One of the many compelling stories of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics is unfolding at a nondescript gym in West Kendall. It is there that Paige “McFierce” McPherson, a 30-year-old Afro-Filipino taekwondo competitor with a fascinating family background, has been training six days a week for her third Olympics.
She won the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics and is the first American woman to make three Olympics in taekwondo.
Her goal — to make three Olympics before age 30 — was deferred one year when the Games were postponed due to COVID. McPherson was willing to wait, as she is desperate to make up for the Rio Olympics, where she arrived as a medal hopeful and lost in her opening fight.
“It was absolutely devastating,” McPherson said Monday. “That hardship in Rio made me realize how I needed to train, both physically and mentally, which propelled me to where I am today.
“I was numb for a very long time, went into a period of depression. You’re finally there, representing Team USA, and in the smaller sports like ours, unlike swimming, gymnastics, track and field, the only way to get recognized is if you get the gold medal or at least make the final. To dedicate your life four years, finally get that moment and lose your first fight, knowing that nobody is going to see you on TV or know who you are, it’s really hard.”
But McPherson learned as a young child to dust herself off and push forward. Her life journey has been anything but ordinary.
It began in Abilene, Texas, where she was born and at four days old put up for adoption by her birth mother, Shonna Nichols, because her biological father was a drug addict and Nichols already had a 13-month-old son and could not support both children. McPherson was adopted by Dave and Susan McPherson of Sturgis, South Dakota, who also adopted four other children — two white (Aaryn and Graham), one South Korean (Evan) and one from St. Lucia (Hannah).
“You can imagine, all of us living together in Sturgis, South Dakota, we were definitely different,” McPherson said, smiling. “My parents were very good at shielding us from everything. Our parents taught us to be confident in our uniqueness.
“There was definitely racism toward me and Hannah, being the only black people in that area, but I don’t think I fully understood it. I started doing taekwondo with Evan and Hannah, and I stuck to my friends who accepted me, not caring what other people think. That helped me in my Olympic training because I learned how to have thick skin.”
She won a Junior Olympics bronze medal at age 12 and a gold medal at the Pan Am championships at 16. She moved to Miami after high school in 2009 to train with Juan Moreno, a three-time Olympian, at his gym, Peak Performance Taekwondo. Moreno had seen McPherson compete, was impressed with her speed and power and recruited her.
“All the top athletes knew if you want to be somebody in our sport, you go to Miami and train with Juan Moreno,” she said.
Although McPherson was 2,200 miles from Sturgis, she felt at home in Miami.
“It was a culture shock being around a diverse culture, not just my family, so that was a breath of fresh air,” McPherson said. “I loved it here and fit in right away.”
Last weekend, after a sponsor photo shoot in San Francisco, she met her birth mother for the first time. McPherson knew from a young age that she was adopted. Her adoptive parents gave her a baby book that included photos of her birth mother and biological brother, Bryce. At age 18, when it was legal for her to reach out to Nichols, she did.
They spoke sporadically over the years but had never met until last weekend.
“I called my birth Mom, who lives in Sacramento, and told her I was in San Francisco, and we all met at Union Square,” McPherson said. In addition to Bryce, she met half-siblings Denise and Blake.
“It was surreal to meet people that look like me, all four of us have the gap between our front teeth,” McPherson said. “I know I’m Filipino and know I’m black but to be able to meet my Mom, who is Asian, it gave me comfort in my identity. Growing up in South Dakota, I had no opportunity to get to know my culture of being Filipino or even being African-American. To actually meet my mom, she talks and walks like a Filipino, and I was like, `Wow.’”
Her adoptive parents supported her decision to meet her biological relatives.
“They understand every adoptee goes through a time where they need to figure themselves out,” McPherson said. “It was a piece of the puzzle that needed to be found and put in place. I feel more understanding of myself because of meeting them.”
Nichols told Paige that she chose the McPhersons as adoptive parents because in their letter they said they would do everything in their power to help her pursue her dreams.
“And here I am, going to my third Olympics,” McPherson said. “I attribute this to my parents who were willing to take me in and give me everything. I also have to thank my birth Mom for choosing my parents because I wouldn’t have this life had she had not sacrificed and given me up to have a better future.”
She also thanks the U.S. Olympic Committee, which has offered financial support, making it possible for her to train an extra year during the pandemic.
Because of COVID protocols, Olympians cannot get to Tokyo more than 10 days before they