To Lead A Good Life

This isn’t an interview with the author of some self-help book. It’s a conversation with a man whose life began when he chose not to give up and who eventually won a world championship title in Open Taekwondo. Ronny Kokert then burnt out again and in 2015 decided to help the refugees arriving at his country’s borders. The fifty-year-old Austrian not only is an expert in martial arts. He has also found himself.
Text Kristian Thees
Photo Kremayr & Scheria

Mr. Kokert, when you were in your teens, the doctors told you would never again be able to do sports. But you turned to Asian martial arts and its philosophy, studied sports science and went on to win several international tournaments. That all led to your world championship title in Open Taekwondo in 1998. Maybe that’s a good place to start.
That was a key tournament for me. My fighting style had always been somewhat stiff. And although I had won several international tournaments before, I had always failed at the world championships. Once I finished third, once fifth. At some point, that really got to me. But then I went to the Open Taekwondo world championships, where different styles compete against each other. And there I was facing this guy from the US in the final breaking competition.

What’s a breaking competition?
Breaking is a martial arts technique where the contestants have to break these special boards by striking them with their hand or foot. It’s a test of one’s mental fortitude. So there I was, and suddenly everything just sort of fell away. Standing in front of this stack of boards, I felt like time was standing still. And I noticed my foot going through those boards like a knife through soft butter. It was as if in a dream. I won. And that’s when I knew: It’s time. Time for a new concept. It’s not about defeating anyone else. I just have to defeat myself, come into harmony with myself.

Ronny Kokert was born in Vienna in 1970. When he was thirteen, he was diagnosed with a bone marrow disease that kept him confined to his bed for several months. Nevertheless, he refused to accept his doctors’ prognosis that he would never be able to do sports again. After graduating from school, he studied sports science in Vienna and in 1992 he became the youngest Austrian national champion in Olympic Taekwondo. This was followed by the Open Taekwondo world championship title in 1998 after beating his American rival, who weighed thirty kilograms more than him, in the breaking competition. In 2016 he founded his Freedom Fighters project training young war refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

And how did you do that?
I started teaching and promoting my own martial arts technique, which I call Shinergy.

It’s an entirely new martial art?
Yes. The concept is mainly about not having to fight. Knowing how to fight means no longer having to fight.

Isn’t that the same philosophy as in most Asian martial arts?
Well, in classical martial arts, the focus is on group drills. The movements are rehearsed, trained like a robot and performed by the group. We don’t do that in Shinergy. In Shinergy, the focus is on your own individual movements. We can see the same problem in our school system, where we are taught things through memorization, repetition and rote learning. It’s only later in life that we realize the importance of being flexible, to apply our skills depending on the specific situation. That’s what counts.

Then things really took off for you . . .
When I started Shinergy in 1999, I set up a 1,200 m² training center in Vienna. I took out a whole bunch of loans and immediately found myself back on the hamster wheel. I had fallen into that same trap again: burnout. The constant public appearances, promoting Shinergy, posing for brochures, chasing after everything and everyone. I was rushing through life again, and in the evening I felt totally burnt out and empty and didn’t see any sense in any of it anymore. But then, in 2015, when the refugee crisis began unfolding at our border, I started a fundraising campaign. And I drove down to the refugee center in Traiskirchen, south of Vienna, and started talking to some of the young men there.

»Shinergy is mainly about not having to fight. Knowing how to fight means no longer having to fight.«
Ronny Kokert

At what moment did you decide to go to the refugee camp?
It was like a reflex. I just feel that we have a responsibility to help. And I knew that we can and must do everything we can. So I took the donations there and ended up talking to these young men, looking them in the eye. They had lost everything, left their families behind and seen terrible things. But there was this radiance in their eyes, this longing for a better life in safety and freedom. And that inspired me immensely.

How so?
We immediately felt a bond. And when I told them what I do, that I’m a martial arts instructor, their eyes lit up even more. These were all boys in the process of becoming men, at an age where they want to be taken notice of. I think I would have had a much harder time with pottery classes or yoga.

»They had lost everything, left their families behind and seen terrible things. But there was this radiance in their eyes, this longing for a better life in safety and freedom. And that inspired me immensely.«

Ronny Kokert

You inspired a lot of people there. One of them is a young man by the name of Ismael . . .
I took a liking to Ismael right from the start. He came to practice beaming and immediately made us laugh with his little jokes. He was the smallest and the quickest in the group, playful and witty. But what really struck me was that there was this tragic story behind that façade. Ismael had fled his home, left his family behind, capsized twice in the Mediterranean, swam for his life and finally made it to Austria.

You’ve spoken of encounters with refugees that have completely changed your life and whose lives you have changed. Looking back, what new insights did you gain into yourself as a result?
I found out who I am and where I feel at home. I taught these boys how to fight so they wouldn’t have to fight anymore. And they showed me what really matters. Who better to teach us how to deal with uncertainty and misfortune than people who have lost everything, but who have still retained their human­ity? They showed me that it is important to stay connected to yourself, to be yourself, to maintain a bond to your fellow human beings, with humility and gratitude. These are the things that really matter. This is what you need to lead a good life.

Read the complete interview in the new rampstyle #23

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