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Kickin' it with family

February 16, 2009|By SAM McMANIS / Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -It's hard to exude that tough tae kwon do attitude when you're a cute 5-year-old boy wearing Power Ranger boots, but somehow Alex Mota pulled it off back in the day.

Fourteen years ago, Mota and his mother, Marie, first stepped into Clint Robinson's tae kwon do training center in Sacramento, Calif., after seeing a billboard advertising one free lesson. Marie, of Japanese descent, sought to have her oldest child take part for three reasons: as a cultural activity, to wear out the active little Power Ranger guy, and she liked the free part, too.

Little did she and husband Armando know at the time that their choice of fitness activity would become something of a family obsession.

First Alex, who is now 19, became so proficient that he started training with adults at age 6. Then along came little brother Andre, now 15, and little sister Michelle, 11 - both so-called "naturals" in the sport that began in Korea as a self-defense regimen and has grown in popularity so much that it is an Olympic sport.

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As if to mark that watershed decision 14 years ago, Robinson keeps a framed 8-by-10 photo of Alex displayed behind the counter at his Roseville school, home base for the Motas since 2006.

The Motas - who moved from Sacramento to Rocklin 10 years ago - have proved to be something of a First Family of Tae Kwon Do in the region.

Alex, who now prefers sneakers sans cartoon characters, seemed headed for an Olympic berth last year. But during trials he suffered a tear to the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a match. It's been a long rehabilitation period, but he hopes to return to action in time to qualify for the U.S. nationals in July.

Meanwhile, he's teaching tae kwon do to kids and watching his siblings make their marks.

Andre, a freshman at Rocklin High School, has gained a spot on the national Junior Olympic team. Michelle, too young for even the Junior Olympics, is nonetheless a three-time national champion in her weight class (less than 70 pounds).

Robinson, who oversees the Motas' training, would like to say he knew immediately that the Mota family would be special.

But ...

"I've got 43 years' experience and watched a lot of kids grow up, and no instructor can know for sure who's going to develop the ability," he says. "But these kids are naturals, and they've got the parental support, which is crucial."

Marie and Armando had no history in martial arts. Armando was a soccer and baseball player growing up in Venezuela. Now they find themselves traveling to nine states for competitions and spending every July in Colorado for the Junior Olympics.

"It's our vacation, even though it's really not a vacation," Armando says. "There's no time for much fun."

Fun for the Mota kids comes from administering sidekicks and body blows to defeat the competition. Soft-spoken outside the dojang, or training hall, they let their feet do most of the talking.

Alex, a freshman at Sierra College, cannot even remember those Power Ranger days and even has trouble recalling his initial love of the sport.

"I guess I did better than the other kids, and I liked the attention from that," he says with an embarrassed shrug. "If you do it so many times, you can't help but get better at it. That's how you learn. It's a desire to practice and, of course, parental support."

Beyond attitude, Andre says the Motas are just blessed with natural talent.

"We've always had the coordination to do the kicks," he says. "Being better at something makes you want to do it."

Which is why Andre followed his older brother into the sport at age 4, and Michelle followed Andre when she was the tender age of 3.

"I thought, oh, she's not going to do it, too," Marie says, laughing. "Can you do it at 3 years old?"

Not to worry. Robinson says Michelle, who at 4-foot-6 and 67 pounds is much smaller than many competitors in her weight class, is feisty.

"I stand by the belief that Michelle's going to outperform everyone here," Robinson says. "She really goes after 'em. She surprises everyone."

The differing demeanors of the Mota children are an interesting study in contrasts, Robinson says. Alex is the emotional one, full of fire. Andre is more calculating in matches, exhibiting patience and then pouncing. And Michelle? She's an aggressive spitfire of a competitor who shares a bit of her brothers' best traits.

"I focus on winning," she says bluntly. "That's my main goal - winning."

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