By Joe Jordan | OSV News
GARFIELD, N.J. — Surrender was never an option for Carolina Muñoz.
As a fighter standing exactly 5 feet tall, her opponents have always been bigger than her. As a youth minister at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church in Garfield, many of the teenagers in her group tower over her. What stands out about Muñoz is her confidence. She can command a room with a few well-aimed words about faith and control the ring with a precision of punches. In either situation, she undisputedly believes in a victorious result.
That confidence made her a world champion in taekwondo. Its shattering made her a champion for Christ.
When Muñoz first arrived in the United States from Ecuador at age 3, she was a very shy child. It wasn’t until her mother introduced her to martial arts at age 6, after witnessing what the classes did for her older brother’s confidence, that something changed in her.
Her natural talent and love for the sport saw her become a dominant athlete throughout her childhood and teenage years. With every win her confidence grew. She even began teaching martial arts as she became older. In teaching, Muñoz found another love — one that, later in life, became a love for teaching youth.
But as a teenager and an immigrant minor, she realized that there was one playing field that was not quite equal. Muñoz was a Dreamer — someone with undocumented migration status who was brought into the U.S. as a minor and would have qualified for the DREAM Act. By the time she was 16, she found that she could not apply for college or get a car.
In response to this, one of Muñoz’s high school teachers challenged her to speak about her experience as a Dreamer. Her confidence from martial arts and teaching translated well to public speaking, and soon she was sharing her experience with hundreds at Princeton University, Fairleigh Dickinson University and Elizabeth City Hall.
On top of that, Muñoz was now fighting nationally. Taekwondo was firmly first in her life, before faith, family or friends.
“My identity was martial arts,” she told the Jersey Catholic, online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Newark. “Leading up to my world championship, I sacrificed a lot. A lot of time with family, a lot of time with friends. I didn’t go out. For instance, on Sunday when my whole family would get together, I would instead go train for hours and hours. I knew my path at that moment and I was so hungry for it.”
While her family did not agree with the violence of fighting or the time it took away, they always supported her. And even though faith was not at the forefront of Muñoz’s mind then, it was her devout Catholic family that reminded her of God amid the success. Her mother, especially, had a way of gently bringing Jesus to her daughter.
“In any conversation that I have with my mom, she brings up Jesus and her faith,” she said. “Even though my faith wasn’t as strong as it is today, she was still feeding me — planting the seed and watering it. There was wisdom in the approach that my parents had, because if you force something upon someone, it’s not going to be well received. They just kept giving me these tidbits here and there.”
There was only one goal for Muñoz: to become an ATA Martial Arts World Champion.
“I worked so hard for years and years; I always had it in my mind ever since I was super young that I wanted to be a world champion,” she recalled. “There were points where I thought it wasn’t possible.”
Some of those points were financial. Not wanting her parents to pay the cost, Muñoz spent her late teenage years working to support her dream and then flying around the country by herself to various championships. It was lonely, especially when adversity struck.
In 2013, not long out of high school, she advanced as far as she ever had in her career. Muñoz was only weeks away from the World Championships, competing in districts for a qualifying spot when she pulled her hamstring. She could not move, ending her run with bruises all over her leg and tears in her eyes.
Muñoz qualified for her first world championship in Little Rock, Arkansas. There were three separate categories in which she could win: forms, fighting, and weapons. She began with forms, where a fighter presents their technique.
“I was taking all this numbing cream and wrapping everything,” she remembered. “Because of my adrenaline, I didn’t really feel my hamstring.”
She performed what she considers her best-ever form technique but tied the three-time reigning world champion. They performed their techniques again and waited to see who the judges would point toward to indicate the winner.
Simultaneously, one judge pointed at the reigning champion and the other two pointed at Muñoz. She was a world champion.
“I threw my hands over my head. I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I felt like it was all worth it. All the injuries, all the late nights, all the skipping family events. Feeling the pain right after, that was awesome.”
Muñoz no longer competes officially after a life-altering moment in 2020.
That October, she was sparring with a man who far outweighed her, which was not an unusual scenario. But their legs got tangled and his full weight came down on her one leg stuck in an awkward position. The result was the worst pain of her life: a torn knee ligament. She had injured her ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, and faced months of recovery.
“I physically couldn’t walk,” she recalled. “I was a world champion who couldn’t kick over a box. For me that was wild. Because I didn’t have the martial arts, I had to ask the question of ‘Who am I really?’ And it was a wonderful time, although very hurtful. I was heartbroken. I was mentally drained every day.”
Muñoz recalls being angry all the time during her recovery, especially at God. But eventually that anger turned into questions, and those questions turned into prayer. For perhaps the first time, she contemplated a different type of surrender — the surrender in prayer.
“At that moment I felt so at peace,” she said. “I’m the type of person who likes to be in control, but it made me realize I’m so much more than a martial artist.”
The ACL injury did not physically end her career. Muñoz recovered and could still attempt a return to competition if she wished — but that is no longer at the top of her priorities anymore.
“I thought everything that I learned in life was because of martial arts, but now it’s flip-flopped,” she said. “Martial arts is maybe 10th on my list of who I am. First is being a daughter of Christ.”
Now she focuses on the two things that pulled her out of the depths of despair: her faith and boxing, which she turned to when she could not kick.
As she was evaluating her life after ACL surgery, the youth minister at Our Lady of Mount Virgin contacted her. She was leaving her position to move to Pennsylvania and, ironically, Muñoz was leaving Pennsylvania to move back to New Jersey. The timing felt providential.
“I loved the idea of serving and I had done it before, co-leading the youth group at my mom’s parish. So, I said let’s do it,” she said.
“It’s become a second family with the main objective to get them closer to God each and every day,” she continued. “I challenge them and try to figure out their gifts, what God has given them.”
Of course, martial arts finds its way into many of the lessons. Muñoz can often be seen demonstrating some kicks or a combo of punches.
“We talk about bravery a lot,” she said. “I can think of many instances in martial arts when I had to be brave. I’m the smallest one. It takes bravery to show up and to get in the ring. It takes bravery to speak in front of hundreds of people.
“So, I ask the teens all the time, ‘Who wants to volunteer? Or read at the Mass?’ And it’s crickets. So, then we talk about having courage and being brave and they’re like, ‘OK, I get it. Let me take that one step to becoming braver.’”
Often, it is Munoz’s little sister who is the first to volunteer in the group, continuing the family tradition of leading youth.
“I give them props all the time because it’s not easy to get up and read or to take the collections,” she said. “Those are the little wins that we can say build confidence.”
It’s a daily battle, but winning confidence in Christ is now the fight of Carolina Muñoz’s lifetime — a fight not of this world for the world champion.
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Joe Jordan is social media specialist at Jersey Catholic, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Newark.
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NOTE: A Jersey Catholic video about Carolina Muñoz can be viewed on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvfRsviLucQ.