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Continuing the Tae Kwon Do Tradition
By Brenda Dobson, Russ Dobson, and Janna Guerdet
In 2014 when Grandmaster Robert Sledge bought the Tae Kwon Do school, Martial Arts America, from Grandmaster Don Wells and his wife, Master Bonnie Wells, he knew he had big shoes to fill. Located in Ankeny, Iowa, a city with a population of more than 46,000, Martial Arts America has one full-time location, a Tiny Tigers program for 4 to 6 year old children, and 10 branch locations making it the largest central Iowa Tae Kwon Do school. The school has close ties to Grandmaster Woojin Jung, who moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, from Korea over 30 years ago in order to teach Tae Kwon Do in the U.S.
Martial Arts America is a traditional Tae Kwon Do school with deep roots back to 1985 when GM Wells opened the branch school. GM Sledge has been a part of that history and growth since September 1986 when he began his own Tae Kwon Do journey. His son, Kenny Sledge, had started training earlier and GM Sledge was frequently encouraged to start training with his son by other adult students training with their families. Kenny continued his Tae Kwon Do training and achieved the rank of 3rd Dan.
Black belt beginnings. GM Sledge tested for his Black Belt in February 1989. Within a year of earning his Black Belt he took over a branch, a moment he describes as a “White Belt Time” – scary, exciting, awakening, and expanding because it was the start of something new (November 2015, TKD Times). He continued to teach and participate in seminars, demonstrations, parades, and tournaments as he trained and tested for higher ranks. He developed a database that generates ring assignments based on age and rank of the competitors for the Martial Arts America annual invitational tournament. He worked hard to pay back everything Tae Kwon Do had given him both in the dojang and in his work life. As GM Sledge wrote in one of his papers for a higher dan test, “My work has been greatly influenced over the years. Taking on challenges, doing things that no one else wanted to do, and taking on responsibilities to make a difference for my fellow employees all can be tied back to being a Black Belt.”
Transition from instructor to owner. In 2014 GM Sledge retired from the City of Ankeny’s Public Works after 35 years and bought the Tae Kwon Do school, Martial Arts America, and in his words, “became a White Belt again.” Now it was his turn to lead, coordinate and direct a school with a rich history and tradition. Under his management, Martial Arts America continues to be a traditional Tae Kwon Do school that respects and honors the legacy left in his care from GM Don Wells and his wife, GM Bonnie Wells, and a school that is still closely affiliated with GM Jung. GM Don Wells continues to be involved with the school and GM Sledge welcomes his participation. GM Bonnie Wells reflects on the beginning of the school and passing their legacy on to GM Sledge, “Twenty one years ago GM Wells and I decided to name our new school Martial Arts America. We had already trained many students, who were counting on having a place to train for years to come, and what mattered the most to me was our responsibility to them to provide that place. Seventeen years and many students later, as we looked toward retirement, that same loyalty to our students was number one in determining how Martial Arts America could continue without us. It was apparent to us that Master Sledge was the man for the job and fortunately he was up for the challenge.”
GM Sledge sets high expectations for students inside and outside of the dojang. He leads by example with his active participation in the fund raising events, such as the annual fun run and board breaking event sponsored by the Martial Artists for Children and Community, a 501c3 non-profit organization closely affiliated with Martial Arts America. A highlight of each board breaking event is when GM Sledge breaks 100 boards, a tradition established by GM Don Wells.
Outreach and recruiting for new students is always a priority for the school. Martial Arts America has something to offer for students from 4 years old and up. GM Sledge maintains the focus on families at the school and takes great pride in the number of students who are training with immediate family members. This philosophy is reflected in Joanna Larsen’s comment, “My kids have loved doing Tae Kwon Do for the past (almost) 2 years. I love having an activity for them to do together, encourage one another and push each other to work hard. They have persevered when it’s gotten tough and have steadily moved up in rank to brown, looking forward to being black belts. The homeschool (daytime) class has been great, an activity during the day so we can be home at night.”
Jeri Cain also shared her thoughts about the emphasis on family. “I wanted to get some exercise and learn some self defense. I found both and so much more. This is a family and community that give incredible support. I started very late in life, so it is never too late to begin. My daughters and granddaughter have trained with me and it is a wonderful bonding experience.”
This focus is also very important to GM Bonnie Wells who shared her thoughts about GM Sledge and the family friendly environment he promotes. “We are so proud of him. He works hard each and every day to make Martial Arts America the great school that it continues to be. These days I walk through those beloved doors with four grandchildren. What a blessing it is to share my Tae Kwon Do family with my children and their children, knowing with or without me they are always in good hands.”
This feeling about being with family was expressed by Master Jim Douglas (Douglas Karate) when he talked about the annual Martial Arts America Invitational Tournament, “Master Sledge, the students and instructors at Martial Arts America are a great family. They warmly greet guests and take the time to make you feel welcome. We have not missed their yearly tournament in so long I can’t remember. Every student from our school looks forward to it every year. This past October we took 45 students and everyone came away with the best experience we could have hoped for. Martial Arts America is truly a ‘family’ environment.”
Changing lives. It is a common occurrence for parents of Martial Arts America students to share stories about how Tae Kwon Do made a visible difference in their child’s life. Billie Moffet recently shared the impact of Tae Kwon Do on her daughter, Jaydan. “Tae Kwon Do has been such a unique experience for my daughter, Jaydan. She is very shy, nervous to interact with those she does not know, and normally reluctant to try new things, so when she told me she wanted to try Tae Kwon Do I was surprised to say the least. After a few months I started noticing little changes in her, like how she carried herself out in public, how she responded with more confidence to people who began conversations with her, even those she did not know. One of the biggest changes was that if she couldn’t conquer a technique on the first try, she would try again and again, she doesn't give up, she believes she can do it and she does it~ I love that, and am so grateful! She has always been a sweet, polite, respectful woman, but Tae Kwon Do has given her the self-confidence and self-respect that is important to succeed in daily life and help her reach her potential.

