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Developmentally disabled man finds focus through martial arts

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Torryn Coufal who is developmentally disabled, practices forms at World Championship Taekwondo in Beaverton, where he successfully tested for his second-degree black belt.During a training session at World Champion Taekwondo on Southwest Teal Boulevard, Torryn Coufal kicks, jabs, jumps and pivots with machine-like precision.

Throughout the Monday afternoon practice, the 30-year-old exudes the confidence, self-discipline and manners one might expect from a 16-year veteran of taekwondo. While developmental disabilities — resulting from an e coli infection as an infant — limit Coufal in certain areas, at the dojo, the young man is at peace with the world.

“You should never give up,” he says after training with Master Jong Bum Park. “If people tell you you can’t do something, you don’t have to listen to them.”

Torryn should know. The Tigard resident not only beat a near-death experience as an infant, but also turned middle school bullying against him into a motivational tool. On Nov. 17 at Park’s Beaverton dojo, Torryn’s 16 years of devotion paid off in a successful test for second-degree black belt.

“I want people to rise above their own challenges,” he says. “And people who are not disabled have their own challenges as well. I want people to realize that.”

Life changer

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Torryn Coufal practices his forms at World Championship Taekwondo in Beaverton. An E. coli infection as an infant nearly cost the 30-year-old his life.In February 1983, just six months after he was born a happy, healthy baby boy, Torryn was fighting for his life in a Walla Walla, Wash., hospital. Among other ailments, he suffered from high fevers, swelling of the brain and a severely elevated heart rate. Flown by air ambulance to Children’s Hospital in Seattle, the infant fell into a coma.

“That was the most difficult thing I have ever been through,” said Torryn’s father, Ernie Coufal. “At one point, they didn’t think he was going to survive. He had a fever of 106 degrees and a heart rate of about 240 (beats per minute). It was three weeks into that process before they even knew what was the issue.”

It turned out to be an E. coli infection, something Torryn likely picked up while nursing from his mother, Kimberly.

“Both his mother and I got E. coli,” Ernie says. “His was a secondary infection. For adults it’s not as big a deal. For a 6-month-old, it’s life threatening.”

Beating the odds, Torryn survived his horrible ordeal. The illness, however, left him with significant intellectual and physical challenges. When he was 2 and a half, his parents enrolled him in programs to help in both areas.

“Had it not been for early intervention, Torry would’ve had more difficulty than he experienced,” Ernie says. “Guided learning was happening at an early age, where there were professionals who knew how to work with developmental issues.”

Push comes to shove

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Torryn Coufal, left, and father Ernie Coufal.  Torryn, who has special needs, earned his blackbelt recently after 16 years of study

Enrolled in special needs programs in regular elementary and middle schools in the Tri Cities, Wash., area, Torryn did his best to adapt. But when bullying began in his teen years, he felt vulnerable and unprepared.

“The bullying started in middle school and continued through high school (in Vancouver, Wash.),” he says. “It was my height, the way I talked, how small I was. I was the smallest kid in the school. They hated that. They honestly hated that.

“I wanted to lash out. There were times when it was hard to control my anger,” he adds. “Sometimes I would say, ‘Stop. Leave me alone,’ and told the teacher. Sometimes they didn’t do anything.”

One day, while walking down a Vancouver street with his friend Gary Wolf, Torryn was taken by a taekwondo school the boys passed by.

“I looked at it, and (Wolf) said, ‘Woah, that’s cool!’ I said, ‘Are you gonna sign up for that?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think so. I have to go ask my mother.’ I said I’ll think about it.

“I thought it would be fun, and I could also use it to protect myself,” he adds. “(My parents) were on the fence with that.”

Ernie Coufal (pronounced “so-ful”) admits he wasn’t so hot on the self-defense angle for the 14-year-old.

“I had a lot of reservations,” he said. “I was afraid after he learned the skills, he’d use them in anger. But he convinced us.”

For Torryn, persistence paid off.

“It was a little difficult, but each day that went by, it got easier,” he says. “I felt more confident, more disciplined, more social. It also gave me more respect for people.”

Without going into detail, Torryn admits the skills came in handy, both as a student at Hudson’s Bay High School in Vancouver and after he moved to live with his dad in Redmond.

“I would say it saved my life,” he says. “It allowed me to make friends.”

Good advice

Ernie, who divorced Torryn’s mother and remarried, noticed the changes in his son.

“Over time, I’d gotten to where I understand why he needs (taekwondo), how it’s benefitted him physically, emotionally and mentally,” he said. “I’m glad he convinced me that he should participate.”

Torryn’s devotion to taekwondo has never wavered, but he can be frustrated by his limitations. After moving to Tigard with his dad and studying with Master Park, Torryn was having trouble learning to handle nunchucks, two sticks linked by a short chain used as a martial arts weapon.

“He said, ‘Dad, I don’t know how to do it,” Ernie recalls. “My response was, ‘Keep at it! It may take you awhile. It’s like everything else you’ve done. You’ve had challenges put before you.’”

From Master Park’s point of view, Torryn consistently rises to those challenges.

“He has 16 or 17 (taekwondo) forms memorized,” he says. “It takes a lot of focus, memorizing the forms. In the beginning, it was hard for him — now it’s easy.”

As a young adult, Torryn’s biggest challenge is probably finding suitable, steady employment.

For now, he enjoys assisting Master Park with martial arts classes as well as janitorial work at the Beaverton dojo.

“It’s very difficult with somebody with special needs to get gainful employment,” Ernie says. “He would love to do something that uses his skills. There are programs out there for people with no abilities, but for people like him who could work, it’s difficult to get help.”

While the Coufals realize the challenges ahead, they’re still basking in the glow of Torryn’s hard-won black belt success.

“I can remember when he hit about 25 and decided he was getting pretty tough,” Ernie recalls with a grin. “He said, ‘Dad, I could take you.’”

With deadpan timing, Torryn quickly chimes in.

“And that hasn’t changed.”




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