Paige McPherson poses for a photo on Instagram.
Paige McPherson is a two-time Olympian and the proud owner of a bronze medal from the 2012 Games in taekwondo. She’s also won silver and bronze medals at the world championships.
Last month in Taoyuan, Chinese Taipei, she added another milestone.
Competing at a World Taekwondo Grand Prix stop, McPherson knocked off the top-ranked Hye-ri Oh from South Korea in the women’s 67 kg. semifinals and then came from behind to beat Russia’s Polina Khan in the gold-medal match, hitting her opponent with a late body kick to force overtime, where she won on superiority.
“This was my first-ever big-stage win,” said McPherson, who has claimed titles at smaller international events including the 2015 Pan American Games, but never on the grand prix tour. “It was just another really good feeling to know all this hard work and looking at the goal, which is of course winning the gold medal at the Olympics, and I'm still able to perform. One of my opponents (Oh) that I had beaten was the Olympic champion from Rio. It shows me that I’m well on my way to accomplish my dream.”
Now McPherson will look to add to her medal collection at the President’s Cup next week in Las Vegas. She will then travel to Manchester, England, for another grand prix event on Oct. 19-21.
With so much on her plate, McPherson delayed celebrating her Oct. 1 birthday. Instead, she spent the day she turned 28 in training. She will soon celebrate with her friends, she said, but missing out on cake and a party was a small sacrifice for her as she’s working towards her goals.
“I have small goals, as in, just maintaining my Olympic ranking,” McPherson said. “The more wins I have, the better chance I have to qualify for the Tokyo Games.”
Winning Olympic gold in Tokyo is her goal, but she is careful not to get too far ahead of herself. She says she isn’t yet thinking about the 2020 Olympics, or even the world championships in 2019.
“If you look ahead too much, you won't be able to focus on the now which is the most important. You never know what's going to happen in the future,” she said. “There's no reason to worry about that and focus so intently in that. It's about taking one step at a time, one day at a time, one week at a time. Just achieving those small goals to get to that big goal.”
McPherson is currently ranked fifth in the world, top in the United States, and is the lone American athlete to bring home a medal in the taekwondo grand prix this season. To maintain that ranking, the Sturgis, South Dakota, native trains at Peak Performance in Miami, and finds inspiration in her teammates. Most don’t have international credentials, but they share the same love of taekwondo.
“I see some of my teammates giving it their all in the gym, day in and day out, who work full-time jobs, who try to go to school, who somehow make it to practice,” McPherson said. “They kill themselves for two hours. Just being able to be around people that are passionate about what they do.”
Her coach, two-time Olympic silver medalist Juan Moreno, also offers plenty of inspiration. McPherson said he helps her break through the walls she finds in front of her in training.
“I think nerves will never go away,” she said. “As much as I've done this sport, as many competitions I've had, I’ve always been, and always will be, nervous at a competition. He's always one of those people that's been able to calm me down, focus, (makes me) believe in myself when sometimes I might feel under pressure. When I've lost, he's always been able to help me refocus, reset.”
McPherson is considered small for her weight class, but that hasn’t been an issue for her because of the way she fights. What McPherson loves about taekwondo is that the tactical nature of the sport means her size isn’t an issue.
“It's a game of chess,” she said. “It's not about brute strength and who is the fastest. It's all about tactics, strategy, working with the rules, working against the rules, working with the system, trying to work against the system. There's so many factors, so many layers, which I find makes it fascinating.”
Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.