A local man has reached one of the highest peaks in his profession.
On November 5, 2021, Athens resident Moises Contreras earned an 8th degree black belt in taekwondo, earning grandmaster status.
Contreras, owner of the Contreras Martial Arts Academy on Decatur Pike in Athens, has been training taekwondo for 36 years and is mentored by Grand Master Rick Hall, a 9th degree black belt. He also received training from Senior Grand Master He-Young Kimm, a 10th degree black belt.
Contreras achieved his feat at a regional tournament in Chattanooga, hosted by four grandmasters and a senior grandmaster.
“Being a martial arts instructor is no different than any other profession,” Contreras said. “You have to continue your education, your training and your apprenticeship. What this means to me is a sign of the quality of education my students will receive.
Contreras is from Mexico City, Mexico, and said he was pulled in two directions as a young man, athletically.
“When I was around 15, I had to make a choice between football and martial arts,” he said. “I was very natural for Taekwondo.”
He said his decision was helped by a somewhat unexpected medium.
“One of my main sources that motivated me was in 1985 – Karate Kid,” he said, referring to the first of a series of films starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita.
Contreras said he never regretted his decision to focus on martial arts rather than football.
“One of the things that has fulfilled me the most is being a martial arts instructor,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see the students practice and then the epiphany. I have students who have been with me for 20 years – I see them go to college, graduate school, and go on with their lives in an incredible way.
Contreras noted that he has students who have made careers in various fields, including establishing their own taekwondo schools.
“They keep in touch with me – that’s what makes it extra special,” he said.
Contreras moved to Athens 23 years ago and ran his academy here all the time.
“This community has been great for me,” he said.
While Contreras appreciates all of his students, one in particular stood out – his daughter Kristen.
As a 5th degree black belt, the Tennessee Wesleyan University graduate student was trained her entire life by her father.
“She was raised here,” Contreras said as he sat next to the training room. “She works very hard, she is very motivated.”
He noted that one of the things that has appealed to him about martial arts over the years are the lessons that can be learned from it.
“You learn how to be a good person, how to be a productive person,” he said. “You achieve goals as you go. It’s always about what you’re going to do next.
It also helped Contreras recover from a particularly tough battle in his personal life when he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease three years ago.
“We attacked my disease like everything else in life – how can I get better,” Contreras said. “My wife Nancy had a lot to do with it. She helped me tremendously. My daughter also helped me a lot.
Contreras thanked his family, friends and doctors here in Athens who helped him in this fight.
He also noted that he received help from those around him at the academy.
He said that one day during his recovery, he was walking briskly through the training room trying to regain his strength when one of his 10-year-old students showed up to offer support.
“He was encouraging and motivating me the same way I did,” Contreras said.
As he teaches life lessons, Contreras noted that martial arts also helped him through his illness.
“I haven’t missed a class,” he said. “Being here has helped me tremendously.”
Another challenge that Contreras has faced as a martial arts instructor is the COVID-19 pandemic and many things that move away or require more social distancing than before.
“If you told me I would teach martial arts on Zoom, I would have said you were crazy,” he said.
There have certainly been difficulties as the adjustment to the reality of the coronavirus has taken hold.
“It’s all backwards,” Contreras explained, noting that if he wants a student to raise their right hand, they must demonstrate it using their left hand. “We had to relearn everything we were doing.”
However, there have also been positives from the fit.
“We’re teaching more classes than ever, but they’re smaller,” he said. “Our students get more. It worked very well.
In his academy, Contreras noted that taekwondo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and fitness yoga are taught.
In addition to being a taekwondo grandmaster – and the first Mexican-American generation grandmaster in the United States – Contreras is also a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He added that he is also a third-generation grandmaster in the United States – one of his instructors, Kimm, was one of the first taekwondo black belts in the country and his other instructor, Hall, is part of the second generation.
“My instructors are very humble,” he said. “We are always thinking about what we can do for our students. I think that’s very unique and one of the biggest and most important traits of my teaching.