Taecole studio owner prods tourney to open new category to women

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Taecole studio owner prods tourney to open new category to women
Maggie Messina, owner of Taecole Tae Kwon Do studio in Albertson and founder of Female Fighters Matter Too. (Courtesy of Maggie Messina)

Maggie Messina, 57, and her taekwondo students will make history this weekend at Ocean State Grand Nationals, where a team fighting category will be open to women for the first time after she demanded more equity.

The team fighting category is regularly open only to men.

“Up to seven men walked away with cash [at last year’s national tournament], and they didn’t have one for the women,”  the owner of Taecole Tae Kwon Do in Albertson and founder of Female Fighters Matter Too said. “So, I went up to the promoter and I said, ‘No. We can’t do this. Women have to have this next year.’”

What might sound like a rare moment of courage in a male-dominated field is a regular occurrence for Messina, a plucky 8th-degree black belt who came from poverty, began practicing taekwondo when she was 18 and reached such excellence that she received a Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award in 2022.

Messina worked tirelessly, often commuting into Manhattan at 6 a.m., then back to Albertson at 2 p.m., then back to Manhattan for a 9 p.m. client in order to survive when she first opened her studio.

From aging out of the foster system and living without a home at just 17 to running one of the few taekwondo studios left after the COVID-19 pandemic, Messina has dedicated her entire life to taekwondo – just to still be referred to as sir.

“There are still [taekwondo] schools where women are being addressed as sir. Absolutely. In America,” Messina said. “I decided that I’m not going to be called sir anymore, and … some people actually called me on it and said, ‘Why did you do that? It’s not supposed to be that way.’”

When potential clients email Messina, a good handful of them assume the studio master’s gender and start their emails with “Sir,” Messina said.

While gender discrimination in athletics is nothing new, it may be shocking to hear that such practices exist at taekwondo tournaments, like not having categories for women, or that Messina has faced multiple male martial artists who enter her studio and question her ability to run a business.

But as Messina explained, changing taekwondo practices would mean pushing back against decades and decades of tradition.

“It’s still predominately a male world,” Messina said. “You know taekwondo is from Korea, and so you’re talking about a whole culture. Changing a whole culture.”

It is easy to imagine why Messina founded Female Fighters Matter Too, a movement focused on creating opportunities for female athletes after years of enduring gender inequalities at taekwondo tournaments in the 1980s.

“The training is eight to 10, 11 hours a day, and you bring yourself to a physical place where you throw up, you replenish and continue. And that’s what it takes to be a champion,” Messina said. “We don’t do it any different than the male does it. We don’t pay any less money. It costs the same. We bleed the same. We do everything the same.”

And yet at some tournaments, women participants cannot compete on the stage. At some tournaments, there is no women’s division. Messina recalled being told at one tournament without a women’s division that she should just enter the juniors' division and compete against the children. “It was such a kick in the face,” Messina said.

And at many of the tournaments Messina attends, the cash prize for female competitors is much less than male competitors, despite all participants paying the same entry fee.

At one world kickboxing commission in particular, Messina realized the women’s prizes were just a fraction of the men’s.

“I was like, somebody’s gotta do something,” Messina said. “And I was waiting for the change. It didn’t happen, so I did it myself.”

While Female Fighters Matter Too accepts donations, Messina is still funding the difference between male and female cash prizes out of her own pocket.

Messina is a fighter in every sense of the word, pushing to keep her business alive after signing the lease on her first Albertson studio the day after 9/11, then facing the 2008 financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic years later.

And when it comes to survival, Taecole studio is an outlier in the industry, as Messina said 60% of martial arts schools in New York have closed since the pandemic.

It seems taekwondo instilled the same benefits upon Messina that she says she teaches her students.

Taekwondo givesd students “a self-belief that they can do anything as long as they work hard,” Messina said. “We just have to find our way and find our ‘how’ and make it happen and not take failure as an option.”

Her studio accepts new students year-round and her new memoir, “Tattered Laces,” will be available on Amazon this Mother’s Day, May 12.

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