Trust God, yourself & the grind: Exclusive interview with Olympian Paige McPherson

Gold-medal hopeful Paige McPherson will compete in Rio’s Taekwondo event this week. Her humble strategy? Keep the faith, and keep up the grind.

Paige McPherson of the USA looks on during the women's -67 kg category fight as part of the Taekwondo PANAM Qualification Tournament in Mexico. Hector Vivas/LatinContent | Getty Images

Paige McPherson, 25-year-old Taekwondo phenom and bronze medal winner in the London Olympic games, is in a hurry. It is a sweltering day—every day is a sweltering day in Miami—and McPherson’s on a well-deserved lunch break from her training, in between the two-a-day practices that are the last vestiges of preparation before she makes her way to South America. It has taken us a week to coordinate this time amidst her hectic, grueling schedule.

I’ve called McPherson to chat about her upcoming journey to Rio, where she will participate in her second Olympics this August. There is a hustle in her voice that is evident immediately; her words are light but they echo with the riveting undercurrent of the city I can discern behind her in the distance, a moving, driving beat. As I eavesdrop on the sound of the cars honking and buses rumbling on her end of the line, I hold off on questioning her about the Olympics and ask her first about Miami, the city to which she has just returned after an intensive week-long Taekwondo training session in Great Britain. “I knew I had to move here, to Miami, if I wanted to achieve my goal of going to the Olympic Games. It’s been a hard sacrifice. I didn’t know anybody when I first moved down. For the dream there’s always a sacrifice. And for me, it’s paid off. I’m going to my second Olympics.”

And then her voice fades away for a moment. In the background, there is a commotion, a flurry of activity. I hear Paige responding quickly to someone in the distance. Thank you so much. I hear her say and then again. Thank you, thank you. Her voice figuratively turns back to me. “I’m sorry,” she returns quietly, into the phone. “There are so many people here.”

From rural South Dakota to the bright lights of Miami

Perhaps the citizens of Miami, the city that McPherson has adopted as home since 2009, are stopping the easily identifiable athlete on the street to wish her good luck. McPherson, the 5′ 8″ athlete with the dark curly hair and the venomous Ap Chagi, the woman they call McFierce, is just one of four United States athletes to be heading to Rio to compete in Taekwondo in August. Taekwondo, a Korean martial art that evolved in the 1940s, became one of only two Asian martial arts practiced at the Olympic Games in 2000. In 2012, Paige won Bronze in the London Olympic Games in an upset win over Franka Anic of Slovenia and established her dominance in the women’s welterweight division of the sport. At age 21, in London, Paige was in awe over the magnitude of competing at the Olympics. As she prepares to return to the Games again, four years removed and with a new level of experience, maturity and poise, she dreams of turning that bronze into Gold.

Gold medalist Paige McPherson of the U.S. celebrates her victory in women’s Taekwondo -67 kg division at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada, July 21

Gold medalist Paige McPherson of the U.S. celebrates her victory in women’s Taekwondo -67 kg division at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada, July 21. GEOFF ROBINS | AFP | Getty Images

The “Rainbow Family”

But McPherson, ever modest and impenetrably ambitious, is also a realist; she’s just hoping to soak up everything she can from the Olympic experience. As she details for me the highlights of her childhood, which was a veritable world away from Miami, it’s readily apparent how much her family has shaped her fearless attitude toward competition.

Paige McPherson grew up in the rural town of Sturgis, South Dakota, almost half a country removed from where she lives now. She was an active part of the large and diverse family helmed by parents Dave and Susan McPherson. The McPhersons adopted all five of their children from a myriad of cultures and backgrounds; because of this they were often lovingly called the Rainbow Family by neighbors. Paige is African American and Filipino, her two brothers, Aaryn and Graham, are part Native American. Her other brother, Evan, is Korean and her sister, Hannah, was adopted from St. Lucia.

With the five of us coming from around the world, I grew up learning to adjust to certain types of situations and personalities.

McPherson is keenly aware of how unique her family experience was growing up. And she maintains that it was this uniqueness that formed her into the person—and the athlete that she is today. “I was adopted into a very colorful family. With the five of us coming from around the world, I grew up learning to adjust to certain types of situations and personalities. That’s one of the things I loved about Taekwondo—how diverse and dynamic it was.”

