He Has a Leg Up on the Competition : Dilag’s Long Hours of Training Pay Off With U.S. Tae Kwon Do Title


When Jose Dilag came to America with his family from the Philippines nine years ago, the language change wasn’t the only barrier he had to overcome.

Being the new kid on the block in an unfamiliar urban city was a tough transition for Dilag, who was 9 when he left his hometown of Dumangus on the island of Iloilo. Dilag’s father, who is also named Jose, said his son was getting pushed around in the neighborhood and wanted him to be able to defend himself.

“I told myself that someday these people will see what will happen if they push my son again,” Dilag Sr. said.

“My dad thought that I should start (martial arts) for my self-defense, because I was a newcomer here and because I was very small,” Dilag said. “I was skinny and small and he thought that I might need it because I don’t have a big brother.”


Dilag’s talent in martial arts soon blossomed into much more than a form of self-defense. Last month, the 19-year-old tae kwon do black belt entered his first national tournament and came home with the gold medal.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Dilag said.

More than 800 competitors in eight divisions vied for top spots in the 16th National Taekwondo Championships in Madison, Wis. Of the 52 competitors in the bantamweight (118-127 pound) division, Dilag faced seven of them in his climb to the winner’s circle.

“I didn’t think about knocking anybody out, I just wanted to go one step at a time and beat them with points,” Dilag said.


The victory earned Dilag an invitation to next month’s Olympic Festival in Minneapolis and qualified him for a wild-card position in the 1992 Olympic Trials. The 5-foot-7, 126-pound Dilag, who graduated from West High last week, is on his way to his ultimate goal--winning the Olympics.

“Winning nationals was the first step in 100,” Dilag said. “There will be lots of wins and losses and obstacles on the way up. I can’t win them all, but I’m certainly going to try.”

Dilag Sr., who is black belt in karate (a Japanese martial art), started teaching his son the basics of martial arts at home months after their arrival in Lawndale. When young Dilag learned the fundamentals, he began training at a kempo studio. By 1984 Dilag had attained a red belt in the Chinese martial art, but when the studio relocated to Santa Monica, he was left without a studio to hone his skills.

He went to a couple of different studios over the next five months until he spotted a tae kwon do studio near his house in Hawthorne. Pon


Yong Cho’s Academy, which was sold to Grandmaster Tae Sung Lee in December and renamed the Blue Wave Academy of Taekwondo, has been Dilag’s stomping grounds ever since.

Tae kwon do is a Korean martial art which utilizes the feet 90% of the time. Fist action makes up 10%.

Dilag’s father wakes his son at 5:30 a.m. each weekday to begin training with a 25-minute run. His workout continues with jumping rope and stretching until 11 a.m. Rest and nutrition fill the early afternoon hours. At 2:30 p.m. Dilag heads down to the Blue Wave Academy where he trains and teaches classes until 8:30 p.m. He ends each workout by running the stadium stairs at nearby El Camino College.

“I hardly socialize because of tae kwon do,” Dilag said.


John Yoon, 12, who finished first in the California State Taekwondo Championships in May, credits Dilag for his progress.

“I used to play around in class and not take it too seriously,” Yoon said. “But Jose turned that all around. He teaches us to push ourselves. He is really a good role model.”

According to Dilag, who attained his black belt three years ago, the martial arts can have disadvantages.

“People would say ‘hey, you want to fight’ just because I knew tae kwon do,” he said.


Dilag’s family moved to Torrance in the middle of his junior year at Leuzinger High. His subsequent transfer to North High provided problems.

“I was there (North) three weeks and didn’t really get along with most of the people there, because I was a newcomer and everything,” Dilag said. “So I transferred to West (High) for my security so I could keep training.”

Dilag said the transfer came soon after he had an altercation with a couple of football players on school grounds.

Dilag, who likes to think of himself as a “head hunter,” said the sport is difficult to master.


“It’s not easy to kick somebody in the head while it’s moving,” he said. “It’s seems easy to catch somebody, but when you’re in that ring, you’ve got to think about him kicking you also.

“It’s not as easy as I’m going to kick you in the head--and I’m going to do it right now. He wants to kick you too. With attack, there’s always counter-attack, so there’s always a possibility of getting hit back when you hit him. You’ve got to think twice and be smart.”

Frank Ramos, 35, a black belt in tae kwon do who also teaches and trains at the academy, said Dilag “eats and breathes tae kwon do.”

“He is like a hero around here--everybody looks up to him,” Ramos said. “He’s the best in the school.”


Dilag has drawn inspiration from the 1988 Olympic Games demonstration as well as television and film.

“Every Saturday I’d wait up to see Kung Fu Theater on Channel 9,” Dilag said.

“They extend their feet and fly through the air for a long time. I thought maybe if I took lessons I could fly, too.

“But it’s nonsense what they’re doing--it’s just eye catching.”


Dilag is looking forward to a career in tae kwon do.

“I want to open tae kwon do schools and train future champions,” Dilag said. “I don’t want to sit behind a desk the rest of my life. I’m happy in tae kwon do.”

But for now, Dilag’s dreams are obvious: “If I keep training from now until 1992, I’m going to bring home the gold for the U.S.A.,” he said.