[tps_header]Former World International Taekwondo Federation Champion Rafal Olenski is one badass dude. The three-time Polish taekwondo champ opens up about living his martial arts dream in Busan.
Though his good looks and stylish dress may fool you, the 28-year-old Rafal Olenski, three-time Polish and one-time world taekwondo champion, is a force to be reckoned with. He’s got determination, a fierce fighting stance and if you ask him nicely, he’ll even do some acrobatic spin kicks off a building’s wall reminiscent of old Kung Fu movies. Over a beer – which he occasionally endorses when not dominating his opponents in the ring as much as the dojang – we had the chance to sit down with him to discuss his competitive career, his humble beginnings and, of course, his love for Busan.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Rafal and I’m 28 years old. I grew up in the northeast of Poland, in a small city called, Bialystok. I studied Physical Education in Gdansk, a popular port city, just like Busan. I’ve been living in Busan for about six years now first working as an instructor of taekwondo and then for ITF, the International Taekwondo Federation, as an assistant in running taekwondo tours for foreign fighters and also in putting on events showcasing this sport to the world. I’ve been training taekwondo for 18 years and through hard work and determination I succeeded in becoming a three-time Polish champion. In 2010, I also won the world ITF championships here in Korea and became the world champion in the 64kg division. I have also been training Muay Thai and kickboxing. I have six professional bouts under my belt in K1.
How did you start in taekwondo?
I’ve always dreamt of wanting to be a martial artist, to train with great fighters in Asia under well-known masters. Watching Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and Van Damme in Bloodsport inspired me, and so after complaining to my dad that I wanted to train martial arts, he took me down the street from our house and signed me up for taekwondo. It was a random decision, actually, but I immediately took to the sport and started training intensively. Little by little, I began reaching the goals I set for myself. First, it was me becoming the youngest ITF black belt in Poland and then it was winning the Polish championships three times.
What were your first impressions of Korea?
To be honest, Korea reminded me a bit of the US. Before coming here, I spent some time in Chicago, so when I arrived in Busan and saw the concrete sidewalks, the flashing neon lights and all the familiar company logos and American brands, I thought I was back in the US. Now, after all these years in Busan, what I see being connected to the US is only the American brands and nothing more.
What are your feelings about Busan?
In the beginning, I thought that I would not find myself in this city. I was even contemplating returning to Poland. But after settling down, meeting great people, and gaining more career opportunities, I realized that it would be quite a nice place to live in. I love the nature here, the mountains and beaches. I often go jogging in Haeundae and Gwangalli Beach, my favorite places. The transportation here is efficient, and the service in shops is always exceptional. I love Korean food, especially Korean restaurants. Above all, I’ve always dreamt of seeing Asia, and from Korea it is quite easy to fly to other countries, especially from Busan.
What are the differences between Poland and South Korea?
Obviously, there are great differences between any two countries, but between Poland and South Korea, they are like two completely different worlds. The languages, gestures, culture, traditions and weddings are greatly different. At Polish weddings we tend to celebrate two or three days in a row but here it’s more formal. The average wedding in Korea is like a royal ceremony, too. In Poland, there are wedding traditions but overall it’s pretty relaxed, westernized. There are, however, some parallels.
Poland and Korea have always been fighting against Communism. In fact, Poland and Korea have crossed paths at one point throughout history. When Communism fell in Poland everything went privatized and as a result, our biggest motor company developed a partnership with Daewoo, a South Korean company. Moreover, we’ve also always been torn apart by foreign powers fighting for our land and resources – Germany and Russia. The same situation for South Korea with China and Japan. We also have something similar to mandu. In Poland, it’s called pierogi. We pretty much fill them with the same ingredients but for us we also have them for dessert and put strawberries or blueberries inside. They’re great with a little bit of sour cream sprinkled with sugar. If you ever want to see a mix of Poland and Korea, just have a look at Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, she’s half Polish, half Korean. She was even born in Busan!
What are your future plans?
At the moment I’m recovering from an injury. In a spar a few months back I tore my meniscus, so I’m just taking it slow after my knee surgery; it was my third knee surgery of the same injury, so I really need to take it easy. I’m jogging a bit now but no hardcore training or fighting. When I get back into it, I hope to achieve the same success in kickboxing as I did in taekwondo. I’ve always said to myself that I want to fight until the age of 35, but who knows if I’ll be able to hold up. Right now, I’m also studying in Busan, so I’m hoping my studies could open a few doors in terms of career options. I’m also trying to look at a few business opportunities involving export/import between Poland and Korea.
Any advice for all the youth out there training in sports or martial arts?
The more sweat during training means less blood during bouts. Also, taekwondo, Muay Thai and kickboxing are all about mind, body and soul – not just âfighting’ and âcombat.’ Be ambitious, stay disciplined and don’t make excuses for yourself to miss training. Try to follow your dreams despite the many difficulties you’re bound to encounter while reaching them. Also, don’t be a fanatic about your sport or martial art. Don’t be obsessed with âchasing’ your belt color or trophies, and keep your head cool at all times. What you do in the dojang stays in the dojang, meaning don’t mix âwork’ with your âprivate’ life. I’d like to thank all my friends here in Busan for all their warm hospitality over the years and my lovely girlfriend, Nam-kyung.
Marius Stankiewicz is a freelance journalist and an instructor of English at Busan University of Foreign Studies. You can find his photography and publications at www.mariuszstankiewicz.com