Anastasija Zolotic used to wrestle with her dad when she was a kid. Little did she know those friendly family fights would one day land her at the Olympics.  

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Anastasija Zolotic was just five years old when her dad enrolled her and her younger sister in their first taekwondo class in Saint Petersburg, Florida

"My mom was really upset because she wanted us to do ballet or some girly stuff like, you know, girl pageants," Zolotic told Southern Living.  "And my dad was like, 'No, no. We'll try this first, and if they don't like it, we can just forget about it.'" 

Lucky for Dad, Zolotic's rough and tumble tendencies aligned perfectly with the new sport. "When we were younger, we'd always go upstairs and wrestle, and of course my dad would win because he's bigger than us," recalled Zolotic. "But I think I've always had that little fight in me and a drive to win. It's the physical aspect of it, I just love getting aggressive."

Taekwondo is one of the world's oldest forms of martial arts. Originating in Korea, the word is made up of three parts that translate in English to foot (tae), fist (kwon), and way or method (do).  Performing this self-defense discipline requires a lot of speed, sweeping kicks, and forceful punches. Like karate, an athlete's skill level is indicated by the color of their belt with a black belt symbolizing the highest level that can be achieved. During a match, competitors earn points for specific types of kicks and punches.

"We have these chest pads we wear with sensors in them. And on our feet, we have these, kind of like socks, and they have magnets in them. So, you connect the magnets in the sock to the sensor on the chest pad and it scores," explained Zolotic. "We have a head guard that has sensors in it as well. So anything to the stomach or head scores."

Anastasija Zolotic
Credit: Courtesy of Anastasija Zolotic

By the age of 10, Zolotic was kicking and punching her way across the globe. At age 15, she captured the gold medal at the 2018 World Taekwondo Junior Championships and took home the silver at the Youth Olympic Games in Tunisia. A year later, the rising star became the youngest American athlete to medal in a grand prix event in Rome. Just before her 17th birthday, she and her family moved to Colorado Springs so she could train for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

But then, Zolotic suffered a severe wrist injury and a global pandemic hit. "I was losing it. I was depressed, I was upset, I didn't want to leave the couch," said Zolotic. "I was like, I don't even want to go back to taekwondo, I don't care that I qualified, I don't care that the opportunity is still there for me and that everyone wants me to come back to the Olympic games, I just didn't want to hear about it anymore." 

Zolotic said the turning point came when her coach and family sat her down and delivered this message. "They were like, 'Look, somebody with talent like you, you can't just give up!'" She said it was exactly what she needed to hear. "I'm not one to give up, so if somebody tells me I've given up, I get very upset. Because I'm like, 'You can't decide that for me!'" It took her months of hard work to get back on track, but now she's training four hours every day and can't wait to board the plane to Tokyo.

Despite the many corners of the world taekwondo has taken her to, Zolotic said her heart still belongs in the U.S.—and more specifically—in the South. "I enjoy just being on the beach, and it's something I miss daily. And the people too, in Florida, are super nice," said Zolotic.

The 18-year-old said once her competitive days are behind her, she'd like to open her own taekwondo school where she can teach and inspire the next generation of athletes.  As long as it's located in the South. "I think maybe after my few Olympic games that I'm hoping to get through, I'll get a little place in Florida, maybe North Carolina, I just love that place. Florida definitely has my heart, but North Carolina is pushing for it."