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Navajo taekwondo champ heads to Singapore

REDONDO BEACH, Calif. – When 16-year-old Jessie Bates began practicing taekwondo at the age of 5, it didn’t take her long to realize that she had found her passion in life; it’s one of those pivotal moments that few rarely reach at such a young age.

By the time she was 8, she felt confident, fast and interested in competition – the necessary ingredients in becoming a champion taekwondo fighter. Eight years later, Jessie’s hard work has earned her a spot on a team of six teens representing the United States at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, Aug. 14 – 26.

According to the World Taekwondo Federation, taekwondo originated in Korea thousands of years ago, but the martial art gained popularity when dan-grade black belters left the country to open studios around the world starting in the1950s.

Like boxing, it’s a high contact sport. Fighters use their feet and fists to spar their opponent, scoring points for kicks to the head and punches and kicks to the trunk. Padding on the face and body, chest guards, and helmets keep athletes from sustaining life-threatening injuries.

Bates competes Aug. 16 in the 101-108 pound women’s division. And weight doesn’t necessarily mean she will fight a petite competitor, like herself.

Jessie Bates, daughter of Chee Bates, is the fighter in blue. She has earned a spot on a team of six teens representing the United States at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, Aug. 14 – 26.

She stands 5 feet 2 inches tall, and recalled the fight she won that landed her a spot on the Olympic team during the Youth Qualification Tournament in Tijuana, Mexico in March. She estimated that her competitor, Nizie Cynthia Kragbe from the Ivory Coast, towered at 6 feet.

It came as a shock to her that the svelte Kragbe made the weight division, but it didn’t change the fact that she had to put on her game face and fight. “It’s more of a mental game then physical, because if you walk up intimidated, you’ve already lost.”

To mentally prepare for matches, she quietly affirms to herself that she’s strong, fast and capable of winning while warming up with her teammates. She also refuses to learn who her opponent is at any given match.

“In my mind it really doesn’t matter because I am going out there to win regardless of who it is.”

Reaching the elite level hasn’t come without sacrifice. Her mother Lynette’s career in the U.S. Air Force forced the family to move frequently. In fact, Jessie got her start in taekwondo when her mom was stationed in England. Jessie chuckled when she said the moving delayed her from earning her black belt until she was 12 years old – a feat that varies at each studio or “dojang.”

But the frequent moves proved to be a blessing in disguise, forcing her to learn new skills, and refine older ones each time she arrived at a new school. “I had to work on perfecting everything because every time we moved I had to learn something new from my instructors.”

The family of four eventually settled in Redondo Beach, Calif., when she was in eighth grade, and she hopes to stay there for a while. Her 11-year-old brother Page has also competed on the national level, placing first at the 2009 Junior Olympics in the 10-11 world class sparring division.

Bates trains seven days a week, two to three times a day, and for nearly two hours at a time. Her father, Chee Bates has coached her since she first started competing, and the two currently make the 56-mile round trip to Montebello to train at Villa’s Tae Kwon Do Studio.

Inspired by his young daughter, Chee eventually earned his black belt. Instead of sitting on the sidelines during practice and screaming for her to kick harder, he can show her how. He can also distinguish whether she’s fatigued or unmotivated and react accordingly.

“It’s really awesome to have a family involved with something that you love because it just makes it that much more fun,” Jessie said.

Even though competitors rarely sustain life-threatening injuries in the arena, those who practice the sport rack up their fair share of injuries. Jessie is currently recuperating from a dislocated thumb, and in the past has broken the top of both feet, sustained ankle injuries and pulled and torn muscles.

“She works hard all the time and really sacrifices,” Chee said.

Born in Shiprock, N.M., her parents make it a point to visit family often, especially her grandmother Karen Dixon, who resides in Aztec, N.M., near the four corners region of the Navajo Nation. Jessie was humbled to learn that a community fundraiser was held so her immediate family, grandmother and aunt could make the trip to Singapore to cheer her on.

Jessie feels a tremendous debt of gratitude and love for her grandmother, who she also calls her “number one fan.” She said Dixon has taken her to practice and cheered her on at tournaments over the years.

For Dixon, it’s second nature. “That’s what grandma’s do. Families are so important to a young persons development.”

To learn more about Jessie, visit usa-taekwondo.us/athletes/jessie-bates.