The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

World champion martial artist now champion for Christ

N.J. youth minister once competed in ATA martial arts event in Little Rock

Published: September 27, 2023   
OSV News photo/Argenis Perez, courtesy Carolina Muñoz
Carolina Muñoz poses in her world championship taekwondo dobok, or uniform, in a 2022 photo. After suffering a serious injury in 2020, a torn knee ligament (ACL), Muñoz stopped competing but her strong Catholic faith led to her current role -- a champion for Christ as the youth minister at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Parish in Garfield, N.J., in the Archdiocese of Newark.

GARFIELD, N.J. — Surrender was never an option for Carolina Muñoz.

As a fighter standing exactly 5 feet tall, her opponents have always been bigger than her. As a youth minister at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church in Garfield, many of the teenagers in her group tower over her. What stands out about Muñoz is her confidence. In either situation, she undisputedly believes in a victorious result.

That confidence made her a world champion in taekwondo. Its shattering made her a champion for Christ.

When Muñoz first arrived in the United States from Ecuador at age 3, she was a very shy child. It wasn't until her mother introduced her to martial arts at age 6, after witnessing what the classes did for her older brother's confidence, that something changed in her.

Her natural talent and love for the sport saw her become a dominant athlete throughout her childhood and teenage years. With every win her confidence grew. She even began teaching martial arts as she became older. 

But as a teenager and an immigrant minor, she realized that there was one playing field that was not quite equal. Muñoz was a Dreamer — someone with undocumented migration status who was brought into the U.S. as a minor and would have qualified for the DREAM Act. By the time she was 16, she found that she could not apply for college or get a car.

In response to this, one of Muñoz's high school teachers challenged her to speak about her experience as a Dreamer. Her confidence from martial arts and teaching translated well to public speaking, and soon she was sharing her experience with hundreds at Princeton University, Fairleigh Dickinson University and Elizabeth City Hall.

On top of that, Muñoz was now fighting nationally. Taekwondo was firmly first in her life, before faith, family or friends.

"My identity was martial arts,” she told the Jersey Catholic, online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Newark. "Leading up to my world championship, I sacrificed a lot. A lot of time with family, a lot of time with friends. I didn't go out.”

There was only one goal for Muñoz: to become an ATA Martial Arts World Champion.

"I worked so hard for years and years; I always had it in my mind ever since I was super young that I wanted to be a world champion,” she recalled.

Muñoz qualified for her first world championship in Little Rock. There were three separate categories in which she could win: forms, fighting and weapons. She began with forms, where a fighter presents their technique.

She performed what she considers her best-ever form technique but tied the three-time reigning world champion. They performed their techniques again and waited to see who the judges would point toward to indicate the winner.

Simultaneously, one judge pointed at the reigning champion and the other two pointed at Muñoz. She was a world champion.

"I threw my hands over my head. I couldn't believe it,” she said. "I felt like it was all worth it. All the injuries, all the late nights, all the skipping family events. Feeling the pain right after, that was awesome.”

Muñoz no longer competes officially after a life-altering moment in 2020 where she injured her ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, and faced months of recovery.

Muñoz recalls being angry all the time during her recovery, especially at God. But eventually that anger turned into questions, and those questions turned into prayer. For perhaps the first time, she contemplated a different type of surrender — the surrender in prayer.

As she was evaluating her life after ACL surgery, the youth minister at Our Lady of Mount Virgin contacted her. She was leaving her position to move to Pennsylvania and, ironically, Muñoz was leaving Pennsylvania to move back to New Jersey. The timing felt providential.

"It's become a second family with the main objective to get them closer to God each and every day,” she said. "I challenge them and try to figure out their gifts, what God has given them.

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