Jhoon Rhee, Athletic Ambassador of Taekwondo, Dies at 86

Jhoon Rhee at his home in McLean, Va., in 2002. Mr. Rhee focused on taekwondo as a way to inculcate fitness and discipline, not just as a method to thrash an opponent.

Jhoon Rhee, a grandmaster of the Korean martial art taekwondo, who helped popularize it in America, taught hundreds of congressmen how to spar and trained with Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee, died on April 30 in Arlington, Va. He was 86.

The cause was complications of postherpetic neuralgia, his daughter Meme Rhee said.

Taekwondo became prominent in Korea after a ban on martial arts was lifted with the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945. It has since grown in popularity, becoming an Olympic sport at the Sydney Games in Australia in 2000. But it was virtually unknown in the United States when Mr. Rhee began teaching it in Washington in 1962.

He focused on taekwondo as a way to inculcate fitness and discipline, not just a method to thrash an opponent.

“My philosophy is: What is so great about beating people?” Mr. Rhee told The Washington Post in 2000. “Most sports only emphasize winning, but I want to transform the training in the gym to human qualities. From endurance to perseverance, timing to punctuality, power to knowledge.”

Mr. Rhee became a tireless ambassador for the sport and worked to bring it to a broad audience. At his business’s peak, in the 1980s, he ran 11 studios in the Washington area and trained instructors to teach his style of taekwondo nationwide.

He also developed and manufactured pads to reduce injuries, created martial-arts ballets and ran advertisements in newspapers and on television.

One memorable TV commercial featured a jingle written by Nils Lofgren, who became a member of the E Street Band, and cameos by two of Mr. Rhee’s children.

Mr. Rhee began providing free taekwondo instruction to members of Congress in 1965 and kept up the lessons until 2010. He taught more than 250 pupils from Capitol Hill, among them Joseph R. Biden Jr., Tom Foley, Jim Jeffords and Jesse Jackson Jr. Some earned black belts, learned how to break boards with their feet and fists and even sparred with their colleagues.


“I give them free uniforms, free videotapes, my free time, just to express my thanks to the United States for all it’s done for me,” Mr. Rhee told The Associated Press in 1993.

Mr. Rhee also taught celebrity clients, like the action film star Chuck Norris, the motivational speaker Tony Robbins and Muhammad Ali. Ali, who died in 2016, credited Mr. Rhee with teaching him a spectacularly swift punching technique that helped him knock out Richard Dunn in 1976.

Mr. Rhee told Black Belt magazine in 1996 that he had learned the technique from Bruce Lee, whom he met in 1964 at an international karate event in Long Beach, Calif. Each was performing demonstrations there and they became fast friends.

Mr. Lee was a guest of honor at Mr. Rhee’s taekwondo tournaments for the rest of the decade and often visited him at his home, where, Mr. Rhee said, “we could eat and train like mad until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning.”

Mr. Lee helped Mr. Rhee land a lead role in the 1973 action movie “When Taekwondo Strikes,” and they maintained a correspondence until Mr. Lee’s death at 32 later that year.

Mr. Rhee chronicled their friendship in a book, “Bruce Lee and I” (2000), which included a foreword by Mr. Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell.

“They shared this mutual respect because their work expresses an intense passion for the martial arts as a way of life,” Ms. Cadwell wrote. “Bruce was inspired by Master Rhee’s dedication to learning, the purity of his motives and the discipline of his training.”

Jhoon Goo Rhee was born in Asan, in what is now South Korea, on Jan. 7, 1932. His father, Jinhoon, was a clerk, and his mother, Kay Im, was a homemaker. He started lifting weights as a boy, moved to Seoul at 13 and eagerly studied martial arts after they became legal in 1945 with the end of World War II.

In 1947 he enrolled in Chung Do Kwan, Won Kook Lee’s martial arts school in Seoul, but did not tell his father for months because the practice was still considered disreputable. He had just started his university studies when the Korean War began in 1950.

Fleeing the advancing North Korean army, Mr. Rhee spent two months hiding in a cellar before going to work for the United States Air Force as an interpreter and then serving in the South Korean army.

After a truce was declared in 1953, he studied aircraft maintenance, briefly traveled to the United States in 1956 and moved there for good in 1958 to study at a college in San Marcos, Tex. In 1960 he transferred to the University of Texas, Austin, to study engineering, but he dropped out when he had the opportunity to teach martial arts in Washington.

He married Han Soon in 1966. She died in 1996. In addition to his daughter Meme, Mr. Rhee, who died in a hospice facility, is survived by his wife, Theresa (Kim) Rhee, with whom he lived in McLean, Va.; another daughter, Joanne Oh; two sons, Jimmy and Chun; two sisters, On Goo Chun and An Goo Lee; a brother, Sam; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Rhee stopped teaching taekwondo full time in 1980 to expand his schools and hold seminars around the world. His family still owns and operates two taekwondo studios in Virginia.

Mr. Rhee maintained a grueling training regimen until he contracted shingles in 2010, typically doing at least 1,000 push-ups and hundreds of situps a day.

“Midway through an hour of aerobic exercises, he drops into a split that would make a gymnast envious, bends forward until his face touches the floor, looks up, and smiles,” The Washington Post wrote in 2002, when he was 70. Then he said, “I couldn’t do this 15 years ago.”

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