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Making History in Woodbury: Excel Lifeforce put focus on students' success

An Excel Lifeforce black belt group from 2003 includes (back row, from left) Teeghan Parfitt, Neal Smith, Dorothy Morris, Craig Troska, Dave Niska, Bill Tolbert, Richelle Kondratowicz, Andres Torres and Sue Kondratowicz. In front are Mike Moh, Mason Hellige, Daniel Berglund, Michael Kapitz and Paden Chang. Moh and Sue’s daughter Richelle married. Submitted photo1 / 2
A kids' class at Excel Lifeforce Martial Arts Training Academy in Woodbury. Submitted photo2 / 2

One of the keys to Excel Lifeforce Martial Arts Training Center's success over three decades may be that it never really left Woodbury.

The martial arts academy that started in small, rented space has changed locations several times, mostly to accommodate its rising enrollment, but it remained in Woodbury and grew with its host city.

Excel Lifeforce marks 30 years in 2017 as the city of Woodbury celebrates 50 years.

"We've been all over the city, but we've stayed in the city for 30 years," owner Sue Kondratowicz said.

Excel began as ATA Blackbelt Academy when it only offered taekwondo instruction. It started in the workout room of a former golf course, renting space three days a week. From there it moved to the Valley Creek Mall.

"We kept growing," Kondratowicz said.

Excel Lifeforce later relocated to an industrial/warehouse building north of Interstate 94 for five years, and it also had a stint at the YMCA. Eventually the studio moved to a space near its current Commerce Drive location while that studio was being built.

Kondratowicz said they were the first martial arts business in Woodbury, and they've seen small studios come and go over the years. One reason for their ability to last is that they are associated with international, professional organizations, she said. They are licensed by the American Taekwondo Association and by Gracie Jiu Jitsu.

"We're not a karate store," she said. "Our No. 1 goal is when our students walk out of here ... they're safer than when they walk in."

They want students to gain confidence and knowledge and to be more physically fit.

"To be able to defend yourself you have to know how to, you have to practice it so it's an automatic reflex, and you need to be physically fit enough to do it," she said.

Excel Lifeforce trains students in two spectrums of defense arts. Kondratowicz said taekwondo uses the idea that you're going to keep your distance from an opponent. Students use kicks, speed and blocks to keep someone away.

An attacker's purpose is to try to control you, Kondratowicz explained, and jiu-jitsu focuses on how to defend yourself once you get to the ground and how to apprehend without injury. It's a "physical chess game," she said. The sport has gained popularity, thanks in part to the popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

In both programs, belt rank is an indication of knowledge and skill. The requirements for rank advancement are very strict, Kondratowicz said. It takes about 12 years to achieve a black belt in jiu-jitsu. In taekwondo, it takes the average student three years to achieve his or her first-degree black belt, but there are nine degrees of black belt.

Excel Lifeforce's current location is an expansive space in a commercial building at 707 Commerce Drive, Suite 150. The average martial arts studio is about 2,500 square feet. Excel Lifeforce is at 12,000 square feet. The large space is needed to run both programs simultaneously.

Excel Lifeforce has eight instructors and some 300 members. The studio is led by Kondratowicz, herself a former national women's champion in taekwondo, and Dave Niska, a master instructor with 30 years experience.

"We have some people that have been here for years and years," she said, while others may only stay for a year or a season.

Kondratowicz has her own history with the city of Woodbury. She worked as an appraiser and later as the city assessor during 12 years with Woodbury. She went to Kanabec County in north-central Minnesota for seven years before returning to Woodbury to focus on Excel Lifeforce.

Kondratowicz's daughter Richelle met her husband, Mike Moh, when they were both students at Excel Lifeforce. Moh is an actor who landed work in this fall's "Marvel Inhumans" series on ABC.

Others have met at Excel Lifeforce and later married, including Tana and Pat DuPaul, who met as kids at the martial arts training center and now work there.

The training center offers classes for men, women and children. Excel Lifeforce's top source for growth is referrals.

"We have so many parents come up to us and say, 'You've saved our child's life,'" Kondratowicz said. Some of the young students were shy, and gained confidence in skills through martial arts.

The retention rate is high. About 50 percent of students are longtime members. She credits that to their instructors.

"The success of the students is so personally important to them," she said. "It's not a job."

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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