Miami taekwondo champion trains for her third Olympics appearance

It’s sort of like violent ballet.

Ten times a week, Paige McPherson, with her Gumby-like flexibility and her lightning-fast feet, finds herself at the no-frills Peak Performance warehouse/gym in Kendall, where she practices taekwondo — a Korean martial art that emphasizes spinning kicks to the chest and head.

McPherson, a 28-year-old native of South Dakota who has lived in Miami the past decade, won an Olympic bronze medal in taekwondo in 2012, and she recently defeated the top-ranked fighter in the world in her weight class of 67 kilos (148 pounds) and under.

“She’s one of the fastest fighters in her division,” Peak Performance coach Juan Miguel Moreno said of McPherson, who is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 4 in the world. “She has the elasticity to kick very high and hold her leg up and take multiple shots.

Paige McPherson, left, with fellow athlete Natalie Iliesco at Peak Performance, a Miami training center, on Jan. 15. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

“Her speed and power — generated from the floor to the (opponent’s) body — is pretty special.”

McPherson, who is 5-foot-8, defeated the reigning Olympic gold medalist, Hye-ri Oh of South Korea, in the semifinals of the World Taekwondo Grand Prix on Sept. 21 in Taiwan. In the final, McPherson trailed Russia’s Polina Khan 6-2 before rallying to win in overtime.

“That gold medal is the biggest highlight of my career so far,” McPherson said. “It was my first gold at a Grand Prix, which is for the top 32 (taekwondo athletes) in the world.”

Training regimen

McPherson has been coached for the past decade by Moreno, a former taekwondo fighter who competed in three Olympic Games, winning a silver medal in South Korea in 1988 and again in Spain in ’92.

The two of them train at Peak Performance, which Moreno admits doesn’t look like much.

“This is a not a beautiful gym, and it doesn’t smell nice,” Moreno said. “We don’t have air conditioning. In the summer, this whole floor is soaking wet and gross.

“But this is a Rocky-type environment. The contact level is really high. Even the ‘no name’ fighters here come at (McPherson) like she’s a nobody. That’s what keeps her edge.

Paige McPherson practices a roundhouse kick as she prepares for a run at the 2020 Olympics while training with Peak Performance coach Juan Moreno in Miami on Jan. 15. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

“Our whole program is built on (the knowledge that) even the national-team members we have here get challenged by younger athletes. The younger ones are trying to make their mark, and the champions are trying to keep those young lions down.”

McPherson usually spars against males.

“I generally put her against teenaged boys who are strong enough to push her but maybe not strong enough to hurt her,” Moreno said. “If you put her against some of the guys who outweigh her, just their average kick could break her arm. We want to challenge her but not risk injury.”

After all, McPherson has already overcome four surgeries in her career, suffering through ankle and hand injuries. Those ailments should come as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed the flying kicks and furious fists delivered with frightening ferocity in the sport of taekwondo.

Mighty McPherson

But injuries are nothing compared to the larger issue McPherson has overcome.

When she was just 4 days old, McPherson was put up for adoption by her birth mother so that Paige wouldn’t be raised by her drug-addicted birth father.

Adopted and raised by Dave and Susan McPherson of Sturgess, South Dakota, Paige was 7 when she took up taekwondo, and, by age 12, she had won a bronze medal in the Junior Olympics. She also won a gold six years later at the 2008 Pan American Championships.

Just a few months after that, Dave McPherson drove Paige from South Dakota to Miami so she could begin her new life, training with Moreno.

“It was 88 degrees with 100 percent humidity,” Dave McPherson said of Paige’s first Miami workout. “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.”

Paige McPherson of Miami won an Olympic bronze medal in Taekwondo in 2012 and recently defeated the No. 1 fighter in the world in her weight class. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

McPherson had no problems adjusting to Miami’s diverse culture.

“Paige wants to do it all, try it all, taste it all — and not in a foolish way,” Susan McPherson said. “She has incredible energy and a complete lack of fear. There is no part of Miami she can’t handle.”

McPherson has never had contact with her birth father but has talked to her biological mother, who is from the Philippines and lives in California. An in-person meeting has yet to happen due to the distance and McPherson’s busy schedule.

Even so, McPherson’s adoptive parents have had a monumental impact on her life, and they were the ones who put her in taekwondo classes, thinking it would teach her self-defense.

McPherson has never had to use taekwondo to defend herself from a robber or some other attack. Her training has instead evolved into her life’s passion.

It’s a new day

When Moreno competed in the 1980s and ‘90s, scoring was subjective, and information on upcoming opponents was difficult to find.

These days, electronic apparatus worn by each fighter registers points depending on the accuracy and force with which the chest protector and the head gear are struck.

Scouting reports are much more accurate, and McPherson also trains diligently on strength and conditioning with Marlen, who is Moreno’s wife and a former taekwondo fighter for Mexico’s national team.

McPherson uses all of that to her advantage, and her next goal is to stay ranked among the top six in the world by the end of 2019, which would automatically qualify her for the 2020 Olympics, July 24 to Aug. 9, 2020, in Tokyo.

If McPherson qualifies, she would be the first American female to compete in three Olympic taekwondo tournaments.

Paige McPherson practices a cut kick with Jasmine Anderson as she prepares for a run at the 2020 Olympics while training at Peak Performance, a training center in Miami on Jan. 15. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

But anything can happen between now and then. For example, after winning her bronze in London in 2012, McPherson was beaten and eliminated in the first round of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“That was a devastating moment,” she said. “That defeat made me regroup.

“It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Since Rio, I’ve had the most success of my career.”

Indeed, McPherson earned a silver medal at the 2017 World Championships in South Korea before her gold at Taiwan.

Coming up, McPherson will compete in major events such as the World Championships in England in May and the Pan American Games in Peru in July.

“I’ve been grinding four years to get this ranking,” said McPherson, who plans to retire from competitions after the 2020 Olympics. “But the job is not done yet.”