Going for Gold
16-year-old Lexi Hampo, a third-degree black belt, takes top international honors
W hile most teenagers were spending their summer on the lake or learning how to drive their first set of wheels, 16-year-old Lexi Hampo was sparring for gold medals on another continent at the World Taekwondo Championships.
But, she would rather people think of her as just a normal kid – who could possibly kick their butts.
Taekwondo, which is often confused with its Japanese cousin, Karate, is a martial art developed in Korea in the 1940s by Maj. Gen. Choi Hong Hi as a discipline and self defense system for his troops in the South Korea infantry. The sport was recognized as the most popular martial art in 1989 and became an official Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Games. Hampo began her training at the age of 3 at a local dojang (gym) in Fountain Lake.
“I don’t really remember life without Taekwondo,” Hampo said. “My mother enrolled my two older siblings and I guess they just threw me in the mix and I held my own.”
When she isn’t in school at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts, Lexi and her family relax at the Fountain Lake home they lovingly call Hampoland.
“We are a close family and we are all weird and creative in our own ways,” she said, with a laugh. “There is rarely a dull moment around our house, I love it, but I’m probably the best fighter.”
Hampo quickly moved up the ranks in Taekwondo — graded by belt color — and has been a black belt for the past five years. Earning a black belt is as hard as one would think it is.
A year-long testing regimen is required to receive the first of nine degrees of the rank of black belt. Upon receiving the ninth degree,
the student becomes a grand master. There are only nine living grand masters in the World Taekwondo Association, and one of them is another Hot Springs native, Scott McNeely.
“You have a great opportunity in this sport to learn from great teachers and role models. Knowing that there is a grand master from your hometown makes you want achieve the most that you can,” she said.
She earned her third-degree black belt two weeks before the world championships.
“Passing that test really boosted my confidence going into the world championships. It is an incredibly hard test and an incredible honor to reach this rank.”
The championships were held in Coventry, England, July 12-14 in an old ice skating rink with no air conditioning.
“I think the humidity in the gym gave the competition an old world feel,” Hampo said. “The temperature didn’t really have an effect on me. That gym had nothing on an Arkansas summer.” The Southern advantage paid off. Thousands competed for the chance to make it to the international stage and only 45 that got the chance to represent the U.S.
Hampo qualified to compete in individual and team categories, and her sparring team beat out 14 other teams to take home the gold medal, becoming the first American team to win on its first trip to the tournament.
“It’s a great feeling to win at that level,” she said. “It was the trip of a lifetime, but bringing home a gold medal was the real accomplishment.”
After the tournament, Hampo got the chance to relax and be a tourist around England and Scotland.
“The Scottish Highlands were beautiful. I saw at least a dozen castles in one day.”
To cover the expenses of the trip, she started an IndieGoGo campaign and raised several thousand dollars to donors with the promise of free lessons in exchange. “This sport has engrained in me a respect for self and for others,” Hampo said, “I love that I get to share such a disciplined art with others now.”
As for the rest of her summer vacation, Hampo said she is back to the everyday pastimes of spending her time with family and teaching Taekwondo. Though her experience in the world championships has left her with memories she won’t soon forget.
Lexi Hampo, 16, of Hot Springs, demonstrates a kick. Hampo recently won a gold medal in Coventry, England, in the Tae Kwon Do World Championships.