16 December 2022

“Everybody’s unique and Taekwondo doesn’t discriminate”: Darrel Sparke’s journey

When Darrel Sparke started Taekwondo in 1989, he couldn’t have imagined how important it would become to his life and wellbeing. 

Sparke was an unassuming 18-year-old at the time, and while he was missing his lower-right-leg, that didn’t stop him from giving the sport a go. 

“I joined the University of Newcastle as an undergraduate. I moved from a small town in the Northern Tablelands, New South Wales,” he says. 

“I was invited along to a class in the first few months of that year by a friend of mine who didn’t want to go alone. He said, ‘I’d like to go and have a look at the Taekwondo [classes here], do you want to come with me?’ I said, “sure, I’ll have a look’.”

Trying new sports can be a daunting experience, especially for amputees, but Sparke found his feet very quickly. 

“I went along to the class and participated, as I do, like an able-bodied person, even though I’m an amputee. I really enjoyed it and found a passion for it.

“When I walked in, I thought, ‘this is really cool, I hope I don’t lose my leg and hurt myself’. I left the class going ‘that was really good, jeez I’m going to be sore tomorrow’. 

“But it doesn’t hurt to have a hard prosthetic leg, with reasonable flexibility. I just sort of settled into it and the people were really nice and enjoyed themselves in the club, and I just kept going back.” 

Sparke surprised a few classmates and instructors along the way, changing their perceptions about what he could and couldn’t achieve. 

“I think I’m a fairly ‘give it a go’ guy, and not many people told me I couldn’t do something.

“One person, many years ago, when I was a yellow belt, did say ‘oh, it’s a shame you can’t do this kick’. And I said, ‘you mean this kick’, and I did it.

“The perception was, ‘you don’t have an ankle, you’re on a prosthesis, therefore your leg won’t work the same way as everybody else’s.” 

Over the years, Taekwondo instructors have learned that physical adaption doesn’t work that way. As Sparke explains, people’s bodies modify themselves to perform key tasks on a daily basis. 

“The difference in those days was that my leg wasn’t held on with a vacuum-based system, so it could fall off into the crowd when I was sparring, and has on many occasions, to the crowd’s roar! Because there’s nothing better than having a leg fly off into the crowd to get them going.” 

“But there was trepidation about how I would do activities. Ultimately, I found that I could do it if I tried and just worked at it.

“I’m very lucky that my Instructor, Master Myung Man Kim, was very patient with me, but also determined to make sure that I could achieve just as much as my peers. I wasn’t treated any differently than my peers in classes. In fact, if anything, I was probably pushed a little bit harder.

“I think it put me in good stead that he was just focused on making sure that I was 100 per cent confident at every stage of the journey.” 

This guidance paid dividends, with Sparke becoming a Taekwondo Instructor for the University of Newcastle just a few years into his journey. 

Now a Taekwondo Master, with a 4th Dan Black Belt and over 33 years of experience, Sparke says he’s still reaping the health benefits Taekwondo has to offer.   

“The effect of dexterity and balance, these are really fundamental contributors in Taekwondo… We used to do a lot of hip training and dexterity training with our feet… I gained a huge amount and I don’t think I would be as capable, as an amputee today in my 50s, had I not taken up Taekwondo at all.”

Increasing dexterity and particularly, the way you manage and place your feet, is extremely important for people with a prosthesis. For these students, Taekwondo’s emphasis on movement, balance and patterns, is invaluable.  

“People don’t imagine it’s that important because most of them are just focusing on walking, whereas I’m focusing on getting from A to B at the same speed and agility as anybody else.

“I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as fit, and as active, and leading my community in my disability discipline [without Taekwondo]. I wouldn’t be leading my country in that space.

“One of the things that made Taekwondo so important is that it made me so functional, and so equivalent to my peers who were fully limbed, that I have Paralympians treating and considering me equal or better than them. Because they come to me for my expertise or experience.”  

For many years now, Sparke has been one of Australia’s leading advocates for amputees. As the President of Amputees New South Wales, he advises the NDIS and a range of state and federal agencies on the best ways to assist people in that space. 

This includes hospital visits to amputees “to help them find the energy and excitement to take on the challenge of amputation in their journey, rather than let it be their burden.

“Taekwondo’s given me a lot of confidence and encouraged me to achieve more, not just physically, but also socially and in community-based work.”

“I think Taekwondo, through its strong disciplines and connections, creates a much tighter community when it does bond. I think there’s a lot to be said about that community and the aspects and aspirations within it. I would say that you make lifelong connections from that community.

“I think it’s something about the struggle and the achievement as individuals, supported by peers going through that same drive. You get a strong sense of community and inclusion.” 

Sparke has also been teaching Para Taekwondo for over a decade, passing on the valuable guidance he received as a student, to other athletes with disabilities.   

Most recently, he ran the largest amputee Taekwondo class in Australian history at Sydney’s Austin Mobility Clinic. 

He has also led a variety of mixed and inclusive classes for children in “Active Schools” programs. Many of the students in these programs were children within a range of disability spectrums, who needed an instructor that would give them a lot of care and attention, tailoring their approach to each individual, and positively encouraging them to pursue the challenges that they want to tackle. 

“I’ve seen some remarkable progressions for people in the process of training under those circumstances. I’ve had a young man with Cerebral Palsy, who was effectively confined to a wheelchair, unless on a few rare occasions, he could get up and use a walker. It was quite rare and he wouldn’t do it on his own steam.

“In my class, he would get out of his chair and we would hold him and stand him up with a partner. He would complete a full class under his own steam, with somebody just there to catch him as he balances. 

“His one goal was to walk, and on a number of occasions, we got him further than walking, we got him to run. That, for him, was the highlight of his life. 

“It’s amazing what Taekwondo will give you in terms of not just physical capacity, but that sense of achievement as well.” 

For Sparke, Taekwondo’s ability to help people of all backgrounds feel included, valued, and able to achieve physical feats they’d never imagined for themselves, is its most beautiful attribute.

“Everybody’s unique and Taekwondo doesn’t discriminate against your performance because you don’t travel through the ranks at the same time… In the end, it’s about you and what you get from it.” 

That’s why he urges anyone who’s interested in trying Taekwondo not to feel discouraged for any reasons relating of their age, background or abilities. 

“I think the important thing to remember is that the people that are at the gym will be excited to meet you.

“I think if you’re concerned about going to a class, always take along a friend… once you drop the barrier that exists within your mind about being in a class, you’ll find you love it.

“It’s definitely made a huge difference in my life and I’m very glad for it.”

For more information on Australian Taekwondo’s Inclusion Campaign, or If you’d like to chat with someone who’s already on their taekwondo journey, you can visit the official campaign page.

If you’d like to find out more about Taekwondo, check out the Australian Taekwondo site.

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