History of Pine Lake TMA
True Martial Arts: The Beginning to Today
True Martial Arts was founded by Thomas Zoppi. Mr. Zoppi started his Martial Arts training in the winter of 1972 while living in Reno, Nevada. His good friend, Pem Wall, was training in Taekwondo under Mr. Lou Grasso. Pem was very persistent and when the school offered a free one month promotion, Mr. Zoppi finally agreed to join but advised Pem not to get too excited because he would quit after the free month expired.
Mr. Zoppi recalls how he got started in martial arts:
My class was only once a week on Saturdays and I liked it more than I ever thought I would. I guess the one thing that intrigued me was that I found myself in a sport where the competition was me, not another team or player. Some things I did real well for a beginner and other things I had difficulty with, but I could see that everything I learned could be improved. Everything! I began to wonder how good I could become.
After the month was over I signed up for another month and then another. I stayed at Mr. Grassos school until I moved to Las Vegas in 1974. I was a Red belt (same as brown) when I finally left.
In Las Vegas, I found another school and studied under a Korean Master named Mr. Kim. Before I left Las Vegas I had also managed to learn some Ishin-Ryu from a good instructor and some Shoto-Kan Karate from a Black Belt friend. I even had my own school for a while. We met twice a week in a park, and my wife Laurel Zoppi, was my first student.
The school was made up of about five students that worked in a hospital with Mr. Zoppi and his newlywed wife, Laurel. They trained together outside for about a year and a half, regardless of weather conditions. During the summer when it would get unbearably hot in the desert, they trained at night.
In 1976, Mr. and Mrs. Zoppi moved to Los Angeles, primarily motivated by the opportunity to train with Mr. Dan Di Vito.
Mr. Zoppi recalls how he met and started training with Mr. Di Vito:
I first heard of Dan Di Vito when I was living and practicing Tae Kwon Do in Nevada in 1973. My Instructor at the time had been a student of his. Mr. Di Vito lived in Los Angeles and owned Choi Karate Institute of Los Angeles. He had an awesome reputation as a Martial Artist and was a supremely well-conditioned athlete. He had grown up in Chicago and won honors in baseball and wrestling during college. As a boy, he won city championships in dancing and checkers. He was probably the most well known for being an ethical and caring teacher of the Martial Arts. That interested me and I wanted to meet him very much.
I planned a vacation to Los Angeles and asked my instructor if he could help me get in touch with Mr. Di Vito when I was there. He did better then that and arranged a vacation for himself and planned for the three of us to work out together.
The first workout was fantastic. Mr. Di Vito, who was then Kyo Bum Nim, made me feel very welcome. First, he had me show him some of my movements and a form or two. I was a somewhat clumsy Green Belt at the time, but he mentioned only my qualities and abilities. He complimented me for my speed and power and made me feel like I was a capable Martial Artist.
Next, he demonstrated a couple of his forms for me. The way he performed his forms was amazing. Those images of him doing form remain to this day as my standard of how a form should look, when done correctly. I remember sitting on the floor and he ki-hop'd so loud that I thought I was going to go right through the wall that I was leaning against. It was amazing that a martial artist could be so strong, yet as graceful as a ballerina.
When he finished he asked me if I wanted to spar. I was surprised and excited to have the opportunity. Sparring with Mr. Di Vito was totally exhilarating. He scored on me many times but he never hurt or injured me. Each technique that came through my defense had the speed and power of a lightning bolt thrown by Thor. Yet his focus and timing were so precise that I was only nicked by these potentially lethal moves. As we sparred, his skills beckoned me to try harder and harder-and I did. Each time I increased my efforts to a higher level of speed and skill, he raised it up a level, also. It was wild; no matter how well I fought he was always just a little better than me. Not by a lot, only by a little.
