Sullivan award

Taekwondo player and Sullivan Award nominee John Nagel shows off his moves.

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John Nagel, 20, earned his black belt in taekwondo at age 10. He hopes to earn a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. He also helps younger students at Cunningham’s Fort Wayne Taekwondo.

Honor floors black belt

Local athlete semifinalist for AAU’s prestigious Sullivan Award

Nagel is one of 19 semifinalists for the Sullivan Award, presented to the top amateur athlete in the U.S.

– These Sullivan Award guys. You find them in the darnedest places.

This particular Sullivan Award guy you’ll find in a modest establishment in a modest strip mall tucked away, like a finger-to-pursed-lips secret, on Allen Street, a few feet away from the rush of traffic on North Clinton.

This is Cunningham’s Fort Wayne Taekwondo – the dojang of an engaging martial arts instructor named Forrest Cunningham Sr., and a place where a 20-year-old IPFW criminal justice major named John Nagel has spent a good chunk of the last 16 of those years.

In mid-February, Nagel was nominated for the AAU Sullivan Award, emblematic of the top amateur athlete in the nation, by fellow Cunningham’s student Adam Marshall.

“Even he didn’t know it would go as far as it did,” Nagel says.

Which is pretty far. Nagel, you see, recently found out he was a Sullivan semifinalist, of which there are only 19. Three finalists will be named no later than Friday, and the winner will be announced at an awards ceremony April 11 at the AAU national headquarters in Orlando, Fla.

“My dad happened to be checking one day after the nominations were closed, and he saw my name on the list so that’s when I really started getting interested in it,” Nagel said. “I’m extremely excited. There’s a lot of big-time athletes on the list.”

How big-time?

Well, among the other semifinalists are Auburn running back Tre Mason, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron and Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles, who has a shot at being the first quarterback taken in the upcoming NFL draft. Olympic gold medalist diver David Boudia from Purdue is on the list, too.

So how did a taekwondo player from Fort Wayne get on the list?

It’s not just because he’s a multiple state champion and medalist in both the Junior Olympics and AAU Nationals, or that he’s trying to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. His biography on the Sullivan Award also cites his “mentoring and coaching” other students, and particularly his work with children – among them Cunningham’s 11-year-old son Forrest Jr., an AAU state and Junior Olympics gold medalist.

It’s something Nagel has been doing almost since he earned his deputy black belt at the age of 10 and moved into adult classes for the first time.

“I’ve been helping out for quite a while,” Nagel says. “I like the learning aspect with the kids. Figuring stuff out, getting into it; … once something clicks in their heads, that’s actually really rewarding knowing that they absorb what we’re trying to teach them.”

As for Nagel, the learning for him began when he was 4 years old. He says it took awhile for the taekwondo bug to take (“I was pretty young,” he says), but Cunningham remembers that what stuck out about Nagel even at that age was how mature he was, even in comparison with kids four or five years older.

Eventually, taekwondo became second nature for Nagel. He has been doing it for so long.

Now, he says, it’s hard for him to pinpoint the most challenging part of the discipline.

“I guess the physical challenges of it,” he says. “It’s definitely rigorous. I do enjoy it now, but we keep getting challenges put in front of us to test us – new workouts, stuff like that. It’s definitely one of the toughest things about it.”

And the best part?

Well, that Sullivan thing isn’t bad.

“It’s exciting, because I didn’t think it would go that far. But I’m definitely proud that it did,” Nagel says. “I mean, I’m just a guy from Fort Wayne.”

Though not just any guy, it turns out.