The most recognizable signs of July in Arkansas are probably cookouts, fireworks, and red-white-and-blue everything. But, in downtown Little Rock, a sea of taekwondo instructors, students and their families have become an annual fixture of summer in the city.
The American Taekwondo Association, which is headquartered in Little Rock, holds its World Expo at downtown's Statehouse Convention Center each year. The event is by far the largest tourist gathering in the city, with an estimated 20,000 visitors from around the world making the trip to Arkansas's capital city.
David Russell, senior director of sports sales for the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the expo has a direct economic impact on the city of about $5.3 million.
"We've got them booked through 2030, so we're excited for these folks to continue coming to Little Rock," Russell said. "I've spoken to people from Norway, from Brazil, throughout Europe, so it's exciting to have a chance to show off Little Rock to international visitors."
The event is also the largest for the ATA, which holds two national events in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., in addition to the World Expo. The association's founder and Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee moved the group's headquarters to Little Rock in the late 1970s, with the first World Expo held in 1990. A Korean-inspired gate and garden just outside the convention center was dedicated in Lee's memory in 2009.
Russell said the massive influx of visitors benefits the city's economy as a whole, as well as serving as a model to attract similar events to Little Rock.
"Having this on our resume is extremely helpful. It is helpful to show how we can handle a group of international visitors, how Little Rock can accommodate a group of this size," Russell said. "Over and over, we hear how much people enjoy coming here. And it's so helpful to us to be able to use their testimonies when we're going out to try and get future business."
Chandra O'Brien has made the drive from just north of Memphis, Tenn., for each of the past ten years. Though she is a first-degree black belt herself, O'Brien made the case for taekwondo as a spectator sport.
"I haven't done it nearly as many years as these other individuals. I much more enjoy watching," O’Brien said. "I just kind of got sucked into watching it because I'd never seen it before, and so now I always seek it out."
O'Brien has seen firsthand the effect that taekwondo has had on her son, who originally struggled with team sports due to his Attention Deficit Disorder.
"I strongly suggest martial arts because of the way that it's regimented. It's not a team sport, it's an individualized sport. But at the same time everybody's encouraging of each other, and it's about your individual progress," O'Brien said. "It really helps them to focus on respect and courtesy, but focuses on helping them to learn to restrain themselves and do within themselves."
Carson Clews, a newly-minted master instructor from Salem, Ore., said he feels encouraged by the popularity the sport has enjoyed both worldwide and in the United States.
"I actually love how mainstream it's becoming. It's become accessible to kids," Clews said. "They have added safety gear, they've got so many ways to make sure students always feel safe and are safe, but are still learning good self-defense."
Clews has been practicing taekwondo for 22 years, roughly two years past the minimum amount of time required to become a master instructor. Clews said he doesn't expect any noticeable change in his teaching style after becoming a master; rather, he sees it as an accumulation of his skills over the years.
"I believe the title of mastership comes by acting like a master up until you can; doing what is best for your students, maintaining a positive environment to where they want to progress, and they do progress," Clews said. "So, does it change things? Kind of."
Chandra O'Brien echoed Clews that the discipline and sportsmanship central to taekwondo is evident even to the untrained eye.
"If you watch the sidelines, you'll see that they are very encouraging of each other. They're all very good winners and very good losers, which is such a great display for our younger generation that’s learning it," O'Brien said.
Clews said he hopes to continue to foster progress in his students, both young and old.
"I have seen so many adults who doubted themselves walking out there. Maybe they felt the uniform looked weird or whatever, and then they tried it," Clews said. "And years later… even months later, [they] suddenly find they're capable of things they never imagined they could do. It's incredible to see."
Clews had a simple call-to-action for those curious about martial arts.
"The only thing I can say is try it."
The American Taekwondo Association World Expo continues through Sunday, when the 2018 World Champions will claim their titles.