CARY — When she was in her early 20s, Rondy McKee had a flourishing career in advertising and marketing. But she had problems staying safe in downtown Detroit.
So she turned to martial arts, eventually becoming so skilled that she left her job behind to join a Korean taekwondo demonstration team.
“That’s when my whole life changed,” says McKee, 48. “I flew back to America, closed my business, put my house up for sale and moved to Korea.”
Upon her return to the United States, McKee combined her prowess in marketing and taekwondo to create what one trade magazine, Martial Arts Success, called “perhaps the largest single-location martial arts school on the planet” – White Tiger Taekwondo on Maynard Road in Cary.
The school has been around for 18 years and is unusual because it houses multiple teachers at the master level; most martial arts schools have only one master, which prevents conflict but limits their potential for growth.
White Tiger has about 2,000 active students who practice at its 24,000-square-foot facility.
“To have more than one master is unheard of,” says McKee. “In Korean martial arts culture the master is always right, and (in) American business the customer is always right. We make those cultures work together under one roof.”
A way to stay safe
McKee started taking taekwondo lessons when she was living alone and working long hours in downtown Detroit, which was taking a toll on her personal safety. She was mugged, her car was stolen, and her house was broken into, she says.
When she asked police how to go about getting a gun, they suggested she try martial arts instead.
She was in a cast when she showed up for her first class, and she had a hard time with the sharp yells that accompany certain moves, which she says sounded more like giggles when she tried them. But she progressed quickly and was soon competing, doing demonstrations and teaching.
She became part owner of a Detroit school. Her other career was also progressing; she opened her own marketing firm next door to her martial arts studio.
At one point, her master told her to watch the Korean Tigers, a professional demonstration team. She was so impressed with the tapes that she traveled to South Korea to see the team in person.
McKee was thrown into auditions once she arrived, and she was asked to join the team. She stayed two years and started envisioning the possibility for a large-scale martial arts business, one that would employ multiple master teachers from Korea and the United States.
She started looking for good places to open such a business and chose the Triangle, in part for its large number of families. By then, martial arts had evolved from being used primarily for self-defense to a way to foster confidence and discipline in children.
“Most sports the parents sit and watch,” she says. “This is something where you can have the entire family out there on the floor.”
She opened her school within weeks of arriving in Cary from Korea; its name is taken from her nickname as the only non-Korean member of the Tiger demonstration team.
After nine years, the school had outgrown its rented building – with classes running late into the evenings and on Sundays – and McKee was looking to build her own school. She visited some of the largest schools in the country, where owners said they wished they had made their buildings even bigger.
These schools maxed out at about 10,000 square feet, and McKee decided to more than double that size. The Cary school’s sprawling home boasts a Koi pond, café, multiple training rooms, a rock wall, a weight room and more.
McKee teaches a few hand-picked classes, including one called Lady Tigers, a class intended for mature women that mixes a stripped-down version of martial arts with practical self-defense methods, replacing traditional weapons with water bottles and cellphones.
Still known for her marketing acumen, McGee travels the country doing seminars on recruiting and retaining students, including one every year at a martial arts show in Las Vegas.
The school also works with Cary police to offer free classes to at-risk youth, who earn the right to attend by keeping up in school. Several have earned black belts, and the students have raised thousands of dollars through required community-service projects.
Roselie Halik and her four children all take classes at White Tiger, driving from Wake Forest to Cary two or three days a week. She says the school feels like a closely knit community despite its massive size.
“White Tiger has been a great place for all of us to learn skills and self-confidence,” Halik says. “Everyone gets what they need.”