Master Tom Chea was once was running for his life.
Now, he has parents praising him for the positive influence he has had on their children.
Chea, a taekwondo instructor at Chea’s Martial Arts & Fitness Center in Warwick, does not have children of his own. But he treats his young athletes as though they are his.
“He is honestly one of the most neat and most interesting people I have ever met,” said Maya Colantuono, wife of Ward 1 Warwick City Councilman Steven Colantuono and mother of two daughters who train with Chea. “He has a combination of qualities – discipline, courtesy, toughness. He’s all those things, and he commands respect … He’s a community builder and a character builder.”
“He has a very loyal following of parents,” said Steven Colantuono. “He treats these kids like they’re his family.”
Chea was born in Cambodia and raised in America. He moved to Lowell, Mass., from Cambodia over 30 years ago after his family escaped the infamous “Killing Fields” of the Khmer Rouge. At the time, he was just 8 years old.
While in Cambodia, Chea fought hunger, malnutrition, illness, poverty and violence. Arriving in Massachusetts in the wake of the Vietnam War, he dealt with prejudice because of his race, so he signed up for martial arts when he was 9 years old to avoid being picked on.
Chea never did get in a fight. Instead, he became one of the best taekwondo competitors in the nation, and later, one of the best coaches as well.
A fourth-degree black belt and a certified master, Chea not only teaches his young athletes taekwondo, he also teaches them right from wrong, assists them with their homework, and dedicates much of his time to their continued development.
Nicole Grady, 15, from East Greenwich, has been training with Chea for a long time, and has won the U.S. National three times and took home a silver medal from the U.S. Open in 2011. She also spoke of Chea’s positive impact on the children he trains.
“I’ve been with him for a really long time, and he’s really like the parents said. He’s an inspiration to all the kids, and he just motivates everyone to do the best that they can and be the best that they can,” Grady said. “They all look up to him.”
Athletes come from all over New England to train with Master Chea. While he mostly works with children starting from age 5, adult classes are available, too.
His dojo has a billboard displaying five terms that Chea calls the model for taekwondo – self-control, courtesy, integrity indomitable spirit and perseverance.
“It’s what all these kids stand for,” Chea said. “They try and live by those rules and carry it on in their life. It’s not just a martial arts lesson – it’s basically a life lesson. Everything around the room is trying to motivate these kids to train hard.”
For many of the students, training plays an important role in overcoming challenges. Celeste Mullane’s son Jeremiah went to train with the master to build up strength and conditioning for a broken collarbone, but when he realized how much he liked the class, he decided to stay.
Mullane said Jeremiah suffers from both OCD and anxiety disorders, and that the class helps him manage them. She has been so impressed with the training that she has signed up for Chea’s kick-fit class for adults.
“You see the kids, they have so much respect for him, and it’s an amazing thing to see,” she said.
The Colantuonos’ daughters, Sophie and Niveyah, also train with Chea.
Sophie, 14, is on the Peak Performance Team and won silver medals in 2012 and 2013. Niveyah, 6, an adopted daughter, suffers from cerebral palsy, but that doesn’t stop her from participating.
Chea would bring Niveyah into the dojo starting at just 3 years old, and about two years later suggested she sign up for a class.
“She’d be pointing into the gym, and he would bring her in and move her arms and legs because she couldn’t do it herself,” Maya said.
Starting out, Niveyah participated while in a wheelchair, but now she uses a specialized walker while she trains. Chea always takes the time to do everything with her.
“It’s her favorite person in the world,” Maya said. “She lights up when she sees him. She can do taekwondo. He found a way to have her included. He’s so good, works hard with them. I can’t say enough about what he’s done.”
Sophie said both her sister and Chea benefit from the class.
“I think that Mr. Chea does a really great job of including Niveyah,” Sophie said. “She obviously has disabilities, and I feel like every time she’s been working out with us she’s had more of a social life. The kids see someone like her that is different from them and they learn to accept her, act around her, and they’re all really good with her. I think it’s really good for her and for Mr. Chea, too.”
“She got involved because her sister was here so she would come and watch,” he said. “She wanted to come in and try. It turned out to be a very rewarding thing for both of us.”
Chea’s studio also serves as a key training spot for some of the world’s top taekwondo competitors. The Peak Performance team is an elite group that prepares athletes for Olympic competition, and Chea said there are two or three local students who are eyeing the 2016 games.
Bineta Diedhiou, sixth ranked in the world and a third-degree black belt, said she enjoys the training that she gets from Master Chea. Diedhiou is 28 years old and from Senegal. She just came back from the African Championship, where she took first place, and at the end of June Diedhiou is going to compete in the Grand Prix in China. She chose to train at Chea’s gym to prepare for the tournament.
“The people are nice, and it’s good training to get ready for the next competition,” Diedhiou said.
Chea’s taekwondo training began in 1987, and he competed in Olympic-style sparring from 1989-1997. As a competitor, Chea won gold medals in the 1996 U.S. Open, the 1997 Pan-American Open and the 1995 North American Elite. Five times he was the U.S. Cup Champion, and he was crowned state and New England champion eight times.
As a coach, Chea has produced numerous state, regional and national champions in both the junior and senior divisions. In 2010, he was named National Taekwondo Coach of the Year.
In his mid-teens, Chea’s master had him teach taekwondo at an Air Force base and by 1994, Chea had become the head instructor at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Mass. He has also served as head instructor for the Massachusetts Governor’s Alliance Against Drugs, training at-risk children.
While Chea enjoys coaching, he had no plans of withdrawing himself from competition. However, in 1999, in the Pan-American Games, he tore the anterior crucial ligament in his right knee. He attempted rehab, but in a sport that relies on kicking, it became obvious that his competitive career was over.
That is when he turned his full attention toward coaching, and there are countless athletes who are better because of it.
Chea’s Martial Arts & Fitness Center is located at the Northeast Training Center at 25 Coronado Road in Warwick. For more information, visit www.cheastkd.com.