Jaydan recently earned her brown belt and now attends Black Belt classes in Ankeny, giving her mother the opportunity to observe GM Sledge as the instructor. “As a mom I am amazed and humbled at the amount of patience and genuine respect shown to each student. It is not uncommon to see GM Sledge stop and help Jaydan (or anyone else) during class with a form she/he may be struggling with. He will often demonstrate the form right beside her so she can see it being done. He as well as other Black Belts stay after class to help brown belts practice forms or board breaks. It is evident that he wants everyone to succeed. GM Sledge is the kind of leader who leads by example.”

Chris McKone, an adult brown belt, shared his thoughts about the school environment. “While my journey continues at Martial Arts of America the family atmosphere and great kindred spirit are to be valued and embraced. Often a senior Black Belt will correct me or discipline me but it is in the hope of making me better and it is always followed with encouragement and praise much like we treat our own children.” (Read more about Chris’s martial arts journey on page X.)
Building for the future. In addition to supporting the traditional school structure, GM Sledge expanded the use of technology by orchestrating the update of the school’s website and enhancing the school’s Facebook presence. The Facebook page features school announcements and many photos from each test, generating many “shares” outside of the Tae Kwon Do family. In the past year a new mobile application for documenting class attendance debuted and more exciting features are planned.
GM Sledge also plans for growth through class offerings. He schedules a class specifically for brown belt students every other month. This class provides the opportunity for a little slower pace with targeted instruction on techniques and forms. He expects assistance from any Black Belts attending the class. A Black Belt only class is also scheduled every other month to focus on techniques, instruction, tournament leadership, and higher level forms. The past few years he has brought in experts in Tae Kwon Do and other martial arts disciplines to conduct training in weapons, sparring, and defense techniques.
Over the past two years GM Sledge encouraged the 4th Dans and higher to sign up to lead a Black Belt class. This serves two functions as it builds their confidence and skills and allows GM Sledge to train. Of course, he continues to train independently and the past few years spent considerable time learning and teaching several new forms for 4th Dan to 8th Dan Black Belts. In December 2016, GM Sledge tested for his 8th Dan with two of the adult students who had encouraged him to start training with his son, GM Bonnie Wells and GM Frank Cross.
Martial Arts America maintains a unique relationship with another traditional Tae Kwon Do school in Louisville, Kentucky – Mission Martial Arts. Mission Martial Arts is part of the Jung’s Tae Kwon Do network of schools. Their Black Belts travel to Ankeny, Iowa to test and several times a year Martial Arts America Black Belts travel to Kentucky to help with their color belt test.
Owner and lead instructor at Mission Martial Arts, Kevin Manwell, reflected on how his experience at Martial Arts America influences his school operations today. “I still remember my first class like it was yesterday. It was September of 2006 and I was terrified of making a fool of myself. My oldest daughter had finally talked me into joining after seeing her younger siblings earn their yellow belts. ‘Just one session,’ I had told her. Now, years later and hundreds of miles away, my entire family and I have the privilege of leading weekly Tae Kwon Do classes that are patterned after that very first session with GM Sledge. What we learned from his class and all of our instructors and Black Belt leaders at Martial Arts America has changed us forever. Those early lessons still give back. You don’t forget how someone makes you feel welcome as a new student. How they care about you just as much as their senior students. When they take time to patiently instruct and encourage you at every step along the way, it leaves an impact. That’s why going back to Martial Arts America still feels like home. It's why we do what we do today with our school.”
