”

Wilson foresees numerous chances to learn more about taekwondo—as well as shorthorn cattle—as a future volunteer.

“I had a chance to retire early, and I took that opportunity,” Wilson said. “Now I’m giving back, as we all say and want to do. I’m just trying to set the example to give back to your community—whatever that community may be.”