Tiger Rock schools teach martial arts, 
self-defense, physical fitness – and more.

                                     Hannah Feldschau/photo by Yvonne Nabors

by james shannon
business journal

The large crowd gathered at Bulldog Stadium in Nederland for the 2011 Relay For Life last April 29 was of two minds – solemn at the gravity of the occasion and simultaneously euphoric as they rallied to the cause of the American Cancer Society’s campaign to soothe the afflicted and find a cure.
As hundreds of walkers circumnavigated the track, Master Wayne Mathews of the Mid-County TaeKwonDo Academy stood, surrounded by two dozen of his students, on a platform in the middle of the field. The cause was personal to Mathews, who had lost his mother to cancer less than a year before.
His students and instructors formed a protective phalanx around their leader, whose emotions that night, while under control, were close to the surface. Later, Mathews was typically low key as he recalled the event.
“During the relay, we had students of all age groups there, all the way from 4-year-olds to Miss Johnson, who is in her 60s, and it’s just something we enjoy doing,” said Mathews, making a reference to Paula Johnson, who is upfront and ebullient about her status as a breast cancer survivor – and a skilled black belt capable of more than holding her own with younger opponents of both genders.
Also on display was a clear demonstration that what comes out of that academy is more than martial arts, self-defense and physical fitness. Rather, it is an expression of community, values and discipline that encompasses all these items.
It is instructive to learn their outreach is not limited to the mats and sparring bags on the studio floor.
“We also go into the schools and do what we call a ‘Partners in Learning’ – we don’t to try to sell our business because we’re not there to do that. We’re there to teach about being safe; about school awareness; and if you do good in school, how it projects to every other aspect of your life,” said Mathews.
Mathews started his taekwondo training in 1983 under the leadership of Senior Master Marv Conway. He currently holds the rank of sixth-degree black belt with the International TaeKwonDo Alliance and is rated as a master instructor.
The lessons he imparts to students, children and adults alike draw on his nearly 30 years of taekwondo training.
“We try to expose them a way of life following the values and principles that we lay out,” he said.
                 Master Wayne Mathews hoists the national Men’s Free-Sparring trophy in 2000. 
                 Painting by Joyce Bourgeois.

Mathews is a large man who moves with grace on the floor, walking almost on the balls of his feet like a cat ready to pounce – the embodiment of a martial artist at the top of his game. Students of all ages are riveted by his presence and the wisdom he imparts in such a natural manner with seemingly effortless command, the philosopher king of his 60x120 foot realm.

