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Back-to-Back Crowns: Jonesboro teen repeats as world tae kwon do champ

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Two years ago, with a desire to earn the red lettering on his uniform that symbolizes a world champion, Sterling Graham left the American Tae kwon do Association (ATA) World Competition after placing as high as third.

Last year, the Jonesboro youth won the world championship in sparring and earned that red lettering. But he did not stop there. This summer, Graham, who just turned 13, won two more world championships in June at the 2009 ATA World Competition in Little Rock, Ark.

He repeated his performance as the world champion for sparring in the 12 and under category, and added another championship in the forms competition. He also won a silver medal in weapons. Forms and weapons are areas where he placed second and third, respectively, last year.

"I was proud of what I did [at the world competition]," said Graham, a third-degree black belt, who studies at the ATA Life Skills Academy in McDonough. "It shows improvement. It shows I have excelled more, and it shows that I have worked hard for this year."

The ATA has 350,000 members around the world, according to the association's web site, and the top 10 points holders in each activity, for each age range, are allowed to compete for world championships. Points are earned for placing first, second or third, at ATA-sponsored competitions, said Jerry Graham, the teen's father.

The elder Graham said his son was ranked first in sparring and forms, and second in weapons, for the 12 and under age group, heading into the world competition. Next year, the younger Graham, who has been competing since he was 5, will move into the 13-16 age grouping.

Forms is a non-fighting category where competitors show off their ability to do 83 different moves, such as various sidekicks and roundkicks, as well as jumps and blocks, Sterling Graham said. Weapons is another non-fighting competition where the competitor shows off skills with a weapon, such as nunchucks, or in Graham's case, a bo staff, he said.

Graham said sparring is a competition in which two people fight for three minutes. The point is to avoid being hit by the opponent, he said, because a competitor earns points every time contact is made with the other person's head, or chest. Competitors in sparring wear headgear, gloves, shin guards, and a chest guard, Graham said.

The younger Graham also said, as he gets older, he wants to branch out into other categories. One such area is extreme martial arts, also known as XMA, where competitors perform martial arts moves choreographed to music. "I want to do XMA, because that category looks like a lot of fun," the teen champion said.

For now, however, young Graham wants to focus on balancing out the areas where he is winning world championships. Now that he is a world champion in forms and sparring, he wants to focus on winning a championship in weapons as well. "I'm going to prepare instantly for my next tournament," the youngster said. "I'm going to practice more."

But for Graham's father, the prospect of more awards means more space is going to be needed for all of the trophies and medallions. Right now, his son's awards are displayed in what he called a "shrine" that sits atop curio cabinets in the living room of the family's home.

"He's been fortunate enough that he's been doing very well at competitions," the elder Graham said. "We're going to need to get a new trophy case, though. He's gotten a lot of awards over the years. If it's not in the hundreds yet, then it's close to a hundred."