As she wipes her hair out of her eyes, Athenian student Annalise Stevenson, representing the United States, prepares for her final spar against her Venezuelan opponent. The two competitors take their stances, looking deep into each other’s eyes, trying to find any possible weakness. It’s overtime, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Stevenson tunes out the roars and screams of the crowd as she zeros in on the only person left who stands in her way of receiving her bronze medal.
The Venezuelan’s eyes briefly make contact with her opponent’s as she strikes with a jumping hand attack to her midsection. Stevenson, however, anticipates the maneuver and responds with a perfect block. The Venezuelan, realizing her mistake too late, has no time to protect herself, and Stevenson attacks with a flying kick to her head. As Stevenson makes contact, she ends the spar, in addition to the Venezuelan’s dreams of medaling.
“I felt the intensity in the room, with everyone chanting ‘USA’ over and over,” says Stevenson about the experience of sparring for Team USA at the International Taekwondo Federation World Championships.
Not only does this confident, wiry, blonde teenager practice one of the most extreme forms of martial arts in existence, she also is currently a new sophomore at The Athenian School. This past summer, Stevenson qualified to go to the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) World Championships for the first time. She is only 15 years old.
However, don’t confuse this form of taekwondo with Olympic taekwondo—this kind is way more intense. In the Olympics, or WTF, every competitor must wear a standardized head guard, a trunk protector, shin/feet guards, and wrist/hand guards. Stevenson, on the other hand, only dons feet, hand, and head protectors when she spars (which is the maximum amount of protection; only a mouth guard is actually required in the ITF).
The WTF also bans punches to the head, attacking below the waist, and many types of jumping spinning kicks. On the contrary, the ITF awards jumping spinning kicks and punches more points, in addition to strikes to the head. “The Olympic style of taekwondo, in my opinion, is pretty boring,” says Stevenson. “It’s nothing compared to what we do.”
“I first got into taekwondo when I was in fifth grade,” says Stevenson when asked about how she became interested in it. “My dad has always wanted me to try new sports, but I didn’t realize that taekwondo was ‘my sport’ until I made it to Nationals. I recognized that I was good at it, and that it was something I could pursue.”
Taekwondo is not all fun and games, however. Over the summer, Stevenson had to train for three hours a day, seven days a week. Training was mandatory, and if a member of the team missed a practice, the consequences were severe. Stevenson recalls one time she and her teammates were forced to do 500 push ups because someone showed up late. Team USA is no joke, people.
Stevenson says that during the school year, it isn’t as extreme. She tries to go to taekwondo at least five days a week, but with cross-country and guitar, Stevenson says that sometimes she has to miss. “I have definitely learned a lot about time management doing [taekwondo],” Stevenson states. “But even with my super-busy schedule, it is completely worth it.”
What is her favorite part of taekwondo? “Oh, definitely sparring,” Stevenson reports with enthusiasm. “It’s the most fun, especially when you’re winning. But, it’s not so fun when you’re on the receiving end of the blows. It can hurt a lot sometimes.”
One of the main reasons Stevenson loves taekwondo and sparring is the discipline that comes with it. “When you are sparring, it can get really intense, but you have to stay disciplined, otherwise you might mess up,” Stevenson says. Stevenson also enjoys breaking, which is another part of taekwondo. Her record is breaking 5 boards at one time.
In addition, her experience at the World Championships was once in a lifetime. “It was really cool, meeting all of the other kids from all over the world. We all connected, in a way, because we’re really all the same; we do the same things and all have a passion for taekwondo,” Stevenson says of her experience. This past summer was her first trip to the World Championships, and to top off her experience, she won the bronze medal for her country. “I wasn’t expecting to medal; I really thought it was going to be just a test run,” Stevenson confesses. “But it really was a special moment.”
As for her plans for the future, Stevenson plans to go back to the World Championships in 2014. “My time now will be spent preparing for that,” she says.