(Oct 19, 2020) - Anastasija Zolotic said she’s so focused while competing at a Taekwondo tournament that she could probably break one of her legs and not feel any pain at all.
So there was no way the teenager from Largo, Florida, was about to let an injured left wrist keep her from fighting for an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo this past summer.
“She would have fought in the Olympic Games with two broken legs, so that wrist injury, there was no stopping the girl,” said Gareth Brown, coach of the U.S. Taekwondo team. “She would’ve competed in it.”
Zolotic, at 17, is a high school senior, a junior world champion and one of the new faces of USA Taekwondo. She qualified for her first Olympics in mid-March, only a few weeks after she took a kick to her wrist during a match at the President’s Cup in Sweden.
And she would have competed in those Olympics, she said, despite struggling to turn her left hand and having to face athletes who are often several years older than her in the women’s -57 kg. division.
In a stroke of bad news with a silver lining, however, the Tokyo Games were postponed.
Zolotic had qualified for the Tokyo Games in March at the Pan American Olympic Qualification Tournament in Costa Rica. Shortly after finishing her last fight, Zolotic received a message letting her know that she needed to immediately head back to her new home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Soon afterward, Zolotic learned that the Olympics had been push back until 2021.
“I think when I went home that day, when I heard that news, I kind of cried myself asleep because at such a young age you look forward to that,” said Zolotic, a silver medalist a the 2018 Youth Olympic Games. “That’s why I moved here. That’s why I had family move here.
“I was definitely looking forward to it, and I was pushing myself like ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to win the Olympics.’ So it was very heartbreaking to me.”
One benefit from the postponement, however, was that Zolotic was able to address her injury. The teenager spent the first two months of the pandemic with her left hand in a cast. She hoped the injury would heal without surgery.
Though limited in how much training she could do while self-quarantining in Colorado Springs, Zolotic was fortunate in that she had two of her teammates living with her at the time. The three of them often went downstairs and turned her basement into a makeshift gymnasium.
“We kind of cleared the couches out of there,” Zolotic said. “We set up mats all over the floor, and we took the gear and the pads and stuff from the (USA Taekwondo National Center of Excellence) and took them home, cleaned them and trained together. And then slowly we were able to train in open spaces. We would find a park and train.”
Eventually, though, she elected to have the surgery to insert a pin and a wire into her left wrist.
Zolotic was unable to train for two months after that, and admitted she felt down and hated to see her teammates going to practice without her.
“I think when I first had my surgery for a full week I was very distraught. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I stayed in bed,” Zolotic said. “I didn’t eat very well because I was upset. People would be like, ‘Let’s go on a walk.’ I’d make excuses. ‘Oh, my wrist hurts. I don’t want to go on a walk.’”
Her outlook has since improved, however, and she’s hoping to be back to full training by November and begin the push toward Tokyo 2021.
Zolotic, who turns 18 on Nov. 23 and graduates from high school in December, is considered young to be elite in the -57 kg. division. However, at 5-foot-11, she has long legs that allow her to strike her opponents with both short and long kicks.
Zolotic moved up in weight classes last year, and she became the youngest American athlete to medal in a grand prix event when she took bronze in her debut in Rome. She followed it up a few weeks later by winning gold at the Pan American Games Lima 2019.
Brown said Zolotic will benefit from having another year to prepare for the Olympics. She’ll be able to add weight and muscle to her long frame, and she’ll have more time to let her wrist heal.
“Everything is so much against her to go there (to the Olympic) and being able to win that gold medal, but the year has been a blessing in disguise for us to work with her,” Brown said. “She’s also been able to have some minor surgery done that she’s needed, and she’s still coming through the recovery process from that. So it’s sort of a win-win situation for us.”
As for Zolotic, her outlook changed after she was allowed to attend practice one day. Afterward, Brown pulled Zolotic to the side and explained to her why she should pick herself up and view the Olympics being postponed to 2021 as a positive.
“Mine and Gareth’s goal is go over there (to Tokyo), win that gold and then get ready for (the Olympics in) 2024 and 2028,” Zolotic said.
Zolotic joked there was one downside to having to wait to compete in the Olympics. She’ll celebrate a birthday before next summer, and she won’t be 17 when she heads to Tokyo.
“And now I got to be 18,” she said, laughing.