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Waterford Township — It had been more than a week since 11-year-old Leslie Daniels won a gold medal at the 2019 USA Taekwondo Championships in Minneapolis.

Still, when she returned to Waterford’s Everest Taekwondo studio last Monday, Daniels had the new piece of hardware dangling from her neck.

“I don’t think she’s taken it off,” said coach and gym manager Amul Gorkhali.

Daniels was one of 12 students from Everest to attend the Championships, which took place at the Minneapolis Convention Center from June 28 to July 4. Half of them came back with medals. 

Nikolas Miljkovic, 11, Biplav Kharel, 13, and Ishaa Shah, 15, all earned gold. Shakthi Rajakhanna, 15, and Olivia Humenchick, 11, took bronze.  

Kharel’s victory earned him the distinction of becoming the first black belt in Everest’s eight-year history to win a gold medal at Nationals. It was also the first gold medal won by a Michigan competitor at this year’s event.

Daniels’ win made her the first two-time national gold-medalist from Everest. She didn’t compete at the 2018 nationals in Salt Lake City, Utah, but if she had, Gorkhali said, “this would have been her third one for sure.”

The successful trip was built on a foundation of intense training. For more than two months leading up to nationals, the class rolled seven days a week. And unlike the rest of the year, these classes were “hard in the beginning and in the end,” Daniels said.

At Everest, though, hard work is a given. It always has been. And now, as the gym continues to grow — within the last year, Everest moved to a next-door property to double its training space — Gorkhali finds himself leaning heavily on another principle: accountability.

“We don’t micromanage them,” Gorkhali said. “I let the kids kind of do their own thing, because for me, it’s more important than just having them take punches. It’s like a life lesson.

“We are kind of like, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do. If you want to do it, do it. If not, that’s on you.’”

That philosophy runs across the board at Everest, and it even applies to Gorkhali himself. The 24-year-old in 2015 took the place over from his father, Love, a sixth-degree black belt and former Nepal Olympic coach, who opened the gym in 2011. Amul and younger brother Anmol, 19, run the competitive group while their 53-year-old dad enjoys a lighter workload of running the studio’s youngest, non-competitive classes.

There’s been a bit of a learning curve for Amul since first he first coached at Nationals in 2013. Like Amul now treats his students, however, Love, is reluctant to chime in on his son’s business unless his expertise is directly asked for.

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“Whatever they’re doing, they’ll be good,” Love said. “I don’t go anywhere now. I don’t have to worry about going to nationals or any championships. They handle everything. I’m retired now. I can relax.”

Amul and his brother can also relax knowing what type of environment they’ve forged in the wake of their father turning over the keys. “We’re like a little family here,” Amul said.

That means developing relationships with his students on a personal level, and being in the front half of his 20s certainly helps. Whereas Amul said that Love holds a more “old-school mentality,” he’s able to relate with the kids over things like the popular photo-messaging app Snapchat.

Following the team’s two-month training camp and ensuing Nationals appearance, Amul gave his students a well-deserved break. The week-long hiatus from Taekwondo-related activities included trips to trampoline and water parks, and concluded with a camping trip later that weekend.

Building a healthy competitive atmosphere also means making sure that the students are comfortable with each other. Iron sharpens iron, as they say, and Amul believes the students’ close-knit nature is one of the biggest reasons why they’re collectively successful. 

For proof, he said, look no further than Shah’s gold medal. The 15-year-old joined Everest less than a year before heading to the 2019 Nationals. When Shah arrived, she was told Daniels would be her sparring partner.

“She was like, ‘What? I’m going to spar an 11-year-old?’” Amul said. 

“(Daniels) picked her apart every second of the match. Then after that, she started realizing, ‘OK, I have an 11-year-old beating me. I can’t just go to Nationals like that.’”

Kharel is another youngster quick to lend a helping hand. After capturing gold early in this year’s tournament, he returned to his classmates to help prepare them for upcoming matches.

“They’d help me,” Kharel said, “so I want to help them.”

For the most part, Amul isn’t concerned with his class’ final medal count. It’s nice, of course, but the biggest goal he sets for students each year is to simply “perform better than you did before.” 

Kharel made his first trip to Nationals in 2017. After one match, a loss, his stay was over. Meanwhile, three other Everest students won gold that year. Humenchick suffered the first official loss of her career in the opening match of last year’s Nationals. Even Daniels, despite already owning a gold medal, achieved that goal.

“It felt better this time,” she said. “I had a higher belt.”

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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