Keck Kick

A Livano resident, is among the nation’s top taekwondo competitors

Growing up in Plano, Texas, Hannah Keck took ballet and poured into it the heart and passion she brings to just about everything she undertakes. Nonetheless, at the tender age of 11, she started to question whether ballet was the right fit for her. “If you see a picture of me, you’d know I never fit into the ballet dancer’s body image,” Keck says. “I wasn’t overweight, but I was a bigger kid
and I got bullied a lot for it.” 

The bullying eventually drove her to consider a new pursuit, and she found it, as it happened, right across the street from her ballet school — in a taekwondo studio. 

“My mom saw it and said, ‘Martial arts. That should help her,’” Keck laughs.

Trying taekwondo — the traditional Korean art of self-defense — turned out to be an auspicious move for Keck, who is now a 21-year-old Olympic contender, regularly competing around the globe at the highest level of the sport. 

Even as a child, Keck took to taekwondo like a natural. The flexibility she brought from ballet served her well; only now she was better able to channel her strength and size into a sport for which it seemed she was born. “I had done karate when I was a lot younger and really liked that,” Keck says. “So taekwondo clicked.” 

She started with a focus on poomsae, which is usually associated with the study of forms and techniques — the performance aspect of taekwondo. But a few years later, she was ready to get in the ring. 

“All of a sudden, I got really lucky in a match and decided
to start fighting,” she says. Her taekwondo school connected her with a new coach, Tony Cabrera, to help her transition to competitive sparring. By high school, she was training twice a day, with the second session often lasting until 10 p.m. Many weekends, she left home on Friday evenings to travel to competitions, returning home on Sunday just in time to get ready for school again on Monday. “It was crazy, especially for a 17-year-old,” she says. 

Cabrera, her coach, saw in Keck a young woman with rare talent and momentum.  

“She progressed very fast,” he remembers. “Hannah is very, very talented, focused, and stubborn, if you will. She hones in, she wants it, and that’s it.”

Taekwondo 101

For the uninitiated, taekwondo — which became an official medal sport at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia — can be difficult to understand. Taekwondo can be translated as “the way of foot and fist”; Keck describes it as “fencing mixed with karate, but more kick.” Competitors wear foot gear with magnets inside, a chest guard, and a head protector with sensors that register when a competitor makes a hit to score points.  

Taekwondo’s Point System 

1.     One point for a punch.

2.   Two points for a regular bodyshot,
such as a sidekick or roundhouse kick.

3.    Three points for a regular headshot.

4.    Four points for a spinning bodyshot.

5.     Five points for a spinning headshot.

Penalties incurred also give one’s opponent points, and
five penalties automatically result in losing the round. 

Keck says she’s long past needing to remember the scoring system; she enters the ring on autopilot. She’s a skilled puncher, and one of her best moves is delivering a punch followed by swinging her leg around for a hit to the head — a four-point shot. 

“I like being in the ring, the energy it gives me,” she says. “I like the adrenaline rush. I also like fighting as an art form just as much as I do as a sport, so I still go into training every day with the attitude that I’m trying to make art.”

At 21, a Serious Contender

Now training with the elite USATKD National Academy at the United States Performance Center in Charlotte, N.C., Keck has already won gold medals at international tournaments, including the French, Canadian, and Korean Opens, and many more medals and honors from major competitions globally and domestically. Keck has also been named an All-American Taekwondo Athlete at both the junior and senior levels. 

At the moment, Keck’s most seminal honor is having made the National Team for the 2023 World Taekwondo Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, which take place at the end of May. It will be her second trip to the event. 

Along with the coaches in Charlotte, Keck has also continued to work remotely with her home coach, Cabrera, who helps her develop strategies for upcoming competitions. He also provides moral support on the rare occasion her spirit flags. 

“What Hannah is doing is demanding from the athlete perspective and from a life perspective, too,” Cabrera says. “A lot of times, you have to put your dream ahead of family gatherings and other events that are important in order to travel to events that are important for your athletic career. But she is an amazing athlete, very talented, and one who has a very high level of grit and perseverance. She is very, very focused on what she wants and continues to amaze me every time.” 

Keck says that when others express that kind of faith in her, it helps her to push through the hard days. “I’ve been very lucky that the general population of USA Taekwondo has been very kind to me,” she says, adding that the support meant even more to her last year, when she didn’t make the National Team. “The whole community rallied around me, and I think that’s the biggest honor.” She wrote more emotionally about the support she’s received in an Instagram post after she learned she was headed back to the World Championships: “I just want to give a huge thank you to everyone who has supported me over the past year. …That kid just wanted to be seen, but she’s gained so much more than that. That kid got her fight back.”

Looking Ahead

Keck feels great going into the 2023 World Taekwondo Championships. This is her second time to compete in the event (she was only 17 the first time) and considers it both an honor and a thrill. “It’s an exhilarating atmosphere,” she says. “They send you out with music, the lights are on, and there are people yelling and shouting. I think that’s the addiction that keeps me coming back into the ring.” 

Her confidence level is high. “I’m honestly banking for a medal at this World Championships,” Keck says. Having hit the prime age for taekwondo competitors, she also feels good about her chances of making the team for the Paris 2024 Olympics. There, anything could happen.

Still, Keck says it’s never too early to start thinking about life beyond competition. Though her training schedule is demanding, she makes time when she can to visit a local farmer’s market, and she finds peace reading and spending time with her cat. She is also currently a part-time remote college student and plans to eventually go to medical school and study infectious diseases. 

“Realistically, taekwondo athletes don’t compete past their early 30s,” she says. “It’s a sport where you have to be really flexible but also swing your legs in such a violent manner that people get injured like crazy. So I’m very lucky that this isn’t my end game. Now, I’m in this chapter of my life and enjoying every second of it, but when I decide to retire, I know there are things beyond it. I’m excited for that too, because I live for science. That’s another thing I can see myself waking up and being equally excited and passionate about.” 

Photography: Taylor Banner Creative
Words: Rosalind Fournier