Later I realized that he was like a magnet pulling me up a mountain, staying just far enough in front of me so that the magnetic pull didn't lose its effect. I fought the best I had ever fought that day. I fought like a black belt. Yet I never scored a point or landed a technique. A day or two later, I decided I would someday move to Los Angeles and study at Choi Karate Institute. Two and one half years later, I made the move.
In 1977, Kyo Bum Nim Di Vito went back to Chicago to test for 4th degree Black Belt: Sa Bum Nim. His Instructor, Mr. Choi, was always asking him to come back and test. Everyone who knew Mr. Di Vito knew he was easily equal to a fifth degree at the time, probably sixth degree in ability. However, Mr. Di Vito was never interested in acquiring rank. I think he only tested to make Mr. Choi happy.
When Sa Bum Nim Di Vito came back from Chicago, he started having an open class for Black Belts. Many great fighters came to our school to train. Sa Bum Nim used to trade information and techniques with the Black Belts that practiced other styles. This is when I learned much of what I know about styles other than Tae Kwon Do. There were many champions that came to spar, including Fred King, who was then the top-rated fighter in the Northwest and rated third in the country.
All of these champions came to train and fight with Sa Bum Nim Di Vito. One odd thing was that after their first workout, most would show up late for the next. For the first hour of the workout, Sa Bum Nim might have done something like a hundred fifty pushups, three hundred sit-ups, three or four hundred kicks, several hundred punches, and then some heavy bag work. After that, those who were still standing would spar. That's when all those other black belts would show up!
Sa Bum Nim had a reputation for being a wild man at working out. One thing that I do know is that every one of those great fighters had the highest respect and admiration for Sa Bum Nim Dan Di Vito. He is a person of such great determination and he could not be defeated. If you beat him one time, he would certainly beat you the next time, no matter who you were. This is the kind of challenge that the great ones love.
As I look back, the important thing that I learned from Dan Di Vito was nothing about winning or losing. I learned about Indomitable Spirit. He was always able to move to another level of ability because he understood and lived by the concept of not limiting yourself.
In 1981, Grand Master Remy Presas, the founder of Modern Arnis, came to the Los Angeles area. Mr. Zoppi and Mr. Di Vito attended his seminar and they began their weapons training under his tutelage.
Mr. Zoppi recalls how he began his Modern Arnis weapons training:
I had never heard of Arnis when I first met Grand Master Remy Amador Presas. He had been the national champion of the Philippines, and for a time, the personal body guard of the Philippine President. My first seminar with him was grueling; eight hours packed into two weekend evenings that took me from ground zero as an Arnis practitioner to Ambassador, a title he bestowed on those he felt qualified to disseminate basic Arnis techniques to others.
Remy came to this country as the guest of President Jimmy Carter. He did his magical Arnis demonstration at the White House and then set out across the country to teach Arnis to America. He spent time on the East coast, at the University of Michigan, and then came to Los Angeles where he was introduced to us, the students and instructors of Choi Karate Institute. He took a liking to our school and decided to stay for a while. SBN Dan Di Vito, myself, and another student became his first West Coast Black Belts. The three of us, along with one of his Black Belts from Michigan, helped him put together the materials for his first book, entitled Modern Arnis. The pictures for the book were shot at the Los Angeles studios of Black Belt magazine.
In January of 1982 the Zoppi's moved to Bellevue, Washington. They had friends in the area and three young children and wanted to find a nice place to raise their family.
A short time afterwards in October of 1982, Mr. Zoppi taught his son, (Kyo Bum Nim and Chief Instructor of Pine Lake TMA) Skyler Zoppi, in his garage on his 5th birthday as a birthday gift. A month later, he got his first paying student. Her name was Nancy Wellman and she paid $15 a month. Nancy worked with Laurel. One day after work, she was attacked by a man with a knife. Fortunately, a passer-by helped her escape. The trauma of the experience left Nancy with a great fear of men. Laurel asked Mr. Zoppi to teach her self-defense in the hope that it would restore her confidence and relieve her fears. Nancy trained with SBN Zoppi for about two years. Not long after Nancy began, a few others joined and Laurel also decided that she was ready to continue her training.
