Kathy Coles has accomplished what no other woman has.
The Otsego resident recently earned her 8th Degree Dan Black Belt in Song Moo Kwon Tae Kwon Do, making her the first female Grand Master in the world.
This news came as a surprise to her. After passing her test in June, she posted a photo of herself with Grand Master Hee Ro, her instructor and the son of the founder of Tae Kwon Do, Byung Jick Ro.
A Grand Master in Ireland asked if she was the first female to achieve this title and Grand Master Ro confirmed there were no records of any other woman with this ranking.
Coles has been active in martial arts for 38 years. Along with her husband, Joel, she travels to Minneapolis once a week to the World Martial Arts Center, where they both train with Grand Master Ro.
Learning self-defense was the initial reason Coles decided to pursue Tae Kwon Do, and her first exposure was through Community Ed classes. Although most people think about martial arts classes being for kids, she started her training as an adult and quickly rose up the ranks.
“I’ve always been active, so for me I didn’t mind trying something new.”
After the Community Ed class, Coles transferred to the Tae Kwon Do studio her husband opened in Big Lake and continued her training there. He is currently a 9th Degree Dan Black Belt, the highest rank available. Coles intends to continue her training and achieve this rank, as well, and she credits the support she has received from the other Grand Masters at the World Martial Arts Center, including Grand Master Ro himself.
“I am very fortunate to have a Korean instructor who is open to my abilities,” she said.
Earning an initial black belt can take approximately four years, Coles explained.
“From there, it’s just a matter of continuing your training.”
Each increased degree in black belt rank takes roughly the same number of years to achieve. For example, a 2nd degree would take approximately two years, a 3rd degree three years, and so on.
Testing includes forms, or routines, and Coles shared what was required for her 8th degree test: “One was an empty hand form for my rank level. I did one lower color belt form, and then I did a weapons form.”
The double-knife form required Coles to have a weapon in each hand and use them for blocking and striking in the routine.
Coles anticipates testing for and earning her 9th degree, which should take about eight and a half years. For Coles, the time investment is worth it.
She credits her involvement in Tae Kwon Do with building her self-confidence, and she also loves how it has impacted her life in larger ways. In addition to taking classes, Coles and her husband teach Tae Kwon Do, and have taught martial arts for decades.
After running studios in Big Lake and Elk River, they currently offer classes at a studio on their property in Otsego for ages 7 and up.
“We’ve helped a lot of people,” she said when talking about Coles Tae Kwon Do. She spoke about helping kids build their confidence and teaching them how to handle bullying, as well as working with teenage girls and women to empower them and help learn self-defense techniques.
“Everyone should know some self-defense,” Coles said, and she is passionate when speaking about why Tae Kwon Do is the perfect way to learn these skills. “Tae Kwon Do training is good for you physically, plus it gives you that mental confidence to apply yourself to other things. It gives you that courage you need to know that ‘I can do this.’ ”