When Marianne Roepe was diagnosed with Cerebellar Ataxia, her mother Margaret Roepe knew that her daughter would likely never play team sports.
So when they found Howard's ATA in Osage Beach, which offered taekwondo classes, it was a godsend to Marianne and her family.
"We were looking for something for her to get involved in, as she couldn't do team sports, due to her disability. A friend of mine suggested coming to Howard's ATA, and we looked into it. At that time, they had a special abilities class, and we started coming to that," Margaret said. "And now, she has integrated into the regular classes."
After three years of taekwondo, Marianne worked her way up to her first degree black belt, and was invited to the American Taekwondo Association World Championships in Little Rock, Arkansas.
She walked away a champion.
"I'm a Triple Crown world champion now," Marianne said with a smile.
"It's fun," Marianne said. And judging from the smile on her face at the classes, she's not lying.
The sport takes a lot out of the 18-year-old, and just like the other students, it requires much practice and leaves her sore afterwards, but the focus of taekwondo is not about fighting, but teaching confidence, respect and control.
"Our main focus is on teaching life skills like discipline, respect, perseverance and confidence," Jordan Howard, Marianne's instructor, said. Howard has been the instructor for two-and-a-half years, taking over from his father, Rob Howard.
"We use the martial arts tools to help teach those techniques," Howard said. "It's not the other way around."
She does forms, sparring, and weapons sparring — her favorite weapon is the nunchuks. To support her hobby, Marianne works at Lake Area Industries, and balances work with her classes. Her free time is spent between taekwondo and playing on the computer, as Margaret calls her a 'computer junkie.' But her passion is taekwondo.
"This is a stress reliever," Margaret said.
"Yeah, it really is," Marianne agreed.
Back in July, Marianne and the family turned the trip to the tournament into a mini vacation.
It's a large event, lasting four days total, as thousands of people flood the town for the competition, making it difficult to find a place to stay. The Roepes, however, ended up finding an alternative place to stay.
"We drove down with our camper, and stayed in the camper, as the hotels were all booked," Margaret said. "Little Rock was beautiful, and we got to explore the town, and even see a memorial to the founder of taekwondo."
To compete in the tournament, a person has to be in the top ten in their class and must be invited by the ATA. To qualify, one must compete in many tournaments and earn points. Marianne's focus was trying to work towards the black belt, and by her efforts, was invited to Little Rock to compete as one of the top ten in her class.
Page 2 of 3 - Marianne competed in three events in which she took gold in forms, sparring and combat in the Special Abilities Black Belt 18 - 29 Division.
"She has had several tournaments, and hasn't always gotten first. We didn't realize that she would even be eligible, as she had just become a black belt," Margaret said. "But, SURPRISE! It worked out that way."
"I got lucky," Marianne said.
When the family arrived, they were stunned to see all of the people present for the events, and even more shocked to see all of the black belts.
No one could have predicted that it would have this kind of impact on her life, though.
Marianne was still stunned, she said, even after she had received her World shirt.
"We're going down, this is the first time, we're not expecting anything," Margaret said, her voice trailing off.
"And then I do this," Marianne said with a quick grin.
"If I was going to win any, I thought it would be just one," Marianne continued.
"Dealing with this disability all of these years, you don't expect something like this," Margaret said."I was very proud, and cried. We were not expecting it."
"Maybe nationals, but not this big," Marianne added.
Now a black belt of the first degree, Marianne's focus is centered on working to the second degree, which she said will take some time. To get the third degree belt after that, she would have to test in front of people at the World Championships, and must be 18 to do so. She already has one part of the requirements down, then.
It takes a big commitment from not just Marianne, but from her mother, too. Margaret drives Marianne to and from practices, and tries to make sure she is rested enough — or as she says, just performing her motherly duties.
"It's a commitment that she has taken pretty seriously, and it's pretty awesome," Margaret said. "She does most of it on her own. This is a self-motivating thing for her."
Marianne's next step is developing a creative form to music, a weapons routine with a sword which will be set to the soundtrack of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Her disability, Cerebellar Ataxia, is rare, and Margaret said they have been kind of winging it for all of these years, but that taekwondo has been a blessing to Marianne and her family.
"They've taken her disability into consideration, and they work with it," Margaret said. "They've been awesome. Mr. Howard is a good guy, and knows what needs to be done."
So will Marianne make a return to the World Championships?
Page 3 of 3 - "If I'm invited again," Marianne said. "My instructor thinks I can do back-to-back years."
"Marianne is awesome," Howard said. "She comes to class every day and works very hard. It's amazing-there are kids who go their entire lives and don't get it. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. She's a great kid, and has been rewarded for that."
"But she'll always be a world champion," Margaret said. "She's the only world champion for her age group in 2013, and will always be able to stand up when they announce her name as a past champion."