By Jordan Klein | July 27, 2019, 7:29 p.m. (ET)

Alex Lee competes at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on July 27, 2019 in Lima, Peru.

 

LIMA, Peru - Alex Lee goes to bed at 5:00 a.m. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes the only place he can fit sleep into his schedule comes as the sun also rises. 

The Stanford University junior balances a full workload between his computer science major and his poomsae taekwondo training. He has traveled the world to compete in taekwondo events and earned a bronze medal at the 2016 World Poomsae Championships, becoming the first junior American taekwondo athlete in history to reach the podium.

Today, Lee made history once again.

In front of a raucous crowd at the Callao Sports Center in Lima, Peru, Lee captured a gold medal in men’s individual poomsae. It was the first gold medal ever awarded in poomsae at a Pan American Games and the first medal won by a Team USA athlete in Lima.

“It’s just an incredible feeling,” Lee said. “To be able to win a gold medal for the first time ever in poomsae at a Pan American Games is amazing, and I will honestly never forget this moment and this day.”

Team USA’s Kayrn Real took the bronze in the women’s competition, making her the first American woman to win a Pan American medal in the discipline.

Poomsae is a discipline of taekwondo where athletes compete as individuals; no opponent, no sparring. Instead, flowing from position to position, strike to strike, athletes move through choreographed routines with grace and precision. 

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 “Flow” was a word Lee used often to describe the sport he loves, a transcendent state he can reach when he steps onto the competition floor, breathes in deep and executes upon his training. It’s a feeling he cherishes deeply, when he is at one with himself, when he feels capable of expressing the true beauty of his sport.

That beauty was on full display Saturday as Lee flawlessly executed his patterns. He finished the event with an average judges’ score of 7.660, a full 0.17 points ahead of his nearest opponent. When he stepped off the podium, gold medal in hand, Lee looked towards his mom, a woman who has sacrificed just as much time and sleep as he has for his taekwondo career.

That’s the juxtaposition of poomsae: While it’s an individual discipline within an individual sport, it can so often feel like a team endeavor. The poomsae community is close-knit; they compete against one another every year at various championships and events. Seeing them all together at an event like the Pan American Games, side-by-side with athletes from archery to weightlifting at the Opening Ceremony, it all made Lee smile.

“When you invite these different sports and put them together, it just creates a different atmosphere,” Lee said. “This competition was on a different level. While I was competing against so many familiar faces, this venue was so decorated and so beautiful, unlike anything I’ve competed in before.”

As for the future of his sport, Lee hopes for the best – for better competitions, more competitors, and someday, a place on the Olympic program.  

“People are starting to see the beauty of poomase,” he said. “My hope is that we can continue to introduce poomsae to as many people as possible.”