In many martial arts, achieving a black belt is the highest honour: a symbol of strength, discipline, and dedication.

For one Yellowknife household, you can take that, and multiply it by three.

The Hashi sisters: Ayla, 16; Delilah, 15; and Safiya, 12, all accomplished something few people are able to do by earning their black belts in Taekwondo.

Perhaps most impressively, they did it together.

"I think a lot of it was just remembering to think about yourself, and then to think of us as a whole," said Delilah. "You think of your sister as your opponent when you're fighting her. You don't think of her as your sister, really." 

Northern roots

Taekwondo, a traditional Korean martial art that places a heavy emphasis on kicks, was first developed in the 1940s — an offshoot of traditional Shotokan karate. The sport grew in popularity, and, in 2000, it was added to the Olympic Games.

The sport has surprisingly deep roots in Yellowknife, as well: the Hashis' club, T'i Dene, has existed since 1984, when it was founded by Allan Adam, a CBC Chipewyan language announcer. The club's name is Chipewyan: "T'i" means "fighting," and "Dene" means "people."

Despite the club's long history, the girls' accomplishment is one that stands alone, says Elaine Carr, one of T'i Dene's coaches.

"In the history of our club, I don't think we've ever had three black belts test successfully on the same day," she said. "But we certainly haven't had three siblings test on the same day. And we've absolutely never had three girls test on the same day." 

"So it's a first on many different levels, which is just so exciting for us."

'Something to be proud of'

Earning a taekwondo black belt is not an easy task. For the sisters' final test, known as a "grading," they had to complete three separate components: poomse, or forms; sparring; and board breaks, in front of a grandmaster who had flown up from Edmonton.

Ayla board break

Ayla breaks a board during her grading. (Submitted by Nancy Hashi)

"The test was stressful. Very, very stressful," said Ayla. "I was outside of the gym practicing my forms, because I needed to know them and I didn't know which ones they were going to ask me for."

 "I think everyone in the room was rooting for these girls, because they're young, and they've been working so hard at this," said Carr. "There's a lot of tension in the room. Sometimes, everyone's holding their breath." 

Once the girls successfully completed their grading, though, the tension eased, replaced by a far different emotion: pride.

"I thought about it when I was younger, I thought that's always how it's going to happen," said Delilah. "It was definitely something to be happy about. Something to be proud of."

The girls' mother, Nancy Hashi, was in the audience for the grading, along with their stepfather and grandparents. She says she was "thrilled" when the sisters were awarded their belts: five years of hard training, rewarded.

"It was so nice to see them accomplish what they set out to do," she says. "It was a good lesson in perseverance. How to persevere, and accomplish something they set out to do."

'Can't push me around anymore'

The accomplishment is especially impressive for Safiya. At 12 years old, she's one of the youngest black belts T'i Dene has ever graduated, according to Carr. And it's fair to say that the youngest Hashi was spurred on by some sisterly competition.

"I think I'm definitely now a threat to them," she says, smiling, "because they can't push me around anymore."

Even though the girls are competitive with one another — most siblings are — they all realize the part they each had to play in the group's accomplishment.

"I look up to them, for help, because you know, I'm the youngest," said Safiya. "That's what I do. Just kind of trying to get to their level, so we can be equal."

Sisters at grading

The girls after completing their grading, with their newly minted black belts. (Submitted by Nancy Hashi)

For coach Carr, all three girls have plenty to be proud about.

"It's amazing how far they've come along," she says. "Safiya, being the youngest sister, she's always trying to keep up with her older sisters. She's gone from being more tentative, in the last couple years, to being more confident.

"Delilah has always been really physically talented. And she's just started working really hard in the last couple years, and getting a new level of focus and determination, which is just great. And Ayla is probably the most laid back of the three. She's always had a lot of strength to put towards it.

"So I'm really thrilled to see them all get to this level, and to all get there at the same time, it's really cool."

With files from Erin Brohman