top of page

Goal set, goal met

60 year old earns 5th degree black belt

Amidst her wardrobe hang several belts. All black. But she didn’t go on a shopping spree to purchase them. Rather, they were earned with a combination of determination, perseverance, patience and dedication.

And with the accumulation of these belts also came a name change. She is now referred to as Master Earline. The “Master” title is bestowed upon anyone earning a 4th degree black belt or higher in martial arts. Earline Schulstad, of Willmar, received her 5th degree black belt on July 20.

“I’m very goal oriented,” the personable Schulstad said. “It took me a long time to achieve this goal, but it was worth it. It’s something I’ve always wanted.”

When envisioning someone earning a black belt, it’s common to conjure up an image of a large and chiseled young male or female who is also athletic, quick and powerful. And you imagine them busting up boards easier than a group of old western barroom brawlers.

Schulstad, who ran track in high school, is living proof that the aforementioned image is stereotypical and not always what it takes to succeed in the world of martial arts.

Slight of build at 5-foot-4 and 115 pounds, and with a soft voice and an ever-present smile, Schulstad is far from imposing. It’s easy to assume she’d have trouble opening a ketchup bottle, much less breaking a board or a brick. And to top it off, the retired Kandiyohi County deputy court administrator is a grandmother of two and recently turned 60 years old in January.

“It’s not just a physical requirement to succeed in martial arts,” she explained. “It certainly doesn’t hurt. But it’s just as much of a mental requirement.”

Schulstad, with more energy than someone half her age, is the only female to achieve the level of 5th degree black belt in Grand Master Michael Lee’s Tae Kwon Do Association. She currently operates and teaches classes at New London-Spicer Tae Kwon Do, an affiliate of the Lee Association. Both of her grandchildren, Michael and Brianna Kompelien, are students in her class.

“I’m always on the go,” she admits. “I just don’t like sitting around. I like to be doing something. I enjoy skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, golf, disc golf and curling. Now I just bought a bow and am starting archery.”

Lee is proud of the fact that Schulstad is an instructor in his system.

“Master Earline is a very caring person,” he said. “She brings compassion and caring to the next level. When you are a student of Master Earline’s, you know that she will do anything that she can for you.”

Schulstad didn’t get an early jump on earning her belts. While her children were young, she never had the time to get involved in martial arts. As time went on and her children were close to graduating, she learned about a tae kwon do class being offered by the Willmar Community Education and Recreation Department while in her late 30s.

“A friend actually suggested tae kwon do to me, and initially, I said ‘no way, I’m not doing that. I don’t want to break boards,’” Schulstad recalled. “About three months later, I went to one of the classes and joined.”

And she’s been involved ever since. Schulstad doesn’t like to concede to anything once she sets her mind to accomplishing a goal. As a struggling single parent in the early ‘80s, she decided to go to college to get her degree. But the two-year program took her 10 years, not because she was unable to pass her classes, but due to a lack of funds and having to raise her children alone while also trying to earn a living. Still, with blinders on, she continued focusing toward her intended mark.

“A lot of people teased me about being in school so long,” Schulstad laughed. “But I eventually got my degree.”

That same determination is what led to her collection of belts. She also has black belts in ju-jitsu and hapkido.


Earline Schulstad, center, poses with her grandchildren, Brianna, left, and Michael Kompelien. Both of her grandchildren are in the tae kwon class she teaches. Contributed photo

The first black belt she earned in tae kwon do was when she was 43 years old. At that time, her longtime instructor, Master Jon Anderson, of Willmar, said this about Earline: “The thing that separates her from the rest is her attitude. When she sets her mind to something, she usually finishes it. It’s not an easy test to get your black belt. It took her a lot of work, but she never quit.”

Schulstad was one of 22 tae kwon do students that journeyed to Korea in 2011. She was one of only two women on the trip. Students underwent vigorous workouts there, as well as learning about Korean culture. She also was tested and earned her black belt in hapkido while in Korea.

“We were there for about 10 days,” she said. “We learned a lot about how to rely on one another to get different things done. It was a lot of hard work, but a positive experience I’ll never forget.

Because of martial art movies involving stars such as Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan, the general perception of obtaining a black belt is one of roundhouse kicks to the head, lightning-quick punches, and breaking boards and blocks. But a great deal of time spent in martial arts is devoted to developing the mind to make yourself believe you can succeed through mental toughness, concentration, manners and physical fitness.

To receive a black belt, students must pass oral tests on Korean terminology, the history of the sport and the lineage of instructors. That is followed by tests on technique where eight different patterns, similar to an imaginary fight, are expected to be followed. Next is a curriculum where the student is required to put a kick and punch together to test body control. And finally, there is a series of grueling mental and physical tests.

Lee, an 8th degree black belt and instructor from Marshall, tested Schulstad during all of her five degrees of black belts in tae kwon do.

“The rarity is not just her size,” he remarked. “It is that she is a woman, and more than 50 years old. The size issue shows that she understands how to generate power using correct form. That is very impressive.

“High-ranking black belts are generally men. Not saying that women can’t do it … they usually don’t. It is very nice having Master Earline around to show other women that they can achieve this type of success in the martial art arena.”

The system Lee employs in his tests is complex, involving nearly 500 varying techniques that are broken into groups. Each one has a name and number and when a particular one is called out during a test, a student must be able to immediately perform it. Generally, there are between 10 and 30 techniques in a set and as many as 12 sets are required.

After a student earns their first black belt, they must remain involved in tae kwon do and wait two years to test for their second degree belt. Then they wait three years for the third degree belt test and so on. Black belts are about longevity, as well as completing physical and mental tests. In fact, a 9th degree black belt is the highest anyone living can earn. A 10th degree black belt is given posthumously.

‘Martial arts success usually brings out the skills that are needed for a successful life,” Lee said. “You will never see a well-trained, high-ranking ‘black belt’ that is not confident and a leader.

“Many times the student does not show these skills when they start training, but the skills are brought out of the student as they come up through the ranks. By the time a ‘black belt’ achieves Master level ranking, he or she is very natural at using these skills.”

Each mental and physical black belt test gets more difficult as a student climbs the ladder of success.

“You just have to put your mind to it that you will be able to do all these things,” said Schulstad. “You won’t succeed if you aren’t sure you can.”

Among her tests, Schultad was required to knock an apple off the top of a sword using a 360-degree roundhouse kick. She also had to complete various patterns with nunchucks, as well as snuffing out the flame of a candle with them without hitting the actual candle.

Schulstad isn’t ready to announce whether she will attempt to earn another belt in six years. For now, she is enjoying teaching classes and staying busy.

“I hope there are students who look at me and my size and say to themselves, ‘If she can do it, so can I.’ It’s really what I want out of this now. To maybe make a difference in someone’s life that maybe otherwise didn’t think they could accomplish something.”

37 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page