NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Sports offer a path to better ourselves through competition. For one martial artist it’s been a way to a new life.
Andrew Park is a coach for Team USA Taekwondo. He’s trained some of the best in the world, but never anyone like Ismael Amarou Gouze.
“When I was a kid I loved to watch fights. I don’t know how to explain it, but taekwondo is my life,” Gouze said.
Sports became his life after losing his right hand. Taekwondo was perfect because 90 percent of the fighting is done with feet.
To score a point in a taekwondo match you have to hit the sensor with enough force.
“You’re getting seven and 10. Not enough. I need that at 19. So a little more power,” Park told his pupil during training.
“The way he really puts his heart out. No excuse. Very positive. On and off the mat he’s a true champion. I mean, he just has this positive, positive energy. I just can’t describe it,” Park told CBS2’s Steve Overmyer.
“For him to transfer that energy and really be optimistic about things about things is just truly amazing.”
Taekwondo gave the 18-year-old a door to escape. In the past decade, violence has forced more than two million from Ismael’s home country of Niger to be uprooted. Only a small percentage make it to America.
“I love New York. I can find anything I need. I have people who help me achieve my dreams. I have people that love me a lot. I don’t know if there would be another country as much as I love the USA,” the teen said.
Every day he travels by train and bus for more than two hours to a dojo in Queens in search for a better life.
“He was telling me how every day he was faced with dangerous situations. He’s worried about everyday life and putting food on the table. He says ‘although I’m living in a shelter at the moment, this is like paradise,’” Park explained.
Ismael has personally felt the reign of terror of Boko Haram, a jihadist organization based in Niger. Six years ago they raided his village. The teenager escaped, but not before facing mortality at the age of 12. A terrorist had thrown a grenade into a room full of children.
“When they threw the grenade I felt responsible to protect them, because they were just kids. They hadn’t lived yet. I was older and I felt I could deal with the situation better. I didn’t want them to throw away their lives. That’s why I stayed to do everything possible to help them before the grenade exploded,” Ismael recalled.
“Where they threw the grenade there were a lot of kids. So I grabbed the grenade. The grenade blew off my hand.”
He spent two weeks in a hospital before beginning his training. Grit and determination has made him a peak performer.
Ismael is top-10 in the world right now.
“How good can he be?” Overmyer asked Park.
“We’ve fought local and regional competitions under regular categories and able to come back with gold,” Park said.
“Against able bodied fighters?” Overmyer added.
“Yes. So that was very impressive.”
His next goal is to compete in the 2020 Paraolympics.
“I want to win Olympic medals, African medals, all the medals,” Ismael said.
Ultimately, his value won’t be measured in gold medals, but in the lives he’s already saved.