Miami resident and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Paige McPherson has a small scar on the right side of her mouth, courtesy of a taekwondo opponent’s high-reaching kick.
But that’s nothing new for McPherson, 21, who has been battling from the time she was put up for adoption by her birth mother when she was four days old so she could avoid being raised by her drug-addicted birth father.
Raised by Dave and Susan McPherson of Sturgess, S.D., Paige was 7 when she took up taekwondo, a martial art of Korean origins that uses kicks and punches to score points.
She has been hooked on the sport ever since and became a rising star in 2002, when she won a bronze medal in the Junior Olympics. She also won a gold medal at the 2008 Pan American Championships and finished first last year in the U.S. National Trials.
Last weekend, McPherson flew to Washington, where she and the U.S. Olympic team met President Obama. The weekend before that, she was in New York, where she and the other U.S. female medalists from every other Olympic sport where honored by the WNBA.
At 5-8 and 135 pounds, McPherson has always had tremendous quickness and raw ability, even while fighting some women who are up to four inches and 15 pounds bigger. But her evolution as a champion truly began at 18 when she moved to Miami so she could train with Olympic coach Juan Moreno.
McPherson’s father drove from South Dakota to Miami with her and helped her settle in for the first week. It was at Moreno’s hot and sweaty Kendall gym that Dave witnessed the rigorous workouts that would become a way of life for McPherson.
“It was 88 degrees with 100 percent humidity, and there was no air conditioning in the gym,” he said. “Paige went for 40 minutes straight without a water break.
“When she finally came over, I looked at her, and I thought she was going to say she couldn’t take it anymore. But she just grinned at me. She loved it.”
Moreno admits he had questions about whether McPherson could make the social adjustment from slow-paced South Dakota to the diverse culture of Miami.
“Coming from a small population to an area where people speak Spanish everywhere, I was afraid she would get homesick and suffer from culture shock,” Moreno said. “But I never doubted her talent. Taekwondo was the easy part for her.”
As it turns out, Miami was a snap for her, too.
“Paige wants to do it all, try it all, taste it all — and not in a foolish way,” her mother said. “She has incredible energy and a complete lack of fear. There is no part of Miami she can’t handle.”
McPherson recently served as a bridesmaid at the wedding of Moreno and his wife, Marlen, a former taekwondo competitor and coach from Mexico.
While training at the Olympics in London, McPherson gave Marlen an early wedding present — a cracked rib.
“Marlen was one of Paige’s sparring partners,” Moreno said. “Paige had been hitting the weights very heavy, and she’s just very powerful.”
Marlen wasn’t the only one who felt her force. McPherson — nicknamed “McFierce” because of her tendency to yell and scream during her fights — knocked off the defending Olympic champion in her first bout in London.
“She was the hometown girl from Great Britain,” said McPherson, who Is studying international business at Miami Dade College and has a 3.8 grade-point average. “It was really loud during that fight.”
McPherson lost her second fight to a woman from Turkey but battled back to win the bronze.
“Once I let my nerves and everything go, I fought better,” she said. “Having USA on my back was a blessing.”
Paige, whose birth mother is from the Phillipines and whose birth father is black, was one of five children adopted by the McPhersons, including two American Indians, one from Korea and one from St. Lucia.
“The people in [Sturgess] nicknamed us the Rainbow Family,” McPherson said.
In fact, it was her brother Evan of Korea who got her involved in taekwondo.
Paige, who idolized her older brother, took up the sport just to be around Evan, who is now 23 and an Army paratrooper who has served through three tours of duty in Afghanistan.
“We put Evan in taekwondo because we wanted him to understand his national sport,” Susan said. “We didn’t even consider the sport for Paige.
“I thought: ‘Do I want my little girl in a fighting sport?’ But, in the end, she really wanted to it, and we thought it would be good for her to learn self defense.”
McPherson has yet to meet her birth mother, who now lives in California. McPherson’s extensive taekwondo training has made such a reunion difficult, but the two have spoken on the phone the past three years and want to meet.
McPherson does not have a relationship with her birth father, but she is grateful for the parents who adopted her and also to the mother who gave her up so she could have a better life.
“I can only be thankful,” she said, “for what has happened in my life.”