Calgary

Fort Mac fire reunites taekwondo student with former coach

Like many kids from Fort McMurray, John Hill misses his school, his home and PlayStation 4, but he's adjusting well to life as an evacuee in Calgary, thanks to an old mentor and the discipline of martial arts.

John's parents felt their son needed a mentor. He got one.

John Hill, centre, has reconnected with his former martial arts coach after evacuating from Fort McMurray to Calgary. (Falice Chin/CBC)

Like many kids from Fort McMurray, John Hill misses his school, his home and PlayStation 4, but he's adjusting well to life as an evacuee in Calgary, thanks to an old mentor and the discipline of martial arts.

"I did martial arts there, now I'm doing martial arts here," the 12-year-old said.

"It kind of brings everything back to normal."

The Hills didn't expect to end up in Calgary. But when the wildfires encroached dangerously close to their temporary lodge north of Fort McMurray, they had no choice but to abandon their truck and trailer to board a plane — with their pet hedgehog in a purse and their dog on a leash.

Kids used to make fun of John

Since arriving in Calgary, John has enrolled in a local French immersion school. The Grade 7 student has made a lot of friends, thanks in no small part to his outgoing personality and affable demeanour.

"The whole entire school is like my acquaintance," said John, as he listed the names of his new buddies.

Knowing how to throw a proper roundhouse kick probably helped too.

But it wasn't always like this.

Kids used to make fun of John, calling him "fat."

John Hill, right, works out with his old martial arts coach Jesse Daly. (Falice Chin/CBC)

He would fight back, then get suspended from school.

As a result, John was "very unsure of himself."  That's how Jesse Daly described the then seven-year-old boy when they first met in 2011.

Daly was a 29-year-old budding martial artist at the time, trying to find his way in Fort McMurray.

'Coolest guy ever'

John's parents felt their boy needed a mentor and saw Daly as their guy.

"John just thinks Jesse is cool and he likes to hang out with him," said John's father, Doug Hill.

To John, Daly isn't just cool.

"He's the coolest guy ever — in my perspective," John said. "He is the most cool."

They became friends on a camping trip.

Soon after, Daly introduced John to taekwondo, and the boy really took to it.

"We've tried different sports," Doug explained.

"Like all Canadian dads I wished he played hockey, but that's not his sport. We've tried soccer — wasn't his sport. But we found that taekwondo is something he's found."

Big difference

Within a few months of training, John noticed a big difference in the way he felt about himself and his ability.

"It actually became enjoyable," said John.

"You get to release your stress and anger through that kick you're doing or self-defence technique you're doing. And you get a sense of strength!"

Months later, John received his yellow belt. John and his teacher continued to hang out several times a week.

'Don't want to fail Jesse'

But their training ended abruptly, when Daly and his wife moved to Calgary in 2012.

"I was sad," John said.

"I thought I couldn't do taekwondo anymore. Jesse is the guy who made me do push ups correctly — and greatly!"

But John decided not to give up.

"I thought to myself, 'If I stop doing taekwondo now, I've failed myself, I've failed my past self,'" he said.

"I don't want to fail myself and I don't want to fail Jesse."

John joined a club in Fort McMurray to continue his training. And despite being 740 kilometres apart, John and Jesse stayed in touch.

Evacuation day

Then the wildfires broke out.

John's father remembers that day.

"The fire was getting really close," Doug said. "Traffic was tremendously bad. It took me two hours to do a 20-minute drive just to get home. By the time I got home we were under mandatory evacuation."

The family of six — mom, dad, daughter, son, dog and hedgehog — all packed into a truck and trailer and drove north.

Next, they boarded a plane filled with pets bound for Calgary.

"We were almost laughing at the ridiculousness of having to evacuate," Doug said.

Sharing his home

When they started looking for a place to stay, Jesse and his wife stepped in and opened their three-bedroom home in Evergreen to the family.

"I finally got to cleaning up like my wife had asked me to do," Daly joked.

Things are a little cramped these days, but Daly said it's been a treat to live with the Hills.

John agrees — despite a few drawbacks.

"I'm like, 'Oh yeah I'm gonna stay with Jesse!,'" the boy said.

"We're going to have tons of fun! In the end I'm sleeping on a couch, but it's still nice."

Just like that, mentor and student are back together — at home and on the dojo.

'Role model'

These days, John is dropping in twice a week to train with a group of kids at a northwest community centre.

The classes are run by Hydra Taekwondo, a fledgling martial arts studio in the city.

Head instructor Brad Hutchison described John as a role model for some of the younger students.

"He's shown our youngest group how to punch and a couple of techniques on how to do the turning kick as well," Hutchison said.

"It's always nice to see martial artists work together regardless of what their background is. Martial arts in general is about having fun."

John Hill, 12, says reconnecting with his old martial arts coach after being evacuated from the Fort McMurray wildfires has brought 'everything back to normal.' (Falice Chin/CBC)

John is now working towards earning a black belt — taking his sparring seriously with every kick and punch.

At the end of class, students recite their pledge for respect, integrity, perseverance and self-control.

The drill provides a sense of normalcy for John, who — underneath the powerful kicks — is just a 12-year-old kid.

A kid who is far from home.

About the Author

Falice Chin

CBC Edmonton

Falice is the senior producer of the Cost of Living on CBC Radio. Her international work has appeared in the Financial Times, the National Post, Zacks Investment Research, CBC and others. She's won an RTDNA for investigative journalism in Canada and a World Summit Award for Arab e-content. You can reach her at: falice.chin@cbc.ca