Korean connection

Martial arts can be traced to roughly 10,000 years ago when the ancestors of the Korean people migrated to that peninsula from Central Asia. Formal martial arts training there is a mere 4,000 years old. During the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1909 to 1945, it was forbidden to practice any form of martial arts. After liberation at the end of World War II, The International TaeKwonDo Alliance traces its roots to Grandmaster Won-kuk Lee and his Gym of the Blue Wave. Lee remained active until his death at age 96 in 2003, and his influence continues to be felt today.
The founding members of Tiger Rock Martial Arts began their taekwondo training in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1983, the foundation of what has become Tiger Rock Martial Arts was formed by Grandmaster Bert Kollars, Grandmaster Art Monroe and Grandmaster Craig Kollars. In effect, it is a national franchising company with outlets throughout the U.S. – including a strong presence in Southeast Texas with schools in Beaumont, Nederland, Bridge City, Lumberton, Fannett, Orange and Vidor.
Tiger Rock is based on the solid principles of its tenets: Honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, community, strength, humility and knowledge. Students, adults and children alike, recite these tenets of taekwondo at most classes. Full disclosure: I have personally witnessed these recitations many times over the past 17 months that my daughter has attended the Mid-County TaeKwonDo Academy ,where she currently holds the rank of brown belt.
What links the Tiger Rock Martial Arts academies here is the singular effort of the aforementioned Senior Master Marv Conway, who developed this territory at the behest of his teacher, Grandmaster Bert Kollars. Conway in turn became the mentor and master to the generation of taekwondo instructors he developed.
“We’re all in his family tree,” said Mathews. “My parents moved to Texas and that’s where I met my master. I was one of his first students.” That was in 1983; since that time, Mathews has not only founded the Mid-County TaeKwonDo Academy but also won a series of national championships including four consecutive titles in the Men’s Free-Sparring event. One of those was the 2000 event in Biloxi, Miss., pictured here in a painting by Joyce Bourgeois.
While the story of the major domo of each local academy is unique, the common element is the tutelage of Conway.
Master David Howells, owner of Beaumont TaeKwonDo & Jiu-Jitsu, emigrated from England in 1986 and shortly afterward began his TaeKwonDo training under Conway. After serving in the U.S. Army for four years, he returned to Beaumont where he continued his TaeKwonDo training. Master Howells has 24 years training and teaching experience and currently holds the rank of sixth-degree black belt and has consistently earned Top Ten national honors for both sparring and forms competition.
The journey to taekwondo can follow unexpected paths. Elyse Thibodeaux was a newspaper advertising writer when an assignment took her to the Beaumont school. She was intrigued by what she witnessed there, and decided it might be right for her son Aaron, then 10, who wanted to join a friend who took martial arts.
“I signed him up, sat there and watched him for a week, and then I signed up,” recalled Thibodeaux. “I had been looking for some kind of adult dance program and nobody had anything at the time but clogging. I was looking for something where I could get fit and flexible and it looked like fun.”
Thibodeaux described the process that led her to the floor.
“I thought the forms looked like dance routines and I said, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ I came in there thinking this was going to be easy. … No, it’s not. It’s different, but it became a challenge – a really good challenge. It’s so supportive an atmosphere that you can’t help but succeed if you keep coming to class,” she said. “The only regret I have that I didn’t find this earlier in my life.”
She began her training under Senior Master Conway and continues to train under Master Howells. Thibodeaux is a fourth-degree black belt and L4 certified instructor, and has also held the title of World Champion in several competitive categories over the past few years.
In 2010, she founded the Bridge City academy and experienced the roller-coaster ride involved in being the sole proprietor of a fledgling company.
“In terms of being a business, it kinda crosses gamuts,” she said. “It’s a service industry yet it’s a retail establishment, so you get all kinds of different aspects. As a single business owner, one of the coolest things for me is that I’m doing marketing; I’m doing advertising; I’m doing business management; and I’m doing bookkeeping and guess what? If somebody else doesn’t like my ideas, tough!”

                                       Elyse and Aaron Thibodeaux flank Walker Swindell.

Despite her dual roles as businesswoman and martial artist, at heart Thibodeaux is a teacher – and she instructs her charges in life lessons that go far beyond sidekicks.
“’Social competence’ is a good term to encompass some of the skills we teach not only to kids but to adults,” she said. “Kids learning how to do a polite and courteous greeting; kids learning the difference between discipline and self-discipline – a lot of that is social competence. You’re building confidence; you’re building better poise and personal presence.”
Thibodeaux emphasizes that taekwondo is not a fad or a passing fancy.
“It’s a lifestyle that you can do forever. It’s not something that you can do for a month or two months; it’s something that if you choose to do it, you can do it for your life,” she said. At her Bridge City school, she is assisted by son Aaron, now 17, who is a third-degree black belt and L2 regional instructor who will be attending LC-M high school as a senior the fall.
Currently holding classes in a rented space in Bridge City, Thibodeaux has acquired land to build a place of their own on Miller Drive.
All of the Tiger Rock academies offer a summer program. “It’s a way to introduce them to taekwondo,” said Mathews. “The classes are fun and it’s an exciting introductory class.”
From beginners learning their first basic forms to the spirited hand-to-hand combat called “free sparring” to pitched battles with stout bamboo poles that are actually native Korean practice swords, the disciplines taught in these schools are impressive to behold.
At the Relay for Life demonstration, Corbyn Lowe managed to steal the show with an extreme form demonstration. Lowe, 12, has been a student of Master Mathews since he was four years old and is already realizing ambitions as an actor and athlete.
But that night at Bulldog Stadium, he strung together a seemingly impossible routine of kicks and flips, leaving his feet to fly through the air then come slashing back to earth.
No, every Tiger Rock student is not destined to literally fly but each will soar in their own way, and that is something worthy of respect.