In naming the school, SBN Zoppi wanted the name to be significant in epitomizing the mental values that he felt were important in Martial Arts. He found the eventual name while reading a book about a Martial Arts Warrior. The book mentioned the true way of the warrior, and that reminded SBN Zoppi of a Choi Karate Institute advertisement that cited a "true martial art" referencing what was honorable and good about martial arts.
On December 20, 1982, True Martial Arts moved from the garage to its first rented location. It was an empty space behind a doctors office on Bellevue-Redmond Road in Bellevue. There was access to the site three nights a week. It was a good place to train with high ceilings and low rent.
It was in April of 1984 when (Sa Bum Nim and TMA Overlake owner) David Barrett started taking classes.
Mr. Zoppi recalls the early days of True Martial Arts:
I remember after the first year or so I thought, what have I gotten myself into? I already had a full-time career and now I was giving up most of my leisure time to teach Martial Arts. Often, a class would have only one or two students and they were all clumsy beginners! On top of that, instead of making money on this second career, I had to most of the rent out of my own pocket. I remember telling Laurel that if they ever all quit at once, I would close it down.
Well they didn't quit and finally, we left the doctors office and after a short time at the Bellevue VFW Hall, we signed a lease for our first real space. We had our name in the phone book and a sign out in front of the space. It was a two-year lease that began on July 1, 1985. The space was on Northrup Road, the rent was $875 a month, and yes-we lost money on that deal too. By this time it didn't really matter. True Martial Arts was now more like a family than a business and you don't really mind spending a little time and money on your family!
In March of 1986, the Zoppi's daughter, (Kyo Bum Nim and Taekwondo Director) Leah Zoppi joined the school. In October of 1987 (Kyo Bum Nim and Arnis Director) Jon Cory started training. He had been training at a Kung Fu school and was looking for something different.
Laurel Zoppi and David Barrett were the first two students to achieve their Black Belts at True Martial Arts. They received their Black Belts on January 13, 1988.
In 1990, the 1st annual TMA School Championships was held at Audubon Elementary school in Redmond, Washington. Just about 100% of the TMA students training at that time attended and competed.
True Martial Arts moved to NE 21st Street in Bellevue between Dunn Lumber and the Kawasaki dealership in 1991. It was a bigger and more visible location. By this time, there were 100 students actively training at True Martial Arts.
After eleven years of training, Skyler Zoppi achieved his 1st degree Black Belt in April of 1993 at the age of fifteen.
On April 1st, 1995 True Martial Arts opened a second school on the Sammamish Plateau. Mr. Zoppi researched several locations and decided on the Plateau when he saw it was a family-orientated, densely populated area with a lack of recreational services nearby. The new school was located a few doors down from its current location in the Pine Lake Plaza shopping center, behind the QFC grocery store. A few students from the Overlake location who lived in the area, transferred over but for the most part the school was financially supported for the 1st few years by the Overlake location and the Zoppi's personal income from their day jobs. The school thrived and within a few months, over fifty new students had joined. Also in April of 1995, (Kyo Bum Nim and Overlake TMA school manager) Jennifer Berg joined the school.
In order to earn a Black Belt, it became a requirement to first achieve Black Belt in Modern Arnis in 1996. This became a significant distinction for the school. Black Belts at True Martial Arts would now be Black Belts in two different styles.
True Martial Arts was named as one of the top 200 martial arts schools in North America in 1996 and 1997. This honor was announced by Martial Arts Business Magazine.
The turning of the century brought new locations. TMA Pine Lake moved into its current location, a few doors down to a neighboring space on January 1, 1999. This location provided the opportunity to have two training floors, with two classes running concurrently. The TMA school in Bellevue stayed in the Overlake area, however, moved a few blocks to a neighboring Redmond location on NE 24th Street in April of 2000. The location in the Overlake Square shopping center, about one block east of Sears was significant because of its visibility and access to potential students walking by to other high traffic businesses.
