WMU News

WMU student competes at World University Games

Aug. 8, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- When a competition featuring the world's most talented college-aged athletes is on your schedule, you've moved into that echelon of sport reserved for those who will be competing in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

For Amir Khillah (ah-MEER KEE-lah), a Western Michigan University graduate student and coach of the University's Taekwondo Club, Daegu, South Korea, will be his next stop as he pursues his Olympic dreams by competing in the 2003 World University Games. Competing in the lightweight division of taekwondo, Khillah, a seven-time Michigan state champion, will join the 15-member taekwondo team representing the United States in the Aug. 21-31 event. The World University Games are on a competitive level that far exceeds that of the NCAA Championships.

His path to becoming a third-degree black belt and one of the best college-aged fighters in the lightweight division did not take the most traditional of routes. Korea's national sport found Khillah on the grounds of a boarding school in Cairo, Egypt, where his father, Latif, worked as principal.

"I saw some exchange-students from Sudan doing taekwondo exercises out on the soccer field, and ever since then, I've been doing it," says Khillah, whose childhood travels took him to Norway, Lebanon and New Jersey in the United States. He finally settled in southwest Michigan, where he graduated from Battle Creek (Mich.) Academy.

A sport steeped in tradition, respect, and sportsmanship, competitive taekwondo awards points for shots to the chest and head. Matches involve three rounds of three minutes each, with 30-second breaks between rounds.

"That may not sound like much time," says Rachid Ismaili (RAH-sheed is-MAYL-ee), Khillah's coach and co-owner of the Lighting Kicks Martial Arts and Fitness Center in Kalamazoo. "When you enter the ring it seems like an eternity."

But even nine minutes of a constant exchange of kicks and punches sounds paltry when put in the context of the eight to nine bouts required to make the final round of a championship meet.

Khillah's most recent tournament, in May, was the National Collegiate Taekwondo Championships in Blue Springs, Mo., a qualifying tournament for the World University Games. During that event, he fought eight matches, the last of which involved kicking with a right foot that had ballooned to twice its' size due to an injury from a previous match. He hobbled out to the mat after some convincing from his coach.

"I looked at him and he told me 'you can do it,'" says Khillah. The end result was a silver medal, and a trip to Daegu.

A typical training day for Khillah includes a morning of running, biking and "target practicing" in the gym, before going to his classes at WMU. He then does an afternoon session of sparring and finishes with a bike ride. The toughest sacrifice is his diet, which he says consists of "lots of chicken and protein shakes."

Ismaili believes that Khillah's chances are good at the World University Games.

"He competed very well at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas last year against a quality field of international competition," Ismaili notes.

For Khillah, the goal is to medal but in the same breath he says, "Every athlete is going for that also."

Khillah graduated from WMU in April with a bachelor's degree in exercise science and community health education, and he will attend graduate school next fall. Along with earning a master's degree in exercise science, his future goals include making the upcoming Olympics.

"It gets extremely difficult at that level because there are only two weight classes, and it will be hard to determine whether I fit into the heavier or lighter class," says Khillah.

As a member of the 1997 Pan-American Games team, and a semi-finalist of the 2000 Olympic Trials, his experiences should serve him well for his Olympic goal. But how he fares this month in Daegu could be Khillah's biggest kick yet upon the world of international taekwondo.

Media contact: Matt Gerard, 269 387-8400, matthew.gerard@wmich.edu

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