Social justice is the common thread that has run through the fabric of Sharon Jewell’s life for as long as she can remember.
An African American born in Little Rock, Ark., in 1960, Jewell’s childhood was immersed in the Black Civil Rights movement that engrossed the American South. Her parents were activists. Daisy Bates of the Little Rock Nine that integrated Little Rock Central High (where Jewell eventually attended) in 1957 used to babysit Jewell. Her great uncles owned the Memphis Red Sox and Chicago American Giants, two Negro League baseball teams. Her oldest brother, Eldin, was the first black child to integrate his all-white elementary school in Little Rock. Jewell’s first memory was seeing her mom march on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King on television in 1963.
“I like to think of myself as a Civil Rights kid. That’s part of my DNA and part of my family’s DNA,” she said. “Our parents kept us all involved, so it wasn’t like we didn’t know what was going on. My father was a dentist, but he also did a lot of work with the NAACP and other Civil Rights organizations focusing on education and equality. My mother did the same thing; my mother was involved in sit-ins when I was young.”
Long before Jewell made the Olympic Team or even considered taking up taekwondo, she was being bred to make a difference in the sport she would soon grow to love. Her grandparents were farmers who had nothing more than fifth grade educations, which taught her parents the importance of education. Her father, Jerry Jewell, was a dentist-turned-first African American state senator, eventually serving as the first African American Arkansas acting State Governor following Bill Clinton’s Presidential election in 1992. Her mother was a mechanical drafting graduate, taught college courses, was a home maker and volunteer throughout her life. Together, the Jewell’s taught their five children to be well-rounded and educated.
“We were always doing something,” she recalled. “Whether it was school activities, church activities, we all took different instrument and piano lessons. We were pretty active.”
Jewell took ballet, gymnastics, ran track, was involved in her community and worked to get into a good college, eventually receiving two full-ride scholarships for academics and athletics to Howard University.
Activism, however, was always a cornerstone of her life.
“You had to be 6-years-old before you could go on the (activism) trips,” she said. “We were all waiting to turn 6-years-old so we could go to the NAACP conventions. My first meeting that I chaired, I was 8-years-old. It was the youth group at one of the NAACP conventions and I was elected chair. My first national committee that I was on, I was age 12, and I had to fly to New York to be on National the Youth Work Committee. I knew what was going on around us just by watching my parents.”
Taekwondo happened for Jewell, in a sense, on accident. In ballet with her sister as a young girl, Jewell was challenged by some boys practicing martial arts and took up the sport on a bet. The dispute at hand: Jewell felt she could do martial arts better than the boys could dance.
The boys stuck with their African dance classes for a few weeks. Taekwondo stuck with Jewell for the rest of her life.
Sharon Jewell was a natural talent. Balance learned from her dance training became a lethal combination with the speed and agility developed through running hurdles in track, which yielded a 39 mph ap chagi kick (the fastest kick on the 1988 Olympic Team) that she used with great success throughout her career.
“When you look at ballet and think about it from a scientific perspective, you’re thinking about physics, you’re thinking about turns, you’re thinking about positions, the flexibility and the control of your legs,” she said. “So learning taekwondo was kind of easy for me because of the ballet background. The ballet, the track and the gymnastics were perfect for taekwondo.”
Throughout her time competing, Jewell never placed worse than third.
Taekwondo at that time, however, did make Jewell and her fellow female athletes feel like second class citizens. The fight to make taekwondo an Olympic sport was well underway and the World Taekwondo Federation’s lobbying to the International Olympic Committee showed much more interest in adding men’s taekwondo to the Olympic lineup than women’s.
“If countries had money, if teams had money, they always put the men’s teams first,” she said. “We knew it would take a minimum of 24 years for the women’s counterpart of the sport to get into the Olympic Games if they don’t go in at the same time. We would all be 50 or 60 years old, so we didn’t want to wait.”
So Jewell turned to what she knew best: activism. In order to make women’s taekwondo an Olympic sport, a minimum cutoff of countries needed to send female representation to compete at any given Games. The U.S. women had already proven their value with a strong international reputation, but it wasn’t enough just having one strong country.
“You needed to have more women show up at World Championships to get the number of participating countries up for women,” Jewell said. “At that time, a lot of your obvious countries now didn’t have women’s teams, didn’t support women in competition and were not favorably thinking about spending money to bring a women’s team.”
Jewell and other female athletes from the U.S. not only approached international team officials, coaches and whoever would listen to their case at meets and competitions, but also lobbied their own masters and coaches.
“In between us competing as athletes, we were out campaigning and trying to influence heads of teams of other countries to at least bring one woman so we could say that country had a female team and we could get the numbers high enough so that we could be included as an Olympic sport,” she said.
Jewell and elite female taekwondo athletes got their chance at Olympic competition in 1988, the same time as the men. At those 1988 Seoul Games, Jewell climbed the medal stand and received her bronze medal, one that, in many ways, was a lifetime in the making.
After the Olympics, Jewell’s accomplishments were entered into the Congressional Records of the 100th Congress, 2nd Session, U.S. Senate, Vol. 134, No. 139.
Additionally, being an Olympian allowed Jewell to meet Rodney Smith, a two-time U.S. Olympian, Olympic bronze medalist in Greco Roman Wrestling and fellow activist and advocate for social justice. They began dating in 1992 and are still together today.
“I look at where my parents and my grandparents came from, and I look at the legacy that they left us. There’s a certain bar that I’ve had to hit,” she said. “If I saw someone being treated unfairly, I always wanted to be an advocate for fair play.”