After playing “Mary Ann” on the piano, Sidney DeLibero turned on the bench, her legs dangling well off the floor, and picked up a photo book.
“This is me on my first day at taekwondo,” she said, pointing at a little girl in a crisp white dobock.
That was ages ago, back when she was 3 years old – the adoring sister to an older brother who was on his way to becoming a second-degree black belt.
Today, Sidney Hope DeLibero is 6, a girl who loves tea parties and pillow fights, stuffed animals and having her long, blonde hair brushed.
Oh, and this: She’s the youngest taekwondo black belt in the world.
Parents Scott and Kalisa DeLibero had no idea.
“We thought she might be the youngest in Milton,” said Scott DeLibero, an Air Force staff sergeant stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Sidney’s love for the sport began more than five years ago, when then 4-year-old brother Simon enrolled in the U.S. Giant Tae Kwon Do Academy in Edgewood.
“She was too young to even be on the mat with Simon or the other students, so she’d stand to the side and do whatever the instructor showed the class,” said Kalisa DeLibero, a Milton school teacher.
As Simon progressed, Sidney found ways to take part.
“I could hold targets and pillows for Simon,” she said.
Scott DeLibero was deployed to Iraq when his son signed up for taekwondo.
“Sidney was a baby when Simon began, and she’s basically grown up at the academy,” Kalisa said. Scott was deployed, and Simon was 4 years old with his father gone, a postpartum mother and an 11-week old little sister. “Taekwondo gave him something he needed.”
Scott saw the changes first in his son.
“The first time I got to watch Simon was in 2007. I held boards for him to break, and I saw so much more coordination, more confidence,” he said. “We’d rough house, and he was much stronger, too.”
Then came Sidney’s transformation. After more than two years watching her brother, mimicking each move he made on a mat, she was allowed to begin classes.
“She’s still a little girl, but when Simon and I are rough housing, she gets into it, too,” her dad said.
“I made your tooth loose once,” Sidney interupted.
“Yes, you did,” Dad said, laughing.
Advancing under the teaching of grandmaster Kiho Kim, Sidney would occasionally get an attack of insecurity before taking the tests required to advance a level.
“I was cripplingly shy, and Sidney has some of that,” Kalisa DeLibero said.
Scott DeLibero recalls watching his daughter struggle as she was about to take the test for her red belt.
“She was conflicted, and she’d step on the mat, then step off. Step on, then off,” he said. “But she got through it.”
As each of their children moved through the taekwondo ranks – beginning with a white belt, then earning 10 colored belts before testing for black – their parents made certain they were still enjoying it.
“Every time they passed a test and got a new belt, we’d talk to them. We’d ask ‘Do you want to go on? Would you rather do something else?’” Kalisa said. “I wouldn’t have let them quit midway through something, but at each level we wanted it to be their choice. And they always chose to keep going.”
The DeLiberos never wanted taekwondo to be their children’s only activity, so they introduced piano lessons, learned to roller skate together and made sure – always – that school came first. Sidney is in first grade at Discovery Primary School, and Simon’s in fifth grade at Hedden Elementary.
At 471/2 inches tall, Sidney was often the shortest participant in her taekwondo class. That never intimidated her, she said.
“I liked sparring with Simon,” she said. “My brother would take it easy on me. I never took it easy with him.”
When she was ready for her black belt, Kim wrote to taekwondo headquarters in South Korea for instructions on her testing. It was rigorous.
“Sidney had to write an essay, go through many exercises and movements, and spar,” Kim said. “She passed them all.”
When the paperwork arrived in September, he learned that Sidney was, indeed, the youngest taekwondo black belt on the planet.
“We play this ‘Did you ever?’ game when we’re cuddling at night,” Scott DeLibero said. “We’ll ask, ‘Have you ever been to Minnesota? Did you ever eat a cookie?’ The other night I asked Sidney, ‘Have you ever been the youngest black belt in Milton?’
“She said, ‘No – the world!’ We laughed at that.”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638