Anastasija Zolitic won the gold medal at the 2018 World Taekwondo Youth Olympic Games Qualification Tournament in Hammamet, Tunisia.
There are several things that stand out after a conversation with Anastasija Zolotic, the 16-year-old from Largo, Florida, who’s already making a name for herself on the senior taekwondo circuit after becoming potentially the youngest grand prix medalist earlier this month.
One is that she’s laid back enough that whether you call her Anas-TAH-jah, Anas-TAY-jah, AH-na, Ana or pretty much any other variation of her name, she’ll answer.
“I’m so used to everything it doesn’t really matter,” she said.
Another is that she’s tough enough that when she broke her hand early on at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018 last fall she put the pain in the back of her mind, kept fighting and won the silver medal.
Yet another is that she’s determined enough that her name — however you pronounce it — is probably going to be mentioned a lot more in the coming years.
“I think it’s because my overall goal in the sport is just to be the best,” she said when asked how she’s reached the success she’s had so far at such a young age. “I just want to be the best and be there for a long time.”
Zolotic started taekwondo when she was 7 or 8 years old, she said, in an after-school program because her father always had an interest in the sport. It wasn’t until 2017, however, when she went to the Junior Pan American Championships and took gold in the women’s flyweight division (44 kg.) that she began to realize she had a future in taekwondo.
Last summer she went to the junior world championships and won again, this time in the 52 kg. sparring division. Then last fall, Zolotic traveled to Argentina, for the Youth Olympic Games, in what she hopes will serve as a precursor to the actual Olympic Games one day.
“When I was younger I always wanted to go to an Olympics, which I think every athlete has that goal,” she said. “The Youth Olympics was a good start. It was definitely something I was counting the days until it got there. When I got there it was amazing, like the real Olympics just with younger athletes. Seeing all those other sports where everyone was there to win was kind of scary at the beginning, but later on when I was fighting it all went away.”
Unfortunately something else happened when she started fighting. Zolotic broke her hand in the second round of her first fight. Not wanting it to hold her back, she did her best to ignore the pain.
“Oh, it really hurt, but when I was fighting I just tried not to think about it,” she said. “I told myself it was just a chipped nail. … just a painful chipped nail.”
Zolotic advanced through the day to the very end, where she fought Elizaveta Ryadninskaya of Russia and came up just short.
She may have won the silver medal — with a broken hand — but she was disappointed nonetheless.
“In four years, my whole junior career, I think that was the first time I lost,” she said. “It was heartbreaking.”
In May, Zolotic made her senior world championship debut, where she had to adjust to fighting women who were older, stronger and more experienced than she.
May Spence, high performance director for USA Taekwondo, said initially there was some concern about Zolotic making the transition.
“She’s really tall and strong but really skinny, and we weren’t sure how she was going to handle fighting seniors because she’s 16 fighting 25-, 27-year-old women,” Spence said. “But one of the great things is her self-belief and spirit. She’s really coachable and she always believes she can win.”
Spence described Zolotic’s style as aggressive. She’s a head-hunter, which works well for her because of her height at 5-foot-11, and she doesn’t shrink back in competition even after a tough blow. She has all the indicators of success for taekwondo, Spence said, including height, strength, adaptability, discipline and mentality.
“She smashes all those; she’s off the charts,” Spence said. “But the thing that makes her most special is her grit.”
Zolotic made it to the round of 16 at her first senior world championships, where she lost to Chinese Taipei’s Po-Ya Su, 18-9. It was a particularly tough loss because Zolotic beat her months earlier at the U.S. Open.
Earlier this month Zolotic won the bronze medal in the women’s 57 kg. at the World Taekwondo Grand Prix in Rome. It’s a significant achievement given that USA Taekwondo officials believe she’s the youngest U.S. athlete to medal at a grand prix, and also impressive in how she did it.
She scored victories over Latvia’s Jolanta Tarvida and Morocco’s Nada Laaraj before once again coming up against Po-Ya Su, this time beating her on golden point to reach the semifinals.
“I was hungrier than ever to beat her because she took away what could have been my world championship medal,” Zolotic said. “I knew I wasn’t going to lose to her again. I didn’t want her to take away another opportunity. We went into the fourth round so the first point would win. I scored the first point in the last second and it was just a whole bunch of relief.”
Zolotic lost in the semifinals to eventual silver medalist Hatice Kubra Ilgun of Turkey, a 26-year-old 2017 world silver medalist who’s fifth in the world in the Olympic rankings.
Her competition may have ended there, but this is clearly just the beginning for Zolotic in her hunt to become the best, a quest that continues this weekend when she’ll compete for a spot at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games.
“I was down the whole time but I never gave up,” said Zolotic. “I didn’t want to know I was getting a third-place medal and give up. … Winning, losing, I wanted to have a performance that said, ‘Even though I’m 16 I’m here, and I’m going to win a medal one day and it’s going to be gold.’”