The cavernous gym echoes to the sound of small children hitting each other as hard as they can. The room is a blur with white suits and straight legs flying through the air. A thud, a crack, high kicks perfectly aimed at the faces of their opponents. And in the centre of this melee stands a man who knows what it means to be kicked to the curb, but he’s got back up again and again and fought his way to the top. Meet Justin Menchen.
By day Justin is a ‘normal’ guy, a married father of two who travels up and down Andalucia fixing Mac computers. But once the sun goes down he becomes a superhero who teaches strength, discipline and confidence. He’s a Taekwondo Master.
We are in San Pedro near Marbella where Justin lives and works. He says on some days it reminds him of back home in Venice Beach, California. Although the long sandy beaches and blue skies are the only thing his life now has in common with his time growing up in the wrong part of town in the 1970s.
‘If I had to describe my childhood I would say it was like a mix of the movies Trainspotting and American History X,’ he says, his gentle voice contrasting with the vicious images those two films bring to mind. ‘Life was hard.’
As Justin prepares for his class I watch a small blonde boy, like a cherubic mini storm trouper in his protective clothing, grinning with glee as he runs about and rolls on the floor. He isn’t much older than six or seven, and like most of the children in Justin’s class he has nothing more to worry about than school and going to the beach on weekends. But some children aren’t as fortunate.
‘I smoked my first cigarette when I was nine years old,’ Justin tells me. ‘I was in a gang, getting into trouble, and by the time I was twelve I spent all my time on the street and sometimes had to sleep in a car.I hit my lowest point at sixteen, I hit bottom, but after a few years of sobriety I found my way into a martial arts studio. To obtain a blackbelt was always a childhood dream.’
Some might call it luck, or fate, or divine intervention, but the man that gave Justin his love for Taekwondo (Mr. Jones) not only happened to live nearby but taught Olympic Style Taekwondo. This sport, along with Judo, is one of the only martial arts featured in the Olympics as it is judged on points. It focuses on the sport aspect rather than self defence.
‘But I’m not tough,’ Justin laughs. ‘Just because I have a black belt in Taekwondo doesn’t mean the next guy who is bigger and faster than me can’t kick my arse!’
Taekwondo is a unique martial art. It originated from Korea and it’s their national sport, bigger than football. After the Korean War in the 1950’s many US and British soldiers learnt the sport over there and brought to Europe and the United States where it has grown and grown.
I ask whether all that kicking helped Justin with life on the streets.
‘It’s not about violence,’ he explains. ‘It’s about skill, speed and flexibility. I have always been goal orientated so Taekwondo gave me something to strive for and a sense of accomplishment each time I got a belt. I love the sport, I love the discipline and most of all I love the comradeships it brings.
After that I believed I could do anything I set my mind to and I have Taekwondo to thank for that.’
Twelve years ago Justin and his wife moved from sunny California to sunny Spain (where he had visited her family’s holiday home before and loved it). They now have a ten year old son and an eight year old daughter and his reputation as The Mac Man is legendary across the region. So what made him return to Taekwondo after all those years?
‘It was actually my son who inspired me,’ he says smiling. ‘We were clearing out an old closet and came across all my Taekwondo equipment and belts. He was only five years old then and asked me what it all was. I explained and he thought it was cool that he could be like a Ninja Turtle too. His enthusiasm reminded me of how I felt when I had that need to learn, so I started teaching him.’
His son is now ten years old and a blue belt, the second highest ranking belt, and his younger sister is already a green belt two levels behind him. Before he knew it Justin had a big group of his children’s school friends wanting to join in and that’s how his classes grew.
For four years he taught for free at various gyms and halls, this is the first year he has set a fee for his classes.
It is clear how passionate Justin is about bringing something positive to the lives of the kids he teaches, which considering his background is not surprising.
‘You have to keep kids stimulated and in a healthy routine,’ he says, motioning to the children running in circles around us. ‘You leave a child unsupervised and they go off the rails, parents now-a-days chuck an iPad at their son and leave him alone behind closed doors and then they wonder why their teenager has issues. Keep them in sport, it focuses their energy.’
I point out that surely wealthy Marbella doesn’t have the problem of kids living on the street and getting into trouble as other areas. He shrugs his shoulders.
‘An abandoned child is an abandoned child, there are teenagers out here living in mansions alone with hired help and cars they aren’t legally old enough to drive. You think they are better off? They have still been left by their parents to fend for themselves, except instead of drinking in a bar their mum is on a yacht somewhere not thinking about them. It’s sad.’
This is a happy class as the girls and boys grunt and grin with each strong kick they give. It looks very violent to me but Justin assures me I have nothing to worry about.
‘Children love it! They get kitted out in protective gear and then really go for it. Unlike other martial arts, where there is no contact, this is the only sport where you feel like you are really fighting but without any injuries. It’s like fencing, play fighting with skill and points to win.’
So what are these kids getting out of it, except for wearing themselves out?
‘Kids struggle with their bodies as they grow up, they are clumsy and awkward. This sport is brilliant for improving balance and coordination. It teaches them how to use their strength, focuses the mind and more than anything builds up their self esteem.’
I ask him what the most satisfying part of being a Taekwondo teacher is.
‘I have always lived each day as it comes,’ he says. ‘And this right here is my fun, the part of my day that is about doing what I love. Life is about being in the present, and that moment when you look in a student’s eyes and you see it, you see that they really ‘get it’ and I have passed that on to them. That’s what makes it all worthwhile, and at that moment nothing else matters.’
The cute little blonde boy is back and he’s asking Justin a question. He stares up at his Taekwondo Master and it’s there, that look in his eye, the look of pure admiration. I realise Justin is more than a teacher to these children, he’s their superhero.
More on Justin.