At an age when many people tackle nothing more challenging than a crossword puzzle, Wayne Cooper is still mixing it up with kids young enough to be his grandchildren.
Cooper, 72, a Vietnam veteran, has been training for a black belt in taekwondo for the last four years, even while battling prostate cancer.
His grit and hard work paid off this past weekend when he passed the rigorous exam at the Douglas County High School gym in Castle Rock, Colorado.
"I never had the time in my life to learn taekwondo," Cooper said. "Now I finally do."
Cooper, who is originally from Kansas, attended the University of Kansas and graduated with a bachelor's degree in science and business in 1965. He was drafted right after he got out of college, and was deployed to Vietnam in 1966. On the day after Christmas in 1967, he suffered from two serious battlefield injuries, one in his left shoulder and one on his head, he said.
After Cooper returned to the U.S., he was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. And if that wasn't proof enough of his mettle, Cooper said he raised five children as a single father for 10 years.
Cooper was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999. He underwent surgery, but six years ago, he found out that there were residual cancer cells in his body, and had to go through radiation therapy for eight weeks. In addition to prostate cancer, Cooper has also been battling diabetes for 43 years. But the caner is now in remission, he said.
Grandmaster Han Won Lee, founder of Han Lee Taekwondo Academy, where Cooper studies the martial art, said Cooper has a very special place in his heart.
"There were many incidents where he fell behind," Lee said. "But he always caught up."
Lee said he doesn't give Cooper any special treatment.
“All students treat him with a great deal of respect,” Lee said. “We all wish we could do what he does at his age."
“The young kids kick higher and faster, but I try real hard to be a qualified student,” Cooper said.
This past weekend, Cooper stood in a crowd of young children and teenagers waiting for the two-day black belt test, which includes completing weapons sequences, competing in sparring, and kicking and breaking boards.
“I am old enough to be most of these students’ grandfather,” Cooper joked.
But that hasn't deterred Cooper from reaching his goal.
"Don't quit, keep going," Cooper said. "If you quit, it will be hard to start again."
Cooper lives with his wife Linda. He has five daughters, two step-daughters and nine grandchildren, with one grandchild on the way.
When asked what his next goal in life was, Cooper said he wants to master Spanish.