TOKYO (AP) — Anastasija Zolotic was put in a taekwondo class by her father when she was barely 5 years old, and she loved it.
Soon she was telling friends and family she would go to the Olympics someday.
The day arrived in Tokyo, and the 18-year-old Zolotic ended that brilliant Sunday with a rampage through the featherweight division and a gold medal around her neck.
“I came here confident and ready to take what was mine, and I did it,” Zolotic said.
While discussing her feats afterward, the first women’s taekwondo gold medalist in U.S. history repeatedly gave credit to USA Taekwondo, the beleaguered governing body that has spent the past several years mired in sexual abuse scandals involving former coach Jin Suh and two-time Olympic gold medalist Steven López.
Zolotic’s team is attempting to start a new era in an often-overlooked sport stateside, and she clearly intends to lead the way.
“It’s a great organization,” Zolotic told The Associated Press. “I think it’s a whole new organization. I’m so excited to see what the future holds for us, and hopefully we’ll have more girls and guys in the next Olympics than just me and my fellow teammates.”
Zolotic has a grand future in her Korean-born martial art defined by acrobatic kicks and often featuring bouts decided by thrilling, last-second scores. The U.S. has a solid Olympic record of 10 medals despite taekwondo’s low profile back home compared to fellow combat sports boxing or mixed martial arts, but Zolotic fervently believes there’s a new era of growth coming for taekwondo.
“There had better be,” Zolotic said with a laugh. “I worked my butt off for it, and I hope I can help taekwondo get as popular as it can be in the U.S. I think I can, and hopefully in 2024, if I make it over to Paris, win another gold medal and just keep grinding to LA, by then taekwondo will be all over the map.”
Any sport in need of a new standard-bearer would be overjoyed to have Zolotic, who emerged at the Olympics as an archetypal combat sports star. While showing off her impressive athleticism during the most dominant tournament of her young career, she also endeared herself off the floor with her combination of perceptive intelligence and endearing cockiness.
When she was asked by the AP if she was glad to see two-time British Olympic champion Jade Jones knocked out of her bracket early on, Zolotic replied: “Well, I was kind of hoping to fight her in the finals and be the one to knock her off, but somebody else did it for me.”
Zolotic often lets loose with a primal scream before her bouts or between rounds, saying she does it “to get out the nerves I’ve been picking up while I’m waiting for the ref to start — and then just kind of asserting my dominance.”
She also doesn’t have many superstitions, other than keeping her toenails blue to match her lucky chest protector cover.
More than a year after she had major left wrist surgery and then was forced to train in her basement during the coronavirus pandemic, Zolotic is eager to devote herself to the next Olympic cycle. She is taking college classes after graduating nearly two years early, and her sights are already set on making more history with a second gold.
But first, she plans a multi-continent tour with her medal to see her family, first to her parents — immigrants to the Tampa Bay area from Bosnia and Herzegovina before the family moved to Colorado Springs for Ana’s training three years ago — and then to her relatives back in Europe.
She celebrated her gold medal with her USA Taekwondo teammates, but also in a FaceTime call with her mother that didn’t go as perfectly as her fights.
“She was in shock, screaming,” Zolotic said. “I don’t even think she realized she answered the phone. I’m looking at the ground, like, ‘Mom, where are you?’
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