24 August 2022

Bilal Jamil Elmowy OAM: A Taekwondo journey in service to the community

Fifty years ago, Bilal Jamil Elmowy was an anxious little boy, who dreaded going to school. 

A prime target for bullies, seven-year-old Elmowy hoped that if he kept to himself, the teasing and hounding would stop. But they never did.

“In the 1970s, I was studying at school, and I always used to get bullied and beaten,” Elmowy says. 

“In the whole school, there was only a small number of Lebanese boys, and I was one of them. It wasn’t easy to be honest, I was just a very shy and humble person, and I would always sit on the side.”

When Elmowy finally realised that sitting on the side wasn’t enough, he told his mother what was happening.  

“My mother said ‘well, you know, maybe you should learn how to defend yourself,’” he recalls.  

Soon after, he enrolled in Judo classes, before the speed and dynamism of Taekwondo truly caught his eye.

“I just thought it was a faster sport and I enjoyed it more. The footwork, the handwork, you know. I thought there was going to be more fitness involved in it.”

He started classes with Grandmaster Sam Safrglani, an instructor in Sydney’s south-western suburbs at the time. 

“My instructor actually taught us really well,” says Elmowy. “He’ll always be my instructor and mentor because he always put us on a good path and put a lot of effort into getting [us] to the top. He is a pioneer.”

Under Safrglani’s guidance, Elmowy never looked back, rapidly mastering key skills and competing at the elite level in the 1980s. 

“A lot of people that joined in with me in those days actually left [Taekwondo]. And I’m the one that kept on going with my instructor. Just kept on going. Then, my instructor retired and I kept on going. And I’m still going.

“In my second tournament, I won gold. Then I kept on winning gold.” 

Elmowy’s consistent success at state and national events, would eventually earn him international selection for Australia. One of his proudest moments was flying the flag against Indonesia, when they brought their best fighters to Burwood, New South Wales, for a special competition against the Aussies.  

The 1980s also marked the beginning of Elmowy’s career as a Taekwondo instructor. He was extremely passionate about sharing his skills with others and boosting their self-confidence – much like his own instructor had done for him. 

He opened his first Taekwondo school in 1981, hiring a gymnasium at Beverly Hills Girls High School, where he taught 120 students. 

Coaching would eventually take him all over the globe, including trips where he and Grandmaster Sung Soo Lee guided Australia’s best talent at tournaments in Northern Cyprus and Dubai.

One of Elmowy’s most notable students was Master Marwan Hussain, who went on to train Australian Olympians Safwan Khalil and Hayder Shkara. 

Elmowy also ran a successful State of Origin event between Victoria and New South Wales in the 1990s. 

Despite his success as a fighter and coach at the highest levels of the sport, Elmowy is proudest of his role in bringing less fortunate youth off the streets.   

From the beginning of his coaching career, he understood Taekwondo’s power as an outlet for disadvantaged youth. He believed it would give them the focus, direction, and discipline they needed to stay out of trouble. 

But many of the youth who needed it the most could not afford to take classes – so Elmowy taught them for free. 

He did this for years, easing the burden not only on his students – some of whom were refugees – but their entire families.   

“I wanted to get kids off the streets and do my part to help,” he says. “In countless years in my life in Taekwondo, I’ve taught people at no charge.

“In those days, people didn’t have very much money. A majority of our community members were unemployed in those days. There wasn’t much work when they came from overseas and needed time to find and transition into the work force. I was there to support them.”

“[The families] They’d bring kids with them and I said look, I’ll train them and do the best I can, and I trained many people for free for several years.

“Kids need a direction to go. They want to do something and there was not much in those olden days those kids could do.” 

Elmowy has always believed strongly in putting the community first and creating an inclusive environment for all. 

“Money comes and goes; it doesn’t buy goodness of the heart and the soul. Money doesn’t do that. When you bring it down to the basics, it’s all to help the community.”

He has also been a strong advocate for Para Taekwondo athletes, teaching many without charge, and recently facilitating a major sponsorship for Australian Paralympian, Steven Currie. 

“I received sponsorship from Australex for the national titles, for the Paralympics. I lobbied for it and I got it. I awarded a $10,000 sponsorship to Steve Currie, at the National Tournament held in Bendigo.”

“I’ve taught people that are physically challenged, that only had one hand because they had polio when they were younger. I treat everyone as equals.”

“Everyone has a different degree of strength, degree of character, degree of mental power. But at the end of the day, we are all equal, that’s the way I see things.”

Elmowy’s decades-long contribution to the community eventually caught the attention of World Taekwondo, which inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2019. 

Two years later, he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for service to Taekwondo and to the community. 

“It makes me feel that I’ve really done something, and I’ve achieved something for the community,” Elmowy says of these huge honours.

“When you’re selected for an OAM, you don’t know who nominated you. But I believe that because of my work helping the physically challenged and the community, someone put in a good word for me.”   

Now a 9th Dan Black Belt in Chung Do Kwan and Jido Kwan, Elmowy continues to guide the next generation at the United Taekwondo Federation. 

He is currently serving on the Board of Australian Taekwondo New South Wales as President, a member of the Australian Taekwondo International Committee, and a Technical Director for Syria and Lebanon on behalf of the World Taekwondo Hall of Fame. 

Elmowy sees a very bright future ahead for the sport, and he hopes that he can continue to make a difference in people’s lives whether they be elite or grassroots competitors.  

“Taekwondo has made me a stronger person,” he says. 

“It put me on a good path for my health and mind and it has really helped me a lot with regard to self-satisfaction.” 

“I’ve been there, done that, now it’s the younger generation’s turn. And I hope they will become even better than me and more advanced than I am.”  

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