Skylar Park is leaving her first Olympics without the medal she expected in taekwondo, but she plans to try again in three years with her two younger brothers along as teammates.
The highly touted 22-year-old from Winnipeg – ranked No. 3 in the world in her 57-kilogram weight class – spoke through tears after losing in the quarter-final in Tokyo on Sunday. At a Games that banned all foreign fans, Park was able to have her father Jae and 20-year-old brother, Tae-Ku, by her side – as coach and sparring partner.
She wanted a gold medal not just for herself, but for them, too. She wanted it in the sport they all love, the one at the heart of their family business in Winnipeg, Tae Ryong Park Taekwondo Academy. The oldest sibling, she was the first to qualify for an Olympics, ahead of brothers Tae-Ku and Braven, who also share that dream.
“Right now I’m disappointed, it stings,” Park said, wiping away tears. “I wanted that gold medal really badly but today wasn’t the day. ... It’s disappointing when you have so much support behind you not to get the results you want.”
Park has little experience with losing. She’s been collecting medals aplenty since 2016, when she took gold at the world junior championships. In 2019, she earned bronze at the worlds and silver at the Pan Am Games. Just last month, she won gold at the Pan Am championships in Cancun, and was so confident in Mexico that she competed there in the 62-kg class for an extra challenge, making it all the way to the final.
As one of the top three in the world in her weight class, Park was widely featured in pre-Olympic stories, even appearing in the Canadian Olympic Committee’s brand campaign.
Before her first fight in Tokyo on Sunday, in the Round of 16, her father noticed she looked “amazing in warmups, she was on fire.” The Canadian bounced out into the darkened arena toward the octagonal-shaped competition floor with a beaming smile as the announcer bellowed her name.
The stands during this strange COVID-19-impacted Olympics were empty except for pockets of fellow taekwondo athletes. Dramatic music played between rounds, and coloured spotlights flashed about the arena.
Park slipped behind by six points in one shaky spurt of the second round against Australian Stacey Hymer. Park reconvened for a minute with her dad between rounds of the three-round contest, their bond clearly evident. She sat and dangled her legs off the stage to rest, as Jae Park, in his red Canada jacket, came out of his box to coach. Each time he wrapped his arm about his daughter in a sort of half-hug, nestling an ice pack on her neck.
The Canadian rebounded and salvaged the victory 25-15 to advance to the final eight. Even though she won that one, Park’s father could tell something was off.
“Her first two rounds weren’t very good, she came back in the third round and as soon as she got off the mats I said ‘how are you feeling?’ ” recalled her father. “She said ‘Dad, this is so different. … I don’t know what it is, but I just feel like this is so different.’ ”
Her second fight seemed to slog along agonizingly. She bounced and stared at tall, lanky Chia-Ling Lo from Taiwan for long stretches but neither woman landed many points. Lo led 2-0 after the first round, and then 8-2 after the next.
Park had beaten this opponent twice, but this bout didn’t look good from the start.
Going into the final round, Park’s father soothed her with an ice pack, towelled off her brow and pulled her close before sending her back to try to avoid elimination.
In the final round the Canadian tried mightily to kick and spin for points, but few landed.
“Just being in the environment today here I think, it’s anyone’s game really, and that’s one thing that I’ve learned here at the Olympics,” Park said. “No matter what happened in the past, whoever comes to fight today is the one that’s going to win.”
She lost 18-7 and then came the most agonizing moments of her Olympics. Park had to wait through Lo’s next fight. If the Taiwanese won, the Canadian would remain in the competition and fight in the repechage round. If Lo lost, Park was done.
The Parks watched from the stands as American Anastasija Zolotic dominated to beat Lo. Park’s Olympics came to a premature close.
Her brother was her sparring partner in Tokyo – bigger and tougher now than when he was little and Park beat up on him. He warmed up his sister, tried to mimic her possible opponents, got her water, even helped pack her bags. Then in one more act of support, he stood next to her as she met the media through tears.
“Hopefully there will be three of us at the Olympics in three years time,” she said, imagining a trio of Park siblings competing at the Paris Games.
Her dad said the Olympics had been unlike anything they’d experienced, sitting in the same dining halls with decorated Canadian Olympians and famous NBA players.
“That’s all part of the experience, but part of the pressure, too,” he said. “I have sadness for my daughter. I don’t want to see her cry.”
The delayed Tokyo Olympics shortens the time until the next big chance. It isn’t so far away.
“Next one in Paris, we’ll be better prepared,” said her father. “Hopefully Canada is proud of her. As a family we certainly are.”