By PATRICK SLACK
A meal at Old Country Buffet isn’t the start of many elite Taekwondo careers.
But that, and a little deceptive help from his wife, gave Vlad Vikhtinski his start at the National Karate Academy in St. Cloud, eventually leading him to Taekwondo in Little Falls.
“We used to go to Old Country Buffet in St. Cloud, next to National Karate. Now they’ve moved,” Vikhtinski said. “Looking through the window, I wished at that time, I was thinking it would be great to go in practice.”
“But I don’t know,” he said. “I thought it was different people there and I couldn’t be one of them. I don’t know why. But they had a box on the front door, you could put your information on and they sent you a letter with free lessons, free trials.”
Vikhtinski didn’t realize it, but one day his wife filled out a card with his information. A letter came, one that Vikhtinski has kept to this day, and he decided to give it a shot.
He then moved to Swanville from Buckman and sought a closer place to take part in martial arts, joining Little Falls Taekwondo.
Seven years later, his house requires a separate room to display all of his trophies and medals, with Vikhtinski, a first-degree black belt, bringing home two more national medals.
On what passed for a vacation for the Vikhtinski family, he competed at the Amateur Athletic Union National Taekwondo Championships held in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., July 1 – 6, placing third in the Olympic sparring and pattern categories in the 43 and over age division.
“My family was on vacation, but I was really worried, nervous,” Vikhtinski said. “All that joy (of vacation) just passed by.”
Despite the nerves, he ended up not only being the lone person in his division to compete in both Olympic sparring and pattern, but placing near the top of both.
After earning bronze medals in each, Vikhtinski is still unsure which category he prefers, or even what specifically draws him to the sport.
“I don’t know,” Vikhtinski said. “It’s really hard to explain why you love something. Like vanilla ice cream. I don’t know why, but I just love vanilla ice cream. People can be technically or mechanically inclined to some kinds of sports,” adding that in high school he loved gymnastics, acrobatics and wrestling.
Vikhtinski describes himself as having an aggressive style, a style that has evolved dramatically since his start in karate.
“Karate just allows light contact,” Vikhtinski said. “You can block easily every strike or kick with your hands.”
In contrast, Taekwondo is much more physical, with the most points scored on hits to the head.
“I am aggressive and there’s a reason,” Vikhtinski said. “We have just a few students in our class and I know their weaknesses and they know mine. So I have to be aggressive to mess up with their plans. I found out that if I just try to relax and defend, I can’t do it.”
Along with his aggressive style, Vikhtinski’s work ethic and dedication set him apart, said Tim Crocker, Little Falls Taekwondo owner and instructor.
“His greatest strength is his commitment,” Crocker said. “He works very hard at training. Every night in class, Mr. Vlad is the one you see doing pattern over and over. He is our sparring energizer. He is very patient with the youth we have sparring with us. Also a very kind man – that’s the type of person we want to have. We’re very lucky to have him.”
“Mr. Vlad is an outstanding student that trains very hard at sparring and pattern,” he said. “He epitomizes the traits of a true martial artist through his perseverance, integrity and indomitable spirit. We are very proud of Mr. Vlad and his accomplishments.”
At 46 years old, Vikhtinski has no plans of slowing down as long as his health allows him and encourages others who have the same doubts he had to give martial arts a try.
“If some people see us practicing and for some reason think they are too old, they should come over and try and they will be happy I think,” Vikhtinski said. “And we’ll have more national champions in Little Falls.”
“There’s no age limit,” Crocker said. “Everybody has limitations on what they can do, but we encourage people to just try it out and do the best that you can.”