During the January 2018 Black Belt seminar, GM Sledge shared his belief that “everyone can improve, no matter their rank.” He also reminded the Black Belts to demonstrate the attitude of a Black Belt in every kick, every punch, every class and every demonstration. He summarized his teaching philosophy in this way, “I will never apologize for repetition. No matter how many times in 30 years you have explained a basic move, you must keep repeating it and demonstrating it until you find the words that students understand.”
Leading with a humble heart. GM Sledge is tall in stature and has a big heart. When asked for a few words to describe the first few years of owning the school, he replied, “Surprising because of all the little things you have to keep doing all the time and enlightening because I assumed that after the first year everything would run like clockwork.” He paused and then added, “Gratitude. Everyone is 100% behind the school and that means a lot.” GM Sledge is generous with his expressions of thanks to the many students that teach, hold boards, judge, organize test applications, and lead tests. He often states, “Without all of you Black Belts, we wouldn’t have the school that we have.”
The best part of owning the school for GM Sledge is the people. “When I was teaching a branch, I touched 7 to 24 lives a week. Now I touch 50 to 200 lives each week.”
GM Sledge leads by example and often joins students on the mat for push-ups. His students will tell you that he can make counting to 10 last a very long time during a single push-up. He also continues the tradition of celebrating student birthdays by doing push-ups equal to their age.
GM Sledge is a martial artist that lives the tenets of Tae Kwon Do. He works hard to ensure that each student has the opportunity to not only learn Tae Kwon Do, but also to improve as a person and achieve things in life that they had never imagined. His rank and his integrity merit the greatest of respect from his students as stated by Russ Dobson, “To show respect to GM Sledge as a person is an honor and to respect his Tae Kwon Do rank is a great privilege.”
Martial Arts America remains the largest Tae Kwon Do school in central Iowa with the reputation of having the largest Black Belt Class and being the “tough school” in the area, a school where students have to work hard to progress through belt promotions and rank. In his review of the school on a social media platform, Brian Brewer said, “Great school based on authentic fundamental Tae Kwon Do teaching methods. This is a school that is focused on teaching all students martial arts skills to better their lives and the lives of those around them. Instructors are authentic and genuinely take interest in the success of their students, both in the classroom and outside in the real world.”
Tae Kwon Do is a journey. It is clear that the Tae Kwon Do tradition continues in central Iowa at Martial Arts America under the leadership of GM Sledge. He lives what he preaches, and constantly works on bettering himself. He is humble enough to admit what he doesn’t yet know and hopes to improve, asking for help to learn along the way. He has matured through his Tae Kwon Do journey from white belt student, to instructor, and then to school owner. His recent promotion to Grandmaster marks yet another step in his journey and offers growth opportunities in Tae Kwon Do leadership. The students of Martial Arts America are so proud of him, and stand ready to assist and support him as he expands our knowledge of Tae Kwon Do, martial arts, and our school heritage.

Together in Tae Kwon Do
Masters Don & Bonnie Wells
By Eliza Ovrom

Tae Kwon Do Masters Donald and Bonnie Wells combine a successful marriage and business partnership to run one of the largest martial arts schools in the Midwest. Both Mr. and Mrs. Wells will turn 60 this year.

