Skylar Park will be the lone Canadian in the taekwondo competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
But she won't be alone.
The Road to TokyoClick to Expand
In the weeks leading up to the scheduled start of the Games in Japan, the Free Press will profile the elite Manitoba athletes who will be taking part in the Summer Olympics or Paralympics. In this instalment, we profile Winnipeg taekwondoist Skylar Park, who will be making her Olympic debut in Japan.
A formidable team, led by her dad and coach Jae Park, is backing her effort in Japan.
Younger brother Tae-Ku will serve as her main training partner before and during the Olympics and an extended family, 16 of whom own black belts in the sport, will be cheering from home. They are all part of a massive support system that includes TRP Academy of Martial Arts, the family business.
"I'm fortunate that my dad is my coach and my two brothers are my training partners," says Skylar, a 21-year-old University of Manitoba student. "So when we're locked up in our house during all these (pandemic) lockdowns, it's kind of just like a big training camp.
"My whole family's dedicated our entire lives basically to the sport, and my whole family is involved.... Our basement has basically over the years, not because of COVID but before COVID, just naturally turned into a gym."
Skylar, born and raised in Winnipeg, has grown up immersed in the sport. She was introduced to taekwondo by her father and grandfather Deuk. She got her start as a two year old and quickly excelled in competition, winning a gold medal in the 59-kilogram weight class at the World Taekwondo Junior Championships in 2016.
By 2017, she had graduated to the senior level and rose steadily through the ranks. It culminated in a breakout season in 2019, with a bronze medal in the 57-kilogram division at the worlds and a silver at the Pan American Games in Lima. That year, she was on the podium in eight of her international events and pre-qualified for the Olympics.
Skylar Park's Olympic FileClick to Expand
Olympic event: Women's taekwondo (57-kilogram class)
Games experience: first-time Olympian
Trophy case: Silver medal, 2019 Pan Am Games; bronze medal, 2019 world championships; gold medal, 2016 world junior championships; gold medal (2018), bronze (2016), Pan American Championships.
Last month, after a 14-month competitive pause due to the pandemic, she earned a gold medal at the Spanish Open in Alicante.
"The result wasn't super-important," says Skylar, currently ranked sixth in the world. "Obviously, the points that I got there helped towards my seeding for the Olympics, so that was nice. I did win in Spain but it was mainly just nice to kind of get back in the ring, try the things that we've worked on against opponents my size and against girls, because I've been training with my brothers so much."
And that brings up a glitch in the pre-Olympic plan.
Tae-Ku, 20, and Skyler's youngest brother Braven, 18, are not ideal sparring partners.
"The styles of fighting are quite different," says Skylar. "My brothers are very versatile fighters, so they're good at, if need be, acting as if they were a girl and simulating some of my opponents. So we've done some of that but they're just stronger than me. They weigh much more than me and they've gotten — especially over the past year while we've been in quarantine and not competing as much — a lot stronger."
Tae-Ku, who earned a bronze medal in the 68-kilogram men's division in Alicante, is aiming for a spot on the national senior team after the Olympics.
Braven, who won silver in the 63-kilogram division at the same event, has similar aspirations.
"I'm working as a training partner, so my role would just be to get her prepared for that and keep her confidence up and make sure that she's physically ready and mentally," says Tae-Ku.
Tae-Ku says his sister is rounding into excellent form with less than two months remaining until the Olympics.
"It was the first competition back in over a year, so obviously there was a little bit of ring rust but she looked good and we've just been building on that," says Tae-Ku. "And she's been looking way better in practice now — strong and everything."
Planning around the pandemic and a year-long delay of the Olympics has been challenging but may fit Skylar's athletic temperament.
"It's crazy to begin with," says Jae, a grand master whose wife Andrea is also a black belt. "Our sport's schedule is not as regimented or organized as a lot of the other sports. So we normally do kind of fly by the seat of our pants and get information on events and selections, pretty much in the last hour. So we're kind of used to that.
"This whole pandemic disruption and schedule is somewhat, maybe, to her advantage. If you're kind of looking at the bright side of things, just because we're so used to it that this is just another blip that we have to deal with."
The Parks are not just looking for a podium finish for Skylar. They prefer a golden shine.
