At 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds, Paige McPherson is considered small for her 67 kg. taekwondo weight class. She makes up for that in cunning.
“It’s a game of chess,” she told TeamUSA.org in 2018. “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.”
Using that approach, McPherson, an Olympic bronze medalist at the London 2012 Games, is now the first American to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in taekwondo. She will be the first U.S. women's taekwondo athlete to compete at three Olympic Games.
The 29-year-old from Sturgis, South Dakota, secured her third Olympic berth by merit of her No. 6 position in the sport’s Olympic rankings. Five athletes in each weight class qualify that way, though one athlete ranked above McPherson - Matea Jelic of Croatia - has qualified through the Grand Slam Champions Series.
Additional U.S. taekwondo athletes can still qualify.
McPherson, who is Filipino and black, was born in Abilene, Texas, but soon after adopted by white parents in South Dakota. There she grew up in a multiracial family with four other adopted siblings who were of Native American, Caribbean and Korean descent.
At age 7, McPherson followed her older brother into taekwondo, and soon she was thriving.
Nicknamed “McFierce,” she made her Olympic debut in 2012 in London, where she won a bronze medal. Four years later she finished 11th in Rio.
Between Olympics, McPherson has won silver (2017) and bronze (2015) medals at the world championships, and in 2018 she won her first gold medal in a World Taekwondo Grand Prix event. She’s coming off a 2019 season in which she won a silver medal at the Pan American Games Lima 2019, as well as a bronze medal in the Grand Prix Final.
McPherson now trains at Peak Performance in Miami, where she works with Juan Moreno, who finished second at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, where taekwondo was held as a demonstration sport. He later competed at the 2000 Games in Sydney, where taekwondo made its debut as a medal sport.
“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,” she told TeamUSA.org in that same 2018 interview. “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.”
The U.S. is seeking its first Olympic gold medal in taekwondo since 2004, when Steven Lopez won his second in a row. Jackie Galloway won the lone U.S. taekwondo medal in 2016, a bronze. Since the sport was added to the Olympic Games in 2000, the U.S. has won nine total medals, trailing only South Korea (19) and China (10).