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July 3, 2019
For as long as he can remember, Stephen Rueber has been infatuated with martial arts.
“Nobody else in my family really had that passion or that desire,” Rueber said. “Everybody else in our family, you know, (enjoyed) baseball, softball, soccer, most other sports like that. But for some reason, I was always drawn towards martial arts.”
While the rest of his family gravitated toward other sports, Rueber devoted his time to watching Bruce Lee movies and building his own punching bags to hang up in the garage. Little did he know that he one day would be an internationally ranked martial artist, competing at the highest level against the best in the world.
Next week, Rueber heads to Little Rock, Ark., to compete in the ATA Martial Arts Tournament of Champions and World Championship Expo. This will be Rueber’s third trip to the world championships and his first since 2017, when he placed second at the Tournament of Champions and won the gold medal in two events at the World Championship Expo.
“It was an amazing experience,” he said. “I was going up against some of the best people in our nation and throughout the world. So the goal is this year we’re going to be heading back there to replicate that success, that and then some.”
Rueber competes in two events: forms and sparring. In forms, each competitor has to complete a series of preset moves designed to face multiple attackers. The martial artist is judged on his or her hands, kicks and overall form.
“I like the forms division because it’s all about perfection,” he said. “If you wobble once, you’re getting a deduct. If your head moves a certain way or your kicks aren’t a certain height or there’s a lack of technique, you might not make it onto the podium.”
Sparring is what most people would think of for martial arts: one-on-one, single-elimination combat. Rueber said there are no height or weight classes in taekwondo, so he goes up against a wide variety of opponents.
“There’s some people out there that like to kick, that like to head hunt, and there’s some people out there that have fabulous hand techniques,” he said. “Each one has something to bring to the table. So what that tells me, then, when I’m preparing for an event, is I gotta be ready for anything now because I could go against anybody. That definitely keeps me on my toes.”
When he was growing up, Rueber’s family didn’t have the disposable income to enroll him in official taekwondo lessons in his hometown of Canton. He said he worked lots of odd jobs to save money for lessons. At 15, he finally was able to join a once-a-week, community-subsidized program for $20 a month, through which he eventually earned his black belt.
“I was obsessed with it right off the bat,” he said. “And so even though we were only meeting one day a week, I was training in my garage, and we set up a training center down in my basement. I’m building my own punching bag and training equipment, and my parents are going, ‘OK, just don’t break anything or hurt yourself.’ ”
After high school, he took a long break from martial arts to focus on his career, which was first in restaurant management. For the past five years, he has been a commercial broker associate at Jim Dunham & Associates, noticing firsthand the abundant growth Sioux Falls has experienced in recent years.
“Sioux Falls is, well, we’re stable, we’re progressive,” he said. “We’re a community that likes to come together, and we’re also a community that’s pro growth, a sales culture. I really enjoy a sales environment, and commercial real estate is a great way to help people and be part of that growth that we’re experiencing.”
It wasn’t until the turn of the decade that he started training again at Hoover’s Martial Arts in the Western Mall. Rueber said trainer Larry Hoover helped him get his confidence back, encouraging him to try the regional tournament circuit.
Rueber found himself succeeding at tournaments across the Midwest and kept on rising in ATA’s rankings. He started setting his sights even higher, winning nationals on two separate occasions. After that, he said he looked at the leader boards and saw he was ranked No. 1 in the nation, a spot he held for several years.
“I was kind of taken back,” he said. “I was like, I didn’t expect that. But I was very, very pleased with those results.”
After his gold medals at the world championships in 2017, which he calls “the pinnacle of my success,” he took a year off from competing. About 10 months ago, he and Hoover decided to start rigorous training for this year’s world championships. Because he was no longer ranked in the top 10, which is one way to qualify for the competition, he had to work his way back by succeeding again on the tournament circuit.
At a tournament June 8 in Minneapolis, Rueber found himself down to his last opportunity to qualify for worlds. He had to win the tournament in order to qualify, and he said it all came down to a final match against the No. 8 competitor in the world. Rueber beat him, punching his ticket to Little Rock.
“It was an exhausting and stressful day, but it was worth it,” he said.
Rueber has been working hard over the past 10 months to get ready for the world championships, averaging 10 to 12 hours of training a week. He said he’s excited to be back in competition on an international level, competing in the Tournament of Champions July 11 and 12, and the World Championship Expo on July 14.
“I’m really excited, and I’ll be OK with whatever happens,” he said. “Obviously, I’m going to go and give 150 percent. I’m super excited to represent Sioux Falls, South Dakota and the Midwest as a whole.”
He’s a commercial realtor by day who grew up building his own punching bags to hang up in the garage. Next week, he competes against the best in the world at taekwondo.