There is something special about the black belt grading process taekwondo exponents go through.

Years of training and progressing through the five different coloured belts leads to the day when dreams of wearing a black belt finally become a reality.

But there were no easy steps or faint hearts on show during the gruelling six-hour grading held in hot and humid conditions at Team KO's dojo in Mount Maunganui on Saturday.

This was a severe physical and mental test including one-on-one attacks, relentless two-on-one and five-on-one defensive tests, smashing boards with hands, feet or elbows before a gruelling finale of push-ups and sit-ups.


Family members watched throughout the long grading period. There was no lack of courage shown at any stage of the grading.

All of the 12 combatants between the ages of 11 and 52 passed with flying colours. Ten gained their black belts and two their second dan black belts.

In charge of proceedings was Master Kesi O'Neill, founder of Team KO and 2012 Samoan Olympic coach. He is New Zealand's high-performance director and president of New Zealand United Taekwondo Association which is affiliated to the governing body, Taekwondo New Zealand.

O'Neill is the first Samoan Taekwondo Master to gain a fourth-degree Kukkiwon Black Belt in New Zealand.

"It takes six hours (grading) but it is the years and years they have worked so hard and performed in front of everybody. To me, this is just the start of the journey for them. Now they are starting to realise what the black belt is and whether they want to compete or referee," he said.

"It is not only the fighting Olympic style that we do too, there is the self-defence side we do. It is hard to defend yourself when two people are attacking or five or six people."

Breaking wooden blocks is always the spectacular highlight for spectators at any black belt grading.

O'Neill says it is about releasing the power and energy to focus on a good cause.

"We have a motto that you can do anything. So to go through the boards is like life where you set your goals, set your targets and black belt is your start for life. Plus, it is actually helping the next generation when they have to go to work or university to become stronger throughout their life.

"Taekwondo is a way of life. It changes the way people see themselves to become stronger when you go out in the world. It helps the youth of today be strong and stand up for themselves. They can't have their parents around them all the time."

A large contingent of experienced taekwondo exponents helped out at the grading including Rhiannon O'Neill, the long-time under 62kg New Zealand champion and highly-qualified second dan black belt holder.

When it was all over there were speeches, some tears and a few laughs but the overall feeling was of immense pride in passing one of the supreme tests in martial arts.

No black belt is ever given — it has to be earned the hard way.

Taekwondo belts
Yellow 1st and 2nd Degree
Green 1st and 2nd Degree
Blue 1st and 2nd Degree
Black 1st Degree through 9th or 10th