He's half Polish, half Puerto Rican. He's part street ki
Aug. 05, 1992
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) _ He's half Polish, half Puerto Rican. He's part street kid, part scholar. But he's full grit - a master of martial arts with a medal and heart of gold.
When Herb Perez was 10 years old, he was chased down the streets of Hoboken, N.J., by a bunch of white kids. They caught up with the fleet-footed youth, roughing him up - ''for being Puerto Rican, you know'' - and launching him on his way to Olympic gold.
Twenty-two years later, Perez is the winner of the first U.S. gold medal in taekwondo - an Olympic demonstration sport. Nothing to compare maybe with the U.S. men's basketball team, but Perez makes no apologies.
''Taekwondo is about everything the Olympics stand for. It's about striving for excellence, determination, perseverance, discipline, patience, overcoming odds.''
And Perez had plenty of those to overcome.
His mother, of Polish origin, never went beyond ninth grade. His father, born in Puerto Rico, held down three jobs.
''They called me a Polarican,'' said Perez, his doe eyes dancing, his impossibly long eyelashes fanning his cheeks.
After his street bruising, Perez walked into a dance school where taekwondo was taught in a back room. He hated the regimen, the running. But he forced himself.
In between, he grew his hair to his waist and flirted with life as a guitarist on the rock band circuit.
He gave that up in favor of academe, becoming the first in his family to graduate college, albeit it after 12 years. He majored in philosophy, of all things.
He heads for law school at Rutgers this fall.
Nine years ago, Perez' father - a chandelier-maker by trade - was killed in an attempted robbery while working nights as a parking attendant. ''Imagine, even after he was shot, he took the gun away from the guy and managed to shoot him before dying,'' Perez said shaking his head.
He inherited the guts.
In 1988, Perez came within nine minutes of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team. His loss to a teammate during a nine-minute match was a bitter blow for the three-time Pan American champion and national champion in 1986 and '87.
''I cried every day for two months. I felt so embarrassed. I had to face all these people who expected me to be there. And I couldn't.''
Not only had he lost, he'd sacrificed his marriage to the grueling training that dominated his life.
His mother, the person closest to him, helped him out of his misery.
And then she died - of a heart attack brought on by diabetes.
''She missed seeing me graduate college. She missed seeing me get the medal. It doesn't seem fair.''
And still, he continued. In between college and championships, he opened a taekwondo school where he teaches underprivileged kids and women's self- defense classes.
Three of the youngsters he trained made it as alternates on the U.S. Olympic taekwondo team, of which he is the captain.
At the pinnacle of his sports career, Perez said he plans to turn his attention back to school and to a career in public interest and human rights law. He doesn't plan to practice corporate law, although he hopes to make money doing pro bono work for a large law firm.
Letting go of taekwondo as a fulltime occupation is hard. He's already been asked to compete in the taekwondo world championships in New York next year and is likely to do so.
But at 32, he said, it's time ''to become human,'' to cut the shackles that have boxed him into a rigorous, regimented lifestyle. He wants kids, but has no time for a serious relationship.
''How do you tell a person who gives you everything that you can't give her anything?''
The next three years won't be much easier. Holding down his school and getting through law school - even with the help of the U.S. Olympic Committee which is footing some of the bill - will be as demanding as his Olympic training.
But Perez, tripping over his words in his rush to tell about his life, is not the type to let doubts get in the way. This is the guy who knocked out an opponent so badly that he required CPR. Another needed neurosurgery after several of Perez' kicks.
That's how it is in the arena, and that's how he views life.
''It's the rule of the gladiator.''