WARNER ROBINS — The mid-1970s were life changing for three men.
It was then that Steve Sapp, David Feldman and Harry Payne discovered taekwondo. Now, in 2013, all three men have their own academies in Middle Georgia.
Taekwondo, a form of martial arts founded in Korea, has impacted all of their lives.
For more than 40 years, the three have grown from young men who wanted to be just like the people they saw on television to owning their own buildings where they teach the sport to new generations of students.
Feldman, 60, is a former school teacher and now works as a communications specialist at Air Force Reserve headquarters at Robins Air Force Base.
He owns Perry Taekwondo and teaches in the evenings after he leaves his day job.
A member of the American Taekwondo Association, he also had an academy in Greenville, Ala., and taught from 1980-84 at what is now called Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base.
Feldman was in college at the University of Alabama and became fascinated with martial arts after watching the TV show “Kung Fu.”
What started as just something fun has turned into a lifelong passion. The teaching is fun and makes him feel young.
“I’m scared to stop,” said Feldman, a seventh-degree black belt.
Belts are a form of telling others what forms and moves the students have mastered.
The grand master of the American Taekwondo Association holds a ninth-degree black belt and is the only one who can do so.
The freestanding building for Perry Taekwondo was completed in May 2003.
“For someone to build their own place, you’ve gotta be doing something right,” Feldman said.
He has taught thousands of students, from the very young to senior citizens.
“I want to always be able to do more than yesterday,” he said.
Old school teaching
Sapp was a senior at Southwest High School in Macon when he found his way into Edward Ahn’s taekwondo classroom at the prodding of his boss at a gas station where he worked part-time.
“It proved to be what I was good at,” he said.
Sapp, 57, has owned Warner Robins Karate Academy since 1974, when his business was on Commercial Circle.
The business has moved three times since then, ending up in Bonaire, also with a freestanding building, which opened in October 2000.
“I’ve got students all over the world,” Sapp said.
Each month, he has 120 to 170 students taking lessons at his school.
His specialty is in the traditional form of taekwondo, which he learned at Ahn’s school. Ahn is president of the Haesan Martial Arts Association, to which Sapp and Payne both belong.
“I stick to the old school way of teaching,” Sapp said.
His teaching style focuses on the artwork of patterns and forms rather than sparring, which is another side of the sport.
He said picking out a martial arts school is sometimes just a matter of convenience, whichever is closer to the student’s home. The personality of the instructor is also key.
“I’ve been around so long. Everyone knows about me,” said Sapp.
Payne can remember the day he took his first martial arts class taught by Ahn because it changed his life.
“It was May 29, 1974, on a Wednesday after school when I was in 10th grade,” he said.
As a little boy, other children picked on Payne, and after watching Bruce Lee movies, he knew he wanted to try martial arts.
Driving to the business in Macon when it was on Second Street, Payne pulled his 1966 Ford Mustang into the parking lot and used the money from his job to purchase a uniform and lessons.
He spent the next summer in the mornings with Ahn as his personal trainer. It gave him confidence and the knowledge that this was what he wanted to do with his life.
Payne, 55, started teaching in 1978 in Fort Valley. He moved to Arkansas in 1986 and moved back to Byron in 1995.
When he returned to Georgia, he taught at Ahn’s for a few years before opening his own place, Byron Taekwondo Academy.
After being in the martial arts so long, Payne knows quite a few people in the sport. He said he has several students who own their own academies in various parts of the U.S.
Some of the names include sparring partners and students of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, who he credits with making taekwondo popular.
Between Feldman, Sapp and Payne, their students number in the tens of thousands.
All three agreed the sport has kept them young and active.
“Isn’t the phrase, ‘If you like what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life’?” Sapp asked. “That’s been pretty much it.”