"The extra year has given us a little bit more time to get better, to improve, to get stronger, to mature," says Jae. "Whereas some of those other athletes are probably just trying to hang on to what they have or, perhaps, maybe even going downhill a little bit."
One of those older athletes, two-time Olympic gold medallist Jade Jones of Britain, has produced a glittering resumé. Jones is 28 and will be competing in her third Games but will likely be a heavy favourite.
"I think she will (be favoured) because of her experience and she's won the past two Games and I know she's trying to win a third Olympics," says Skylar. "But hopefully we can stop that from happening. I've fought her three times (losing each time). I fought her last in the semifinals of the world championships in 2019 and lost, right at the end."
And so, preparations continue.
Over the New Year's break, Park attended a training camp in Miami where she sparred with American Paige McPherson and Mexican international Briseida Acosta. Both are Olympians competing in heavier weight classes.
Next week, she'll face more high-level competition at the Pan Am Championships and Pan Am Open, both slated for Cancun, Mexico. Then, back home for quarantine before flying to Japan for a pre-Olympic staging camp.
Skylar makes her Olympic debut in the single-elimination tournament on July 26; five consecutive wins would put her on top of the podium.
"I think that all comes very natural to me, just being competitive person in general, so when we were in Miami we are doing test matches and when I'm fighting my brothers it's different," says Skylar. "It was just it was just nice to feel that competitive environment again in Spain and I think that's an environment I really thrive in."
As she has matured, her dad says Skylar's competitive temperament has become more focused.
"If anything, I think she was a little more ruthless before," says Jae, who believes his daughter will be at a physical peak for the 2024 Games in Paris. "Just because I think at that point she didn't have anything to lose. She was this young little cub, moving up and (she was) looking at these athletes going, 'I want to beat them, I want to be there.'
"And when you get there, I think that's when the psychological part kind of comes in, where you're like, 'Oh my gosh, I am here,' and you're competing and you're dealing with the best in the world, the best coaches, the best programs and the best athletes in the world. It's not an easy task for anybody."
Keeping up and perhaps even passing the (Jade) Joneses of the taekwondo world requires not only peak physical condition but superior mental toughness.
"You might you might beat them once, maybe twice, just because they don't know you but the top athletes will figure it out," says Jae. "The strategy and the mental game is where we're at at this level."
Does Skylar have any tactical surprises in store for her opponents in Tokyo?
"I would like to say we do but I think we'll still keep that a secret," she says with a laugh.
Park doesn't flinch from questions about her capability of winning the big prize in July.
"The gold medal has always been the goal since I was little and, obviously, that's what we're training towards and that's what we're working for," she says. "That's what I would ask someone if they were going to be Olympics, too."
Park could be on to something.
Canada has produced two Olympic medallists in the sport — Landmark's Dominique Bosshart won a bronze in the 67-plus kilogram division in 2000 and Karine Sergerie of Sainte-Catherine, Que., who struck for silver in the 67-kilogram division in 2008. A marquee performance by Park in Japan could help taekwondo shed its reputation as a niche sport.
"She is so put together and grounded that I think that she really going to represent us tremendously," says Taekwondo Canada CEO Dave Harris. "She is so, so competitive, so focused, and ready to get the job done for us. I think everything she's done to get this far is completely and totally impressive."
"She is so put together and grounded that I think that she really going to represent us tremendously." ‐ Taekwondo Canada CEO Dave Harris.
Harris sees Park as a role model worth looking up to.
"I think she's a little ahead of schedule but I also think there's a direct correlation with how hard she works," says Harris. "And with her dad being there as her coach, I mean they are a great team. She's a new leader for us, for sure. She's talented, she's well-spoken and she's a role model for young taekwondo athletes across the country... she's the face of Taekwondo Canada right now."
Curiously, Park's early start hasn't soured her on the sport. She still trains enthusiastically five or six times a week under her dad's guidance while also continuing to chip away at her kinesiology degree from the U of M.
Winning is at the heart of what drives this team — father, daughter, mom and brothers. Everyone.
"She's still my daughter and I'm still her dad," says Jae. "The dynamics haven't changed — obviously there's growth that she's making and the growth that I'm making as a coach, in terms of trying to understand a little bit more at this stage what it takes get to the top. You know that's all a learning process and hopefully that's going to get us to the top."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.