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Grandmother/granddaughter duo receive black belts


Zoe (center) and Kathryn Bernhardt (right). The Pilot/Jef Hatch

Families that learn to fight together, stay together. At least until they both have their black belts anyway.

Kathryn Bernhardt – a 62-year-old cancer survivor and grandmother – and her 11-year-old granddaughter Zoe have been studying tae kwon do for the past six years and have earned one of the crowning achievements in the sport – the black belt.

For Zoe receiving her junior black belt – she’ll be eligible to test for her standard black belt when she turns 16 – is a major accomplishment.


“Getting my black belt was the main accomplishment,” she said. “But I plan on staying in longer and testing again when I’m 16.”

For Kathryn, it was more a matter of getting her life back.

“I was diagnosed with breast cancer and when I finished my treatments and was recovering from surgery, I realized I couldn’t raise my arm above my head,” she said. “Doing tae kwon do has really helped me to be limber and healthier.

“I didn’t expect tae kwon do to help so much, but it has really been a miracle.”

Kathryn began looking at tae kwon do as something that would help her granddaughter have confidence and only planned on being the proud grandma sitting in the bleachers cheering Zoe on, but then she got pulled into it.

“We wanted to help Zoe be more confident,” Kathryn explained. “I had plans to just be in the audience, but she needed me in class with her, so I started doing it.”

The duo began their journey at Brookings Tae Kwon Do, but when it closed, they began studying at South Coast Martial Arts Academy with Master A.J. Geldersma.

“Master A.J. has been wonderful working with us,” Kathryn said. 

Geldersma is a seventh-degree black belt in Western Michigan Tae Kwon Do, as well as a second-degree black belt in Arnis – a stick-fighting art from the Philippines.

“Zoe is my first junior black belt,” Geldersma explained after the testing concluded. “She has worked really hard and I’m impressed with what she has accomplished at the age of 11.”

While Kathryn excelled at breaking boards with palm strikes, and concrete blocks with foot stomps, it was evident that Zoe’s talent for success lay in performing forms with perfection.

“I love the forms,” Zoe said. “It gives me something to focus on with my mind.”


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