Vladimir Kornev is far too young to know about Mr. Miyagi, Daniel-san or the 1984 martial arts film "The Karate Kid."

But he can relate to the central message of the cult classic: the transformative powers of martial arts training.

Three years of martial arts study have transformed Vlad, as he is called, from a shy, withdrawn kid into a confident and engaging world champion. All by the age of 8.

"I remember when I first met him he wouldn't even look at me in the eye," said Janelle Gleisner, a sixth-degree black belt and owner of ATA Black Belt Academy in Burnsville, where Vlad trains.

The Apple Valley third-grader, who won his world championship in June in Arkansas, is but the latest world champion produced by the small dojo, located in a strip mall off E. County Road 42.

At the same American Taekwondo Association world championships where Vlad won his title in the forms competition, his friend Devmini Jayatilaka, also 8, won three world championships.

Gleisner, a seven-time world champion, says her facility has probably produced more world champions than any other dojo in the state.

"It's a lot of dedication from the kids," said Gleisner, who won her most recent title at the Little Rock competition.

Marianna Kornev, Vlad's mother, can attest to that.

She said her son works about three hours a day on the various forms, techniques and movements involved with taekwondo, a Korean style of martial arts that reportedly is the most popular form in the world.

"He loves it," she said. "He was so shy. He didn't have confidence talking to people."

Life skills needed

Marianna and her husband Roman got Vlad involved in martial arts because they wanted to help him and thought he'd benefit from the philosophy and self-discipline that go along with the training.

Vlad says he is aware of the changes in him after years of martial arts training.

"The training is based on learning, putting good habits in front of bad habits," Vlad said. "When I was a white belt I was not in as much control as I am right now."

Joseph Abbot, Vlad's instructor, said the transformation the boy describes is not unusual for martial arts kids.

"We see it all the time," Abbot said. "Vlad started off as a very shy kid, very quiet. They are regular kids that excel. We teach a strong work ethic."

Venuka Jayatilaka, the father of two world champions at the Burnsville academy, said he got his children, Devmini and Agasthi, 13, involved in the martial arts specifically so they could learn more about life skills.

"I wasn't interested in the competition," said Jayatilaka, from Savage. "The competition was secondary to me. Initially I said no to competing."

Jayatilaka said his children have flourished on and off the mat. Not only did his daughter win three titles in Little Rock, but his son won a world title last year in the same competition. He finished second and third in several categories this year, according to instructors.

"The difference has been night and day," Jayatilaka said about the changes he has seen in his children. "My son had some issues at school, not paying attention, other little things. Now he is an honor student."

Vlad said he knew he was going to do well at the world championships because a few months ago he found his self-confidence during an elementary school talent show.

He was nervous about doing his routine in front of hundreds of students, parents and administrators.

"My heart was pounding," he said. "I thought it was going to pound out of my body."

But once he got going, he felt at ease and nailed it perfectly. Gleisner, who was there, remembered him getting a standing ovation.

Vlad repeated the performance a month later in Little Rock, earning the title of world champion.

"I remember putting my hands over my head and yelling yeah, yeah," Vlad said about his victory. "It was worth it."

Heron Marquez • 952-707-9994