Two young women step onto a rubber mat, garbed in traditional Taekwondo dobok uniforms. On top of their uniforms, they wear electronic scoring pads strapped to their torsos, helmets and even their feet, updating points every time there’s a hit.
The two square off, dancing around the mat with wide eyes and quick steps. One whirls and kicks, and the other moves to block the attack. On opposite sides, their nearby coaches watch intently, sometimes standing to shout encouragement or instruction.
The athletes are in Spokane for the 2018 Pan Am Taekwondo Championships, hosted at the Spokane Convention Center through this Sunday.
Spokane was chosen for its sports and competition-friendly environment, said Ji Ho Choi, president of the Pan American Taekwondo Union.
It did, however, cause some confusion among international athletes who flew to to the wrong Washington.
“I had three international teams buy the wrong ticket, and they went to Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Nearly 1,000 athletes representing 45 countries are on hand for the championships, said event director Rebecca Khoury.
The event includes athletes in different levels, ages and categories, and separate events including Kyorugi (fighting) Poomsae and Para Championships.
At the Pan Am championship competition Thursday, top athletes including former Olympians and senior and junior national champions competed for a chance to up their rankings for a shot at the 2020 Olympics.
The championship is the “most valuable event in Pan America” for elite Taekwondo athletes, Choi said.
The competition is G4 ranked, meaning athletes have the chance to gain up to 40 points toward their athlete ranking. By comparison, at G1 competitions, gold medalists earn only 10 points.
Two-time Olympic medalist Paige McPherson of Sturgis, South Dakota, is competing on her 10th Senior National team.
“I’m out for revenge,” she said. “I was the Pan Am champion two years ago, so I’m trying to make that happen again this year.”
McPherson, like other top athletes, is also trying to secure her spot on the 2020 Olympic team.
The Olympic bronze medalist of 2012, Terrence Jennings, came to support other American athletes, but didn’t compete himself.
“About a year ago, I had an ACL surgery, so I’m just kind of building back up to get on the national level again,” he said. “There’s not too many easy matches to start the day off. It’s very highly competitive, but I think these guys are ready for it.”
McPherson, it seems, was ready. Thursday afternoon she won in the semifinals against Brazil, and then beat Mexico in the finals to win her weight class.
“It’s super exciting to be able to represent something bigger than myself,” McPherson said. “Country, team, family and friends.”
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