Updated: Aug 11, 2019
By Bill Kellick | Jan. 14, 2019, 11:32 a.m. (ET)
From the most humble beginnings, Adalis “AJ” Munoz has risen to be the best in the world. In November, the 22-year-old captured her third consecutive title at the World Taekwondo Poomsae Championships in Taipei and topped it all off by being named Freestyle Poomsae Female MVP for the second time in four years. But to become the best in the world at her craft, the self-described Army brat has risen from the dust…literally.
While her father was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., Munoz started her taekwondo training as an elective for her homeschooling under legendary Grandmaster Myong Sok Namkung Mayes, the world’s first female 9th Dan. However, because the ceilings at the taekwondo school were somewhat low for freestyle training, Munoz began her initial training on her gravel driveway and in her garage.
“I choreographed my first freestyle form as well as my world championship form in the dirt,” she says proudly.
That first world championship gold medal in 2014 also did not come without its own set of challenges. Munoz competed in Aguascalientes, Mexico, with a broken wrist suffered in training, yet pulled off quadruple jump front kicks, backflip kicks and multiple 540 jump spin hook kicks on her way to winning the 17+ individual freestyle division and the Female Freestyle MVP award.
“For my acrobatics I had to do a one-handed round-off double flash—something I’ve never attempted before,” says Munoz of the modifications she made for her injured wrist.
Although her freestyle game was the best in the world, her recognized poomsae skills lagged slightly behind. Munoz finished in the preliminary round in the recognized discipline at the 2014 world championships.
“I definitely had a gap in recognized considering I was training in an incorrect style that was not the international standard format,” Munoz says. “My presentation scored well at 2014 Nationals, but my accuracy was very low at that time.”
Enter Coach Barbara Brand, herself a three-time bronze medalist at the world championships. Munoz met Brand at the world championships in 2014 and started working with her shortly thereafter on improving her acumen in both recognized and freestyle.
“I began coaching AJ after the 2014 world championships with the intent of elevating her game in recognized poomsae to match her freestyle poomsae skill level and success,” says Brand.
Improved results were almost instantaneous as Munoz went on to win the individual recognized division at the U.S. Nationals the following year and, after a separate team trials, was named the alternate to the 2015 U.S. National Team.
“My parents have been my overall coaches from the beginning and we were training with outdated techniques,” says Munoz. “Coach Brand brought us all up to speed with the proper format as well as the updated techniques.”
To bridge the distance between Coach Brand in California and the Munoz family in Texas, weekly video calls were held so Brand could instruct AJ’s parents on what to look for in accuracy.
“I truly appreciate everything she has done for my family and me,” Munoz says of Brand. “My recognized poomsae would not be where it is if it was not for her guiding us.”
Credit for the improvement, however, must also be given to Munoz for the amount of time and effort she put into her training.
“Due to AJ's strong work ethic, her growth in recognized poomsae has been great across the board over the past few years,” says Brand.
Munoz trains in both freestyle and recognized poomsae every day and will occasionally mix the two styles into one longer training session when approaching competitions.
“I think the major difference in training is endurance and acrobatics versus accuracy and presentation,” she says. “I definitely have to maintain a very high standard of cardio and strength to keep up with freestyle.”
Munoz’ parents are her freestyle coaches and outline all of her conditioning and endurance training as well as the music selection and drafting of the freestyle routines. In addition to the poomsae component, freestyle is graded on five additional components that are currently not in recognized forms and require an experienced eye to keep everything on track.
“A key to good freestyle is the ability to jump high, so I do a lot of plyometrics to build that up,” adds Munoz. “The recognized training focuses on flexibility and stability in addition to the accuracy and presentation, all of which are already considerations for freestyle training.”
As to which discipline she prefers, the 5-foot-1 Munoz remains torn.
“I like both on different days, it depends on the mood I am in. Overall, I feel more satisfied when I work on freestyle because I feel more freedom to express myself. A lot of people would say freestyle is harder to master, but I think the opposite is true for me. I have always been short and stocky, which is perfect for freestyle but not the best for recognized. I think because of that, I have had to work harder to overcome and learn how to make my body appear elongated and graceful.”
After winning three straight world titles in freestyle, one would think there would be minimal room for improvement in that phase, but Munoz says she continues to improve in both disciplines.
“Even though my recognized has improved, my freestyle has made even bigger strides,” she says. “For recognized, I feel more in control this year than I have in previous years when I am on the mat competing. A lot of competitors finish their form and say ‘What just happened? What did I do?’ While I still feel that is partially true, I would say I am much more in tune with my body as I compete. As for freestyle, I have felt aware for a while now, and have worked very hard to learn new and competitive techniques every year that have kept me on top since 2014. I think it has to do with my foundation and how my parents…my freestyle coaches…have trained me.”
That training involves constantly improving to perform at her absolute best and stay ahead of the rest of the world.
“I went from a 540 roundhouse and single-handed round-off double flash in 2014, to a 720 roundhouse, B-twist, gainer, standing flash kick, round-off quintuple flash and X-out flash in 2018,” says Munoz of her freestyle routine.
Coach Brand also points out the improvements in both disciplines that Munoz has been able to achieve prior to the recent world championships.
“This year in freestyle training, she raised the complexity and dynamic value of all the requirements: jump side kick, multiple kick, gradient kick, sparring run, acrobatic kicks. Then, she choreographed a world championship routine that highlighted each of these components as well as strong technical poomsae skill.
“In recognized poomsae training, she increased her presentation level via increases in balance, overall strength, kick height, and power. This was evident in her first round win against Ecuador and strong round against Iran. Although she didn't reach the medal stand in that division or the 18+ freestyle pair division, these performances showed clear potential for future world championship medals.”
At the 2018 world championships, Munoz competed for the first time in three divisions: freestyle individual, recognized individual, and freestyle pair with partner Michael Pascua.
“I was hopeful I would medal in at least one of my three events,” Munoz says. “I knew the competition would be tough. After all, two years is a lot of time for athletes to prepare...and I was right, it was very tough.”
Prior to the world championships, Munoz admits she was struggling to balance her busy schedule. A full-time student at the University of Texas at Arlington, she is in her junior year pursuing a bachelor of science degree in exercise science, and a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. Much of her time is split between training, traveling, school and running her family’s dojang.
The stress carried over into the competition in Taipei as she found herself wrestling with self-doubt before going into the final round of her individual freestyle event.
“My parents always travel with me to every event, so they pulled me aside and reassured me that even when I have a rough day, I’ve always had the mental fortitude to pull through, and that is exactly what I did.”
That fortitude pushed her once again to the top of the podium in the individual freestyle competition and garnered the second MVP award of her career.
“I think ‘surreal’ is a term that is overused, but rightly so,” says Munoz of the feeling she experienced on the top step with the gold medal around her neck. “To me, it felt like a decade of training flashed by as I stepped to the number one spot. I reflected on every hardship, obstacle, breakdown, injury, and every second spent training for that moment. I think my favorite part every time I’m on the number one spot is hearing the Star-Spangled Banner.”
As for being named MVP for the second time in four years, it came as a surprise to her.
“After watching four days of amazing athletes, I was not expecting to be considered, especially for a second time. I was a bronze medalist at the 2017 Summer World University Games in Taipei. Earning that bronze at that world event motivated me to work harder than ever before and it paid off.”