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While the Pan Am Qualification Tournament for Para taekwondo athletes is held this week in Heredia, Costa Rica, two Team USA athletes have already qualified for their sport’s debut at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
And those two athletes have a very similar several months ahead.
Evan Medell and Brianna Salinaro are both college seniors, aiming to graduate this year before going on to fight for gold in Tokyo.
Medell, standing at 6 feet tall and sitting at No. 1 in the world rankings, won gold at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 and bronze at the 2017 world championships in the men’s K44 +75 kg. category, the sport’s most competitive class. Salinaro, No. 4 in the world rankings, was the first athlete with cerebral palsy to fight on the world stage and also won bronze at the 2017 world championships in the women’s K44 -58 kg. class.
Both qualified for Tokyo by being in the top four in the world rankings on Jan. 1.
“There’s only one first, so it’s nice to be a part of history,” Medell said. “And I expect to win in Tokyo. I’ve beaten everyone in the world at some point, so I know I can do it.”
Their journeys to the mat varied, however, with Salinaro finding refuge in the sport and Medell fulfilling his childhood obsession with mixed martial arts.
Salinaro, born with cerebral palsy, bounced from sport to sport trying to find an outlet that kept her mind off what was happening at school.
“As I grew older I started to realize that I was different than a lot of my classmates and friends,” Salinaro said. “I didn’t cope with that very well. I didn’t understand why I was different, and I was angry about it. I got bullied a lot as a kid for walking differently and having to be taken out of class for physical therapy and falling down all the time. It definitely wasn’t easy, but Para taekwondo really helped me with that because it allowed me to become really comfortable and confident with my disability.”
One day a friend brought Salinaro to “take your friend to taekwondo class day” and she decided to start competing in the sport.
Today, Salinaro trains at Sacred Heart University, where she is no longer angered nor bullied.
“It is my sole motivation to medal at the Paralympics and is just beyond anything I could have ever dreamed of,” she said. “It solidifies everything that I’ve been doing for the past several years. I was the first female Para taekwondo (athlete) to ever compete for the U.S. and I’m also the only athlete to compete at this level with cerebral palsy.”
Medell — who grew up with brachial plexus palsy, a paralysis that affects the arm — would bike three miles to and from his house five days a week growing up in order to attend taekwondo school. He ultimately gave up his other sport, baseball, to focus on taekwondo and now trains six days a week at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Both athletes now study their opponents by watching video ahead of time, as they only have a short amount of time on the mat to execute and impress, which they agree makes for an exciting spectacle for spectators and TV viewers.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you’re only fighting for six minutes.’ But those six minutes can wipe you out if you’re not conditioned for it,” said Salinaro, who always clears her head on the mat to take direction from her coach standing behind her. “One of the best things about it is that you can be down by 15 with a minute to go and catch up. You never know what’s going to happen. There’s an element of surprise to it for sure.”
Medell, however, hopes to live up to his ranking with no surprises come Tokyo.
“I’m just trying to get a gold medal and graduate from college,” he said flatly, and without any sign of nervousness.
The rest of Team USA, meanwhile, heads to the Pan American Qualification Tournament in hopes of earning more Paralympic quota spots so additional athletes can join these soon-to-be college graduates in Tokyo.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the 2012 and 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.