Fists, Feet, and Family

A young couple has turned a shared passion for taekwondo into a thriving business.

photograph by Brandon Dill

Athletes. Trainers. Business owners. It can be hard enough to excel at one of these endeavors, but all three? At the same time?

Steven Miller has managed Midtown Taekwondo since the studio first opened on Union Avenue in 2001. With the help of his wife, Tara, Steven now owns the studio and instructs more than 150 students at the current location on Evergreen, where it has operated since the studio moved in 2005, the same year Steven and Tara got married. As the Millers teach their craft and manage a business, though, they continue to develop their own considerable skills on the national and international mat. (Steven and Tara are both 6th-degree black belts, one degree below master.) You could say the various priorities are connected by heartstrings.

“As a child [in Marietta, Georgia], I wasn’t looking for a start in martial arts,” says Steven. “My mom wanted to start me in martial arts. My brother [Chris is four years older] started because he was getting bullied, and I started [at age 5] because I needed discipline. I was good at school, but wild at home. I cried every day that first year. I had a Korean instructor who was really intimidating. Nothing like we have today.” Steven broke his first board before his 7th birthday and hasn’t pulled a punch since.

Steven played basketball in middle school and early in high school, but came to find the time he had to sacrifice from taekwondo not worth the hoops venture. He was an AAU national champion for his age group an entire decade (1991-2000), kept compiling national championships (more than 30 to date), and in 2010 won the prestigious Taekwondo International in England, an event that included more than 130 competitors in his division, 32 in sparring (hand-to-hand combat). “What drew me to taekwondo was the competition element,” says Steven. “And I got to travel to Europe twice as a teenager. I discovered I was really good at this. At age 16, I was fighting in men’s divisions, and winning.”

As instructors, Steven and Tara have come to relish the visible development in students ranging in age from 4 to 62. (The studio offers 25 classes a week, with youth sessions lasting 45 minutes and adult sessions an hour.) It’s one thing to fine-tune your own skills — the Millers train six days a week, including sessions of running and weight-lifting — and quite another to see progress in someone who walked in the door with no knowledge of the craft. The teaching has expanded an already tight community devoted to the same enterprise. “When you do this as long as we have,” says Tara, “taekwondo becomes a part of your family. The thought of leaving friends we’ve made in taekwondo doesn’t cross our minds. It’s an individual sport, but there’s a large team aspect to it.”

“In patterns, pretty much anybody can get out there and do their forms,” says Steven. “But when you look at sparring or board-breaking, there’s a higher mental component. People who aren’t scared to hit the wood — regardless of whether their technique is perfect — don’t have an issue with board-breaking.

Midtown Taekwondo is affiliated with the Choong Sil Taekwondo Federation (CTF), an association of 35 schools (four in the Memphis area) all across the United States. The CTF sponsors regional tournaments, where the Millers are able to see many of their students compete with talent beyond the Mid-South. And their students are excelling. As Steven describes it, the merger of physical talent with enhanced fearlessness makes a taekwondo champion.

“In patterns, pretty much anybody can get out there and do their forms,” says Steven. “But when you look at sparring or board-breaking, there’s a higher mental component. People who aren’t scared to hit the wood — regardless of whether their technique is perfect — don’t have an issue with board-breaking. Students who carry a little fear tend to struggle with it.” Breaking one-inch boards is a requirement for progressing various levels of taekwondo, beginning at blue belt. By age 13, a student is required to break two boards with a single blow.

“Part of it is natural ability,” adds Tara. “Some students are more athletic, more flexible. But a lot of people who are naturally gifted don’t train hard. Steven, for instance, trains a ridiculous amount, and he’s gifted.”

The Millers are both University of Memphis alumni, Steven with a degree in psychology, Tara in marketing. There was a time when law (for Steven) and teaching (for Tara) seemed to be career choices. They were already running Midtown Taekwondo, though, by the time they donned cap and gown, and both decided the martial art they had loved since childhood was, in fact, their calling.

“My brother already had a school in Cordova,” says Steven. “But from day one, we were there [at Midtown Taekwondo]. Those were our students.” The Millers brought about a dozen children from Idlewild Elementary, where they’d been teaching part-time, to the new studio. Over the 11 years since, it’s been steady recruiting, almost entirely by word of mouth.

“We pride ourselves on being the kind of school that everybody wants to be a part of,” says Tara. “We want to be a part of the community. We have a scholarship board that raises money for kids who can’t afford camps or tournaments. You’ve got to make money as a business, but we care about raising children who will be good adults.”

In terms of philosophy — as athletes, trainers, and business owners — the Millers cite the tenets of taekwondo: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. And they emphasize Midtown Taekwondo’s student oath: “I shall observe the tenets of taekwondo. I shall respect instructors as seniors. I shall never misuse taekwondo.

I will be a champion of freedom and justice. I will build a more peaceful world.”

Words to kick by. 

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