My first taekwondo tournament was on a Saturday in Bozeman when I was in third or fourth grade.
My mom got me up early to make the three-hour drive from Missoula, and I felt my stomach acting in a way it never had before: I was nervous to perform.
This was a big year for me in that regard, the same year I learned that the pressure of playing piano recitals in front of other humans wouldn’t kill me. But taekwondo had been my true love up to that point, a childhood passion only surpassed by an interest in turtles.
As the middle kid of five girls, my parents had done the sport thing for a while by the time I came along kicking and punching. My sisters played soccer and basketball, and we all took swimming lessons and gymnastics.
But taekwondo was my choice, one my parents were a little worried about in the beginning because, as a martial art, there was a chance I’d get hit. For me, that was half the fun. I thrived, taking classes at the ROTC building on the University of Montana campus. I was one of the best in the class, my instructor told me, and if I worked hard at it, there was a chance I could aim for the 2000 Olympics when I would be 15.
That didn’t really register to me at the time as a 10-year-old. I was just there to become more deadly. In our practices each week, we honed our skills against comparable opponents; it didn’t matter if they were boys or girls.
In competition, it was the same. I’d spar with boys and girls in my same belt level and age range, and thought nothing of it, because no one made it a big deal. There were moments when I felt a bit out of place among all the boys, but I was determined and hardheaded and I loved the sport.
I see that same spirit when I chat with athletes such as Stella Davison or Maggie Voisin or any of the other amazing young women and girls I’ve spoken with in the last decade in this valley. It takes grit to last and succeed in any sport, but especially for a girl making a name for herself in a male-dominated field.
With a push for parity in athletics across the board, it’s important to acknowledge the athletes who toil in gyms and on mats and in the weight rooms while also making breakthroughs for women in sports. Sometimes, given prep high school sports, athletes like those we’ve profiled this week can get lost in the shuffle behind traditional sports.
Because really, the only aspect of a sport that determines whether or not someone can play should be whether they have the fire and passion for it, whether they want to work through the hardship and pain to succeed. (The Winter Olympics in South Korea are an amazing opportunity to see true love for lesser-praised sports in action.)
When I showed up at that tournament in Bozeman, my mom and I were so green we thought I needed to buy an athletic cup to be allowed to compete, because all the boys’ moms were telling my mom about it.
Upon arrival, though, we learned I only needed leg and arm padding for when I got in the ring with an opponent. I earned gold medals in my events, stoking my desire for more, to be better.
None of it would have been possible if I hadn’t had a family and an instructor who believed I belonged in the ring with the boys, and I love the idea that we as a community can provide that support, be in the corner of all our athletes, regardless of their gender.
Go get ‘em, gals.
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