Their martial arts training obviously keeps them young—an uninformed observer would never guess their age.

“As we get older it might be easy to use our age as an excuse for letting our Tae Kwon Do slide,” said Bonnie Wells. “One of my goals was to be able to do the splits by the time I turned 50. I didn't make that goal at 50, but I did by 60. You can always challenge yourself to get better in some area of your Tae Kwon Do training.”

The Wells have trained over 400 black belts with 200 black belts actively training at their school, Martial Arts America, in Ankeny, Iowa. They have 13 branch schools in central Iowa, and affiliate schools in New Virginia, Iowa and the states of Arizona and Missouri.

The Wells' successful partnership draws on the unique talents of each. Don Wells is in charge of Tae Kwon Do instruction, and continues to teach ten classes a week at his main school in Ankeny. His estimate of how many classes he's taught? “Twelve thousand and counting,” he says.

Bonnie Wells handles most of the bookkeeping aspects of the school, teaches an advanced forms class once a week, and fills in as instructor as needed. When she is not teaching she works out in class alongside the students.

“I really love to do Tae Kwon Do,” she said. “It's important for me to be seen in class and to set an example. The students know I take it seriously.”

As a boy growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, Don Wells dreamed of being a martial arts instructor. “A martial arts instructor—or a cowboy,” he jokes. His dream was deferred several years. He started Tae Kwon Do classes at age 15. “But I had an attitude around the house,” he said, and his parents refused to pay for more classes as a punishment.

In 1980, when Wells was 29 and serving in the Iowa National Guard, he saw an ad in a grocery store for Tae Kwon Do classes at the YWCA in Des Moines. He signed up. His instructor was Master Eric Heintz, who taught Tae Kwon Do in Des Moines for a number of years until poor health forced him to retire. Master Heintz was a student of renowned Grandmaster Woo Jin Jung, who moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, from Korea over 30 years ago to teach Tae Kwon Do in the U.S.

Don Wells recently celebrated 30 years of training and teaching Tae Kwon Do. He holds a seventh-degree black belt.

When Master Wells was a blue belt, he told Master Heintz about his desire to teach Tae Kwon Do. Master Heintz encouraged him to follow his dream. “I am where I am because of Master Heintz and Grandmaster Jung,” Wells said. “I'm grateful for them for their teaching and leadership.”

“Tae Kwon Do has allowed me to realize my dream,” he said. It has “given me a real purpose and a drive to lead by example. It has given me an extended family of like-minded people to spend time with.”

Bonnie Wells came to Tae Kwon Do through her children. In 1986, her two sons, then ages eight and ten, watched a Tae Kwon Do demonstration and thought it looked like a fun family activity. However, she couldn't afford the classes at that time. “I told the boys we would try it,” she said. “They held me to it.” Two years later they signed up for a Tae Kwon Do class. Mrs. Wells now has a sixth-degree black belt.

In 1985, Don Wells opened a branch school in Ankeny. This was shortly after a trip to Korea with Master Heintz. When he returned, he was “really fired up” to teach. He describes opening a Tae Kwon Do school as “awesome.” However, for several years he had to hold down two jobs to keep the school open. Bonnie Wells also had a job with United Parcel Service.

In the mid 1990s, the school had grown to a point where both Don and Bonnie Wells could devote full-time to teaching Tae Kwon Do. Their school has continued to grow. They now have 12 fifth and sixth-degree black belts, 15 fourth-degree black belts, and 65 third-degrees.

Be true to who you are.
Master Don Wells believes in rigorous physical training, with a traditional approach. “We set a high standard to achieve a black belt. We work hard. That's why we're so strong.”

Master Wells has always offered a special class for brown and black belts once a week. Five years ago, the class grew so large that he now offers it two nights a week. Each student is allowed to attend only one of the classes per week. Sixty to eighty students attend each class.

He requires brown belts to have forty brown and black belt classes, and 300 classes overall, to test for temporary black belt. “And don't ask me to test if you only have 39 brown and black belt classes,” he says. None of his students would dare to do so.

