The price of greatness is not determined by a dollar sign. It is not measured in time. It can not be counted in blood, sweat or tears.
Greatness comes only via the sacrifice of all of these things and often times more.
Michael Couloucoundis, an incoming senior at Darien High School, knows this. For the last 10 years, he's given all he can to compete in Taekwondo poomsae, and in early July, he came away with the greatest achievement possible: A gold medal at the 2014 U.S. Taekwondo national championship in San Jose, Calif..
Couloucoundis' first-place finish in the junior male poomsae division also earned him a spot on the U.S. national team, which will compete at the ninth annual World Taekwondo Poomsae Championships in Aguascalientes, Mexico, from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2. He currently holds a third-degree black belt certified by the Korean governing body, Kukkiwon.
Known as the forms side of Taekwondo, Taekwondo poomsae requires its athletes to individually perform complex series of movements in front of judges and compete against all other entrants in a given event, akin to the sports of figure skating and gymnastic. Within the United States, poomsae is organized into state, national, and international competition.
In the final round of this year's national competition, Couloucoundis overtook California's Ryan Tucker, the three-time U.S. junior national champion, who hadn't been defeated in three years. Heading into his final performance, the Darien native estimated he needed to best Tucker by a half-point to earn higher marks from the judges, a humongous margin within poomsae. One year ago at nationals, Couloucoundis took home the bronze.
"As I came into the final round, I knew this was my last chance to compete at this event as a junior," Couloucoundis said. "So I said to myself I better put everything I have into it because there's no next year. It's now or never."
By scoring a 7.43 to Tucker's 7.34, Couloucoundis realized a lifelong dream and the opportunity to compete on a world stage. While the chance to go toe-to-toe with the very best in a few months was gratifying, he says the feeling of having the gold hang around his neck was the best part of his victory.
"Winning nationals meant more to me than making the team," Couloucoundis said. "They go hand in hand, but my goal has been more to win for 10 years now, really ... I wanted to show I was the best this country had."
Last year, Couloucoundis traveled far and wide for key compeitions in Canada, Denmark, Mexico and Las Vegas. Over that time, he also sustained nagging injuries, which later led to a ninth place finish at the 2014 U.S. Open. Spurred on to increase his training efforts for nationals, Couloucoundis went on to reap the benefits of his extra work in what could have been the final performance of his junior career.
Since he took the gold, the rising senior continues to train at the Connecticut Chung Do Kwan gym in Colchester, where he trains with Master David Turgeon, former captain of the U.S. Taekwondo poomsae team. His training and travel to Colchester eats away at opportunites to spend the summer leisurely, but sacrificing time with friends, family and at school is nothing new for Couloucoundis.
"To ever succeed at a high level in anything requires sacrifice, time and heart. A lot of the time I can't hang out with friends," he said. "For me, I practice between three and four hours a day now, which includes traveling to Taekwondo gyms, going to an actual gym, working out and working privately with coaches."
Should Couloucoundis win an individual medal at the World Championships, his victory would be the first time that a competitor from the United States, under 30, will have done so in a sport traditionally dominated by Asian countries like Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines.