'In their DNA': Ridgefield family of taekwondo black belts bonds in dojo

RIDGEFIELD — The usually full studio had cleared out for the night, save for Sofia Cluney and her family, who lingered to show off their taekwondo skills.

The 10-year-old stood poised at one end of the dojo while its owner, Wooyeol Jeong, waited patiently at the other. In his hands was a one-inch-thick wooden plank, which he held outstretched in front of him.

At Jeong’s command, Sofia sprinted toward the board and propelled herself into the air, using her foot to break it clean in half. She then bowed before her master as a sign of respect, her black taekwondo robe bagging at her sides.

Earlier this year, Sofia earned her first-degree black belt alongside her father, Stephen, 63, but she is not the only Cluney kid with that distinction. Her older brothers, Harrison, 18, and Hayden, 14, have black belts as well. Harrison is a third-degree black belt and Hayden is working toward his fourth-degree black belt.

The Cluneys are the first family from World Champion Taekwondo in Ridgefield to boast four black belts at the same time since Jeong opened the studio in 2007. Harrison began training there a year later when he was 5.

At the time, “he wasn’t looking at classic school sports,” Stephen Cluney said, but once he took a class at the dojo “the rest (was) history.”

As he learned the rituals of taekwondo from Jeong and fellow master Young Jo, Harrison also discovered the values of discipline, commitment, respect and determination. Hayden, who grew up going to the dojo twice a week to watch his brother, soon followed in his footsteps.

“It’s just a whole ethos that I wanted them to get in their DNA,” Stephen Cluney said of the rituals associated with the sport.

Over the years, the boys encouraged their father to take up taekwondo, but it wasn’t until Sofia enrolled that he decided to “jump in.”

“I saw this as the window,” Stephen Cluney recalled when his daughter asked him to join four years ago. “The real impetus was to connect with my kids and keep physically healthy as I get older.”

Hayden and Harrison have since joined the dojo’s staff. “Since we were some of the first people here, we thought it was important to teach what we were taught to the next generation,” Harrison said.

“It’s only fair,” Hayden continued.

Considering he’s a couple belts behind his sons, Stephen Cluney will sometimes defer to them when learning new techniques.

“If we were sparing full out they would hurt me, but they know their revenue source,” he joked.

When COVID hit, the Cluneys continued training online. And since they couldn’t visit Jeong’s studio, “we took the dining room table apart and created (the room) as our dojo,” Stephen Cluney said. “We weren't having people over, we didn't need it.”

He and Sofia did, however, take their first-degree black belt test at the dojo in February. He described the masters’ style as “highly-challenging with a smile,” but the family regards them as friends.

“They’re kind of like a second set of parents,” Hayden said. “They’re always there for us, and always ready to help us improve in any way they can — just like regular parents.”

Sparring alongside his father and siblings has only increased the bonds in the Cluney household, Harrison said. “(It’s) a really great experience for all of us.”

As Harrison prepares for his freshman year at Drexel University this fall, Stephen Cluney reflected on the past 13 years he and his family have spent in the dojo.

“It has been invaluable in regard to self-confidence and being responsible (for) each other, and respectful and accountable to others,” he said, “and in today’s world that is huge.”

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com