When Penny Beddow-Wolf's husband told her they were moving from North Carolina to northeast Indiana in 1995, she told him that meant then she was going to do what she loved. She was opening a taekwondo studio. Then she opened two more.
Now she has more than 300 students, and December will mark the 25th anniversary of the opening of her flagship Coventry Taekwondo.
But since Sept. 8, 2020, she's been battling stage 4 breast cancer that metastasized into her bones and muscles. Her doctor told her he was going to try to keep her alive until they found a cure. And she's lived by that, continually working with her students, pushing ahead and praying. Taekwondo and her students have been her lifelines.
“I don't think it's out of the ordinary, but everybody tells me I'm so confident and so positive about this,” she said. “I am so blessed and so thankful for the people who have been put in my life. It's a family and we work together.”
Two weeks ago, a local group put on a huge event at Grand Wayne Convention Center with more than 1,000 students participating, but the loudest cheers were for Beddlow-Wolf by those who are inspired and amazed by her strength and attitude.
“She has lived her challenge with grace and strength and she doesn't complain,” said Jessica Smith, a mother of 12 and one of Beddow-Wolf's students along with 11 of her children and her husband. “She just keeps going, and I tell my kids all the time when we come across someone who shows us how to deal with suffering, pay attention. This person is showing us how it's done.”
Smith's son A.J. is the head instructor at Beddow-Wolf's Stellhorn Taekwondo.
“She's always been there as my role model, my instructor even when she wasn't the primary instructor,” A.J. Smith said. “She's just a tremendous example for me and all of her students to push through and persevere through the pain and the suffering. She continues to always be there for her students and for me to help me if I need help with my own training. It's just been awesome to have her there my entire life.”
Despite problems with her hands and feet, exhaustion and stomach problems, Beddow-Wolf continues to train and is trying to earn her sixth-degree black belt. It's an amazing example of strength and determination considering she's had 52 Taxol chemotherapy treatments when most patients undergo 12 or 14.
“One of the things we try to teach our students is to stay positive,” said Tomas Sandavol, a taekwondo chief master from Michigan who runs the Midwest district. “Before she even had cancer, she always has been a very positive person. For a woman to step in and open her own school took a lot of courage and determination and I always admired that about her. When a challenge like this comes, in my opinion, she is a stronger person. She doesn't let anything step in the way.
“She's an amazing woman. ... Whenever I start feeling sorry for myself, I look at her and her challenge, and I say stop whining Tomas, you have no problems. One of the things I love about her is she surrounds herself with people who are positive, and I enjoy being around her.”
When Beddow-Wolf, 63, began competing in taekwondo about 40 years ago, martial arts were dominated by men. She's been beating expectations ever since and still ranks among the top 10 in the world in weapons.
“Since I have known about her condition and her spirit, she lives her life as a living example to people who suffer and may not have the hope of surviving cancer,” said Grand Master Michael Caruso of Perrysville, Pennsylvania. “I'm so proud of her and her accomplishments. When the obstacle of the fence got in the way, she found a way to climb higher and get over it. She's a beacon of hope.”
Beddow-Wolf credits the immunotherapy developed by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation in part for her longevity. She says all the money she helped raise through Vera Bradley events and taekwondo demonstrations is now coming back to her.
Whenever Beddow-Wolf talks about her situation, that means she talks about her staff, which makes her get a little emotional. She can't help herself, which is a little ironic considering how hard she battles everything else.
“There are so many people praying for me, and I have developed such an amazing staff at the studio,” she said. “They are just amazing people. It could be worse. You can only go forward and that's what I'm doing.
“I love what I do, and I want it to show in everything I do. Live life to the fullest.”