It was her older brother Evan, who joined Taekwondo a few years ahead of her, who first piqued Paige’s interest in the sport. “Me being the younger sister I always wanted to do what my older brother did. I officially started when I was seven. I was kicked out a couple of times because I was so wild, but I came back once I settled down. It’s eventually where I did learn about respect, integrity, perseverance—all the things that help me in other areas now.” After a few years of studying the fundamentals of Taekwondo, it became apparent to her coaches and family that Paige had an innate ability for the sport. In high school, her current coach Juan Miguel Moreno gave McPherson and her family some very wonderful and hard truth: if Paige wanted to compete at the national level in the sport of Taekwondo, a move to Miami to train with him at his world class facility, Peak Performance, was the next essential step. Though it was a gut-wrenching decision for Paige, it was one she knew she had to make to see her dreams come true. “I believe Taekwondo was a God given talent for me.”

Paige McPherson bronze medal winner in Taekwondo at the 2012 Summer Olympic games at the WNBA Inspiring Women Luncheon in New York City

Paige McPherson bronze medal winner in Taekwondo at the 2012 Summer Olympic games at the WNBA Inspiring Women Luncheon in New York City. Rob Tringali | Getty Images

It’s God’s presence in her life that firmly cements her strength and success.

McPherson’s relationship with God is one that she has often relied on to guide her through some of her most difficult times. It is her faith in His ultimate direction that gives her a powerful sense of peace when she steps on to the mat, even in the fervor of competition. All the preparation—the twice-daily practices, five to six days a week, the abject loneliness of moving away from her family and friends, the travel and competition schedule that has made others in her sport give up entirely or fall apart amidst the grueling fight—she knows it all has a purpose in helping her succeed. But she says it’s God’s presence in her life that firmly cements her strength and success. “I’ve put in the work; I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. I’m learning, though, that there are certain things I just can’t control, and that’s when I give it up to Him.”

Because of this, McPherson battles more anxiety leading up to a competition than she does on match day. On the day of a big match, she relies as much on her sense of faith as she does her training and skill. “God has definitely shown that he has a plan for me—all I can do is trust in him, give it my all. There are plenty of times in competition where I have just bowed my head and just given it over to God.”

I have a message I live by that I think is really helpful. It’s trust God, trust yourself and trust the grind.

As our conversation ebbs and flows, the city of Miami finally quiets behind McPherson and I ask her about Rio, how she anticipates that these Olympics will be different than the first time around. “This time I’m a little bit more focused, I know what to expect. I’m humbled I can go again. I’m working as hard as I can to win it.” It’s hard to imagine McPherson anything less than humbled. Her gracious laugh rings out when I crack a barely funny joke during our conversation to break the ice, she answers the questions I’ve asked her—about her family, her faith, topics way outside of her sport—with warmth and enthusiasm. She reiterates that she’s just grateful to voice her unique story, she wants others to be inspired by her experiences.

Before we finish our call, I ask McPherson if there is anything else she’d like to share. She doesn’t hesitate. “I have a message I live by that I think is really helpful. It’s trust God, trust yourself and trust the grind.” This phrase seems to characterize Paige McPherson, the athlete and the person, with succinct depth. And after hearing the fierceness in her voice and the determination in her words, it’s impossible not to imagine that she could win Gold in these Olympics, that between His grace and her implacable effort, it could all come together on the mat in one stunning victory.

But it’s too early to know what will happen in Rio for Paige McPherson. Right now, she’s just an athlete fighting the Miami heat, holding doors for strangers and thanking people she’s never met, strangers who stop on the sidewalk to wish her well, before she makes her way back to another practice. She’s just an athlete with another practice to get to, one more grind in a steady wheel of sweat and dedication that has led Paige McPherson to the Olympics and will hopefully bring her home with Gold.

Nicole Jankowski
Nicole Jankowski
Nicole Jankowski is a freelance writer with a penchant for vintage fascinators, Ernest Hemingway stories and people who laugh big. She is a mom to four kids and two inspiring step-kids. She has lived her entire life just outside of Detroit.

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