Olympic Bronze Medalist Paige McPherson Looks Back on Taekwondo Career and South Dakota Upbringing
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic athletes and hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
There are things Paige McPherson misses about being a professional athlete, like the friends she made while traveling for competitions. And then there are things she doesn’t miss, like the singular focus on winning. “I really enjoy getting to have this ‘normal life’ where I have the time to keep relationships within my family and to travel without cutting weight,” she said. “All of these things that I never got to do before.” McPherson, now retired, competed in taekwondo at three Olympics, winning a bronze medal at her first, in London, in 2012.
Each of McPherson’s Olympic runs meant something a little different. “My first Olympics was solely about am I worthy of making the Olympic team?” she said, recalling her 21-year-old self. After winning bronze, she pushed herself to get better. “Although I won an Olympic bronze medal, it wasn’t gold, so I pursued it another four years.” McPherson made it to Rio in 2016, but she lost in her very first match. “It was over. And honestly, I would say that was my blessing in disguise, because it really set me up for my third Olympics.”
At the 2021 Games in Tokyo, although McPherson didn’t win a medal, she broke a different record, becoming the first American women’s taekwondo athlete to make it to three consecutive Olympics. She decided to retire afterward. “It was really my body telling me that it’s time,” McPherson said. She had a meniscus injury five months before the Olympics that year, and doctors told her she wouldn’t be able to kick by the time the Games started. “Toward the end of my career, my body was just like, I can’t do this anymore.” But McPherson persevered, and now looks back at Tokyo as a moment of personal growth.
“I cherished my time at the Olympic Games; they were some of the best moments of my life,” McPherson said. “Being able to represent not only myself, my family, my team, my country – to wear that red, white, and blue and go out there on the world stage and just perform to my best ability – I mean, there’s nothing like that now.”
As a kid in South Dakota, McPherson didn’t really have anyone to look up to in her sport. Instead, she said she looked behind her, gaining strength from her family, her team, and all of the people who believed that she could do it. Taekwondo itself has always been wrapped up in family for McPherson. She’s one of five adopted siblings, and when her brother Evan started taekwondo, McPherson wanted to start, too.
“It became a family affair where my younger siblings were a part of it, and then even my older siblings, they got into it,” she said. “My parents tried at one point, and it was something that all of us enjoyed.” As everyone got older, each sibling found other passions outside of taekwondo, but McPherson continued on. “I really loved it. It was the sense of family.”
Even though South Dakota lacked diversity, McPherson said that her individuality was always celebrated within her family. “My younger siblings and I were probably the only Black people there when I was younger. But my parents did a very good job keeping me strong and confident in who I was as a human being, not necessarily for the color of my skin.”
McPherson’s parents also decided to homeschool her until 10th grade, a choice that she said impacted her approach to taekwondo. “Sometimes there’s not going to be somebody there to teach you or to guide you, you’re just gonna have to research it yourself in order to be a better athlete, student, et cetera.” On top of homeschooling, McPherson said that the small town mindset in South Dakota – along with a strong sense of family values – provided a foundation for her work ethic and character.
Now, McPherson works with professional athletes, and even some fellow Olympians, in physical therapy at a sports rehabilitation center in South Florida. She’s happy with her decision to retire, and excited for all of the athletes currently pursuing Olympic dreams. “It’s truly an amazing experience to be a part of,” McPherson said. “I’ve been there for all the ups and downs that they’ll face on their way to the Olympics, but it’s 100% worth it because once you’re done and retired, you always have moments where you look back and you miss it.”