Having completed his requirements, Sa Bum Nim Zoppi was certified as a 6th Degree Black Belt in Taekwondo in March of 2001. Four months later, Sa Bum Zoppi passed away on July 12, 2001 after 55 years of chasing his dreams.
The following is a sample of what appeared in the August edition of the monthly newsletter of True Martial Arts:
As we continue to strive together in honor, strength, and love, I hope you will remember my fathers spirit and teachings and apply them to the way you carry yourselves as martial artists and as people. Beyond that, my father was a humble man, and he would not want or tolerate anyone getting caught up or lost in the sadness of his passing.
- KBN Leah Zoppi
FOR SA BUM NIM
I came to you to teach me when I was just four years old,
You'd teach me to be a black belt, and so I was told.
For five years now I've been training and I'm so much closer to my goal,
But without you here to guide me, there is a sadness in my soul.
You've been a father, friend, and teacher and taught me so much,
Like Ki Bon One and Pung An Two, fighting combinations and such.
You taught me how to show respect and gave me self-confidence,
You showed us all the Black Belt Way and the best in self-defense.
Today we are mourning the loss of you and wondering how we go on,
We know not to say the O word, but it really hurts to know you're gone.
Things just wont be the same, without you here to help us along,
You've always been there to show us what is right and what is wrong.
I thank you for everything you've done for me over these past years,
And as a black belt I wont be ashamed to shed all of these tears.
Why did this have to happen? I guess wed have to ask Him,
But one thing is certain, we will all miss you Sa Bum Nim.
-Brice Bielaski, a Black Belt from Overlake TMA
I have trained at TMA for over five years. Sa Bum Nim was a crucial part in my training and life. His unfortunate passing has had a deep emotional impact on me. He was a second father to me. His wisdom and strength instilled in all the students a dedication and commitment to their families and communities. Sa Bum Nim told me once: A leader is one who makes the people around him look good. I have used this as a definition for leadership ever since. Sa Bum Nim was this type of leader. He brought out the best in all of us. He is an inspiration to all of us, and he will always hold a place in my heart. I wish your family strength in this time of need, and in time, to heal.
-Biltu Banerjee, a Black Belt from Overlake TMA
After Mr. Zoppi's passing, it was his expressed desire in his will that David Barrett be installed as Chief Instructor of True Martial Arts. The American Chang Moo Kwan and Modern Arnis weapons training systems continued to evolve and be refined under Mr. Barrett's leadership.
In February of 2002, TMA Overlake moved to a larger location across the parking lot in the Overlake Square shopping center to its current location. SBN Dan Di Vito was present at the Grand Opening ceremony, and awarded Mr. Barrett 4th Degree Black Belt and the title of Sa Bum Nim. Just a few years later in September of 2004, TMA Overlake expanded with 1400 square feet of new space, most of which is used today as a second training floor. Falcon Construction, owned by Joe and Michelle Bielaski designed and completed the remodeling process. The Bielaski's are the proud parents of Black Belts, Colton and Alex.
In October of 2004, True Martial Arts reached the milestone of having 500 active students.
As our schools continued to grow, TMA ownership felt the need to adapt and change to continue to offer the best program possible and to provide the best service to students. Thus, the leadership of Pine Lake TMA and Overlake TMA was separated. Kyo Bum Nim Skyler Zoppi was installed as Chief Instructor of Pine Lake True Martial Arts in February of 2007. Sa Bum Nim David Barrett continued in his role as Chief Instructor at Overlake TMA.
A few months later, in May of 2007, KBN Laurel Zoppi were pleased and proud to announce that SBN David Barrett and his wife Carla had purchased Overlake True Martial Arts from her. The two schools continue to associate together as True Martial Artist's.