Master Don Wells wants to see the brown belts' dedication and intensity as they train for black belt. One of the ways he measures the intensity of a workout is the humidity reading on a barometer on the wall of the dojang. He is pleased when it gets over 85 percent humidity. Longtime students know that if the barometer isn't rising, the level of the workout will increase exponentially.

Brown belt student David May said he was really nervous before he attended his first brown and black belt class over a year ago. “And after the class I told my daughter that we needed to start doing wind sprints,” he said. He now regularly attends the class, and enjoys the physical and mental challenge.

Hands-on teaching.
Because Master Don Wells personally teaches all brown and black belt classes, he gets to know the brown belts well as they train to test for black belt. His students also get to know him, and to understand his expectations.

“Mr. and Mrs. Wells have shown me that Tae Kwon Do is more than just an activity or a hobby,” said 12-year-old student Riley Peterson. “I like the way they work on things with me until I perfect it.”

Black belt students benefit from personal interaction with Master Don Wells as well. “It is amazing to have a seventh-dan master of his caliber as our teacher each week,” says one longtime student. “He constantly studies the art of Tae Kwon Do and other martial arts, and passes along invaluable information to use.”

In addition, like all good instructors, he has the ability to push students to give each class their all.

“When either Mr. or Mrs. Wells speaks, you can hear a pin drop,” said brown belt student Eric Shonka. “That is not just respect for the rank but respect for them as people.”

Black belt student Cecil Brewton said, “Over the years my respect for both Masters Don and Bonnie Wells has grown. They have created a very special place for martial artists. We work hard and yet we have an enjoyable time together.”

Division of labor.
While Don Wells is the instructor at the dojang, Master Bonnie Wells attends each black belt class, racking up thousands of hours of training. Before and after class she is busy handling students' requests, answering phone calls from prospective students, and offering a warm greeting and farewell to everyone who enters and leaves the dojang.

“We are truly a Tae Kwon Do family at Martial Arts America,” she says. “I hope each student's day is improved by coming to class, and that their lives are improved through martial arts training.”

Family-oriented training.
Perhaps because they are a family, the Wells' dojang is very welcoming to families who want to train in Tae Kwon Do. It is common to see parents and children train together, and even grandparents and grandchildren. It is not unusual for a child to sign up first, and then to have a parent or grandparent join later.

The Wells believe in strict codes of courtesy in the dojang. Every black belt is addressed as either Mr., Mrs., or Miss. This leads to parents addressing their children this way one they achieve a black belt.

“I was a 61-year-old grandma sitting in the parking lot while my granddaughter trained in Tae Kwon Do,” said Jeri Cain. “I decided I would join her and get some exercise for myself and perhaps be able to help her if I understood what they were doing. What a life change!” she said. She signed up for classes and is now a brown belt. “I have never felt better in my life,” she said. “I believe Martial Arts America is a direct reflection of the Masters Wells' vision of Tae Kwon Do.”

Rick Hermann joined Tae Kwon Do after his son had been training for a year. “Master and Mrs. Wells are so encouraging and there is always a strong life lesson to be taught,” he said.

One parent commented, “I would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else our son would have received the quality of instruction and examples of both Tae Kwon Do and life that he has at Martial Arts America in Ankeny. I am proud our son has become a member of the Martial Arts America family, the progress he has made, and the path he is on.”

Several of the Wells' students have gone on to compete at the national level. One has won medals in national forms and breaking competitions, and another fights in UFC matches. Their students attend many competitions around the Midwest and bring home medals too numerous to count.

Helping others.
The Wells demonstrate their Christian principles through their work in Tae Kwon Do. They have a scholarship fund to help students pay for training fees. In addition, college students who continue their training are eligible for scholarships from this fund. “I don't want anyone not to train because they can't afford it,” said Master Don Wells.

They encourage students to help out in their communities, and their students are willing to lend a hand to other students when in need. Several years ago they organized a work day to put a new roof on a fellow black belt's house. In 2008, a Tae Kwon Do family's home was flooded, and, without being asked, students from Martial Arts America showed up at their home to help with clean-up.

A group of black belts from Martial Arts America also set up a charitable foundation to raise money for worthy causes in the community. The foundation, Martial Artists for Children and Community, holds board-breaking events and other fundraisers. It has donated money to several causes such as local volunteer fire departments and an animal rescue operation.

“The joy of being part of Martial Arts America Academy is what you can do for others, not necessarily what you can do for yourself,” said black belt Katie Dudak. “This is due to the hard work and dedication on a daily basis of Master Don Wells and Master Bonnie Wells.”

Diet and healthy living.
Master Don Wells says that Tae Kwon Do training has made him more health conscious in other areas of his life. He reads extensively about diet and nutrition, and encourages his students to eat well. He tells students to eat nutritious foods, get adequate hydration, and avoid sodas, alcohol, and junk food. “If you had a million dollar race horse, would you feed it fast food?” he says.

Cross-training.
He also encourages cross-training to complement his students' Tae Kwon Do training. Wells himself regularly hits the gym to lift weights, and periodically challenges students to run a six-mile course with him near the dojang.

Several years ago he challenged students to do “Hindu squats,” a deep squat where the fingertips of both hands brush the ground on each squat. A hardy group of students, led by Master Don Wells, worked their way up to 1,000 Hindu squats on a single day.

Black belt student Victoria Lindberg completed her 1,000 squats, then did 300 more to help motivate a fellow black belt reach his goal of 1,000. “It was kind of like being in the Army, when a guy falls down, the others are there to pick him up,” she said.

Another time, Master Don Wells challenged students to do something physical, mental, or spiritual every day for 90 days. Ms. Lindberg did 200 push-ups and sit-ups every day. “He has a way of saying things to challenge you,” she said. “He knows just what to say.”

Master Don Wells is in excellent physical condition, and demonstrates breaking concrete for students when they are gathered for testing. He also does knuckle push-ups on broken glass each year for his birthday.

Training for youth.
The Wells have started several innovative programs to train young students. The Tiny Tigers program is for children ages four to six years. Tiny Tigers classes are offered in five different locations around central Iowa. “We want to give the children the base to transition into a regular Tae Kwon Do class,” said Tiny Tigers instructor Tamera Bice.

The classes are 30 minutes long versus one hour for older students, to accommodate shorter attention spans. There is one main instructor, with several assistants to keep the younger students focused on their kicks and punches. Instructors stress safety, discipline, and respect. They also teach “Stranger Danger” principles.

The Wells also started a graduated junior black belt program for youth who have not yet reached the age of 12. They test along with adults and teens for black belts, but are judged by the skills and challenges appropriate for their age group. They earn “junior” black belts, which are black with a colored stripe in the center to signify the level of belt. When they reach the age of 13 they can test for a standard temporary black belt.

The Wells also encourage children to get good grades by awarding academic patches if they have good report cards. They have school teachers recommend children for promotion in Tae Kwon Do based on their behavior and contributions at school

Involve the Black Belts.
The Wells have a large contingent of active black belts. The black belts teach classes at branch schools, and train at Martial Arts America under Master Don Wells' instruction. They help organize testing, tournaments, and demonstrations. They also participate in many other activities, such as picnics, fundraising events, the foundation, and scholarship fund.

The Wells believe that keeping students involved in teaching and training is key to keeping them involved after they earn a black belt. They are also very appreciative of the black belts' contributions to their students. “I know if I ever need anything, the black belts will be there to help,” said Master Don Wells.

A balanced life.
Although the Wells spend countless hours teaching at their school, attending tournaments with students, and seeing to the financial and business matters that go with operating a martial arts school, they also find time for outside interests.

Several years ago they moved to an acreage in the country. The property came with 12 geese, seven cats, two dogs, and three race horses. Fortunately, they both love animals, and still have four cats and two dogs.

Bonnie Wells enjoys knitting and sewing, but her favorite pastime is playing with her 12 grandchildren. She had her twin grandsons breaking boards by the time they could walk.

Mr. Wells also collects weapons and enjoys attending gun shows.

They are very happy with the way their lives have turned out through Tae Kwon Do.

Plans for the Future.
“We cannot be satisfied to just maintain our capabilities in Tae Kwon Do, but need to constantly be looking for ways we can become better,” said Bonnie Wells. “If Tae Kwon Do is an art and not just a sport, there will always be areas for you to improve.”

Master Don Wells has no plans to slow down. He says, “We plan to continue what we are doing now, and to have even more branch locations in the future.”