(Oct 16, 2020) - Cheyenne Lewis can remember the exact date when she moved from her home in Berkley, California, to Colorado Springs, Colorado.
It was Veterans Day — Nov. 11, 2019.
When Lewis was living in California, the promising Taekwondo athlete had to plan her training sessions around her work schedule. She traveled twice to Colorado to train with the U.S. national team, but it wasn’t feasible for her to go there on a regular basis.
Once Lewis was invited to join USA Taekwondo’s new full-time training program, she couldn’t say no. She now lives and trains year-round in Colorado Springs with seven other Taekwondo athletes who share the same goal of someday competing for world championships and Olympic gold medals.
“I’m able to wake up and train. I’m getting world-class training. I’m training with world-class athletes and coaches,” Lewis said. “When I was in California, I was doing a lot for myself, planning my own trainings, having to push myself. And now a lot of that burden is taken off.”
When Gareth Brown and Paul Green were hired in 2017 to coach the U.S. Taekwondo team, they had the idea of starting a full-time training program similar to what other successful Taekwondo countries have.
Instead of having Olympic hopefuls scattered across the country, Brown and Green invited a small group of elite athletes to move to Colorado Springs, where they could train together at USA Taekwondo’s new National Center of Excellence.
At the in-house training facility, coaches can monitor every aspect of the resident athletes, from their diets and sleeping habits to the way they carry themselves outside of the gymnasium.
“The goal is to develop Olympic gold medalists,” Brown said. “That’s our goal.”
The full-time training program started with four resident athletes on Oct. 1, 2019. Since then, the program has expanded to eight resident athletes and members have earned impressive wins over a pair of world Taekwondo champions.
In March, Anastasija Zolotic, a 17-year-old junior world champion who was among the program’s first four resident athletes, qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.
“If you talked to me a year ago, I probably wouldn’t be in the same boat as I am now with all these opportunities and stuff. I think having a full-time program has helped me drastically,” Zolotic said. “I’ve made so many improvements, and Gareth has brought stuff (out of) me that I didn’t’t even know I can do.”
Lewis, at 24, is the oldest of the program’s eight resident athletes. She trains five days a week, for up to 2.5 hours in the morning and another 90 minutes in the afternoon.
During training sessions, Lewis will see different fighting styles from the other resident athletes. She’ll also get guidance from Brown and Green, something she couldn’t get while training on her own in northern California.
“I think I’ve grown a lot since I’ve started this program, getting stronger, putting on some weight, doing a lot of things, techniques, that I wouldn’t have been doing before,” Lewis said. “I think in all the years that I’ve been doing Taekwondo I’ve progressed the most the past year that I’ve been here.”
As part of the full-time program, resident athletes get paid, are given job opportunities and receive educational support from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. They also take online classes in addition to their daily training sessions.
Brown said a structure has been put into place to search nationally for young, promising Taekwondo athletes to invite to Colorado Springs to train at the National Center of Excellence.
“We’re not really focused around the number of athletes we want to bring into the program,” Brown said. “We’re more focused around the quality of athletes we bring in, so we actually haven’t got a goal set in mind with bringing in 12 athletes or 24 athletes, et cetera.”
Since some of the resident athletes are still teenagers, they live with their parents, who have moved with them to Colorado Springs. Other resident athletes are roommates, sharing a place they rent together.
Prior to moving to Colorado Springs for the full-time program, Zolotic said she was training only twice a week at a private school in her hometown of Largo, Florida. Each session lasted an hour, and it sometimes consisted of her practicing with a 10-year-old kid holding a pad for her.
Zolotic’s training is much more rigorous at the National Center of Excellence, and her sparring sessions against other Olympic-caliber athletes can get intense.
“When we have competition days, test matches and stuff, we go at it,” Zolotic said. “People are hurting the next day, sore, bruised, bloody noses from getting kicked in the face. It’s very competitive, and that’s what I love.”