As a woman in the taekwondo community during the 1980s, TaeCole’s Maggie Messina was used to being told she wouldn’t be able to fulfill her dreams simply due to her gender.
“At times I felt that they wanted me to quit,” Messina told Blank Slate Media regarding her early training in Brooklyn in a martial art dominated by men at the time. “They just didn’t want the presence of women around.”
It was those experiences that came full circle in Albertson last month when Messina, owner and master instructor of TaeCole Taekwondo & Fitness, was promoted to 8th-degree black belt, an achievement often reserved for the men and women who devote their life to taekwondo.
Messina was promoted by Grandmaster Tae Sun Kang, who has awarded over 3,000 black belts himself, three of them eighth degree and to only one other woman aside from Messina.
“I’m a tough instructor, a lot of people ask for this promotion and I don’t always give them,” Kang said when promoting Messina. “But when someone has this level of accomplishment, it’s impossible not to. I’m so proud of what this person has accomplished, she’s done an incredible job.”
Kang’s father, Grandmaster Suh Chong Kang, was one of the pioneers in bringing taekwondo to the United States, Messina said, and promoted her seven previous times before his passing in January 2022.
“My grandmaster was one of the people that once told me back in the ’80s I would never be promoted to such a level or have the ability to run a school or do what I’ve done today,” Messina said. “Today, I’ve done everything he and many others said I could not possibly do.”
Messina first got her start in taekwondo at Kang’s in Brooklyn, where she discovered her purpose in life, before becoming a professional and a trailblazer for women in the sport.
Professionally, Messina first competed at Madison Square Garden in 1986, competing with her division in the gym corner near the bleachers and the bathroom. Since then she has won multiple world championships in multiple sport karate circuits.
From upstate New York, Messina grew up in the foster care system. Living through poverty, she said, helped her acquire the determination necessary to reach the upper echelons of her sport.
Messina, speaking after finishing a black belt ceremony for over 60 of her students, said the earlier degrees are more predicated on physical assessment and technique, but as the degrees progress, the time–-and community impact–-to advance increases.
“My 7th-degree exam included 10 hours of physical work,” Messina said. “The 8th only included two hours of physical work and I needed to show what my students can do.”
The evaluation does not begin and end in one day, but started 11 years ago, when Messina earned her 7th-degree black belt.
Between that time, Messina continued being an ambassador to the sport, accumulating prestigious accolades along the way and leaving an impact in her local community.
In April last year, Messina was inducted into the Ocean State Grand Nationals Hall of Fame in Warwick, Rhode Island.
The extent of Messina’s accomplishments does not fit completely on one page, as shown by her website, let alone several walls at her studio in Albertson. She has been named master instructor and director of tens of locations, won numerous fighting championships and traveled the world competing. Her studio is lined with gold medals, championship belts and photographs of her travels.
Messina has received merit awards from the U.S. Congress and the state Assembly for her dedication to achieving equality, particularly in regard to children and women.
In July last year, Messina was awarded the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award and inducted into the American Martial Arts Alliance Foundation Hall of Honor.
Messina was one of six people last year to receive the award for dedicating 4,233 of her hours to service for the nation and one of 100 to be inducted into the hall.
The achievements underscore Messina’s commitment to giving the younger generations a better platform than she ever had.
“Within these last 10 years, I’ve been able to help make history,” Messina said. “I wanted to level the playing field for women, which is something I never had coming up the ranks. It was important to me as a leader to make sure we were able to right some of these wrongs because I endured and suffered the pain of what it felt like.”
Messina said a 9th degree is not her focus at the moment, but to keep doing what she’s been doing since opening TaeCole in 2001 and teaching thousands of students along the way.
“I wasn’t thinking about it during my last promotion, but it was a discussion I had with my grandmaster where we decided it’s time,” Messina said. “It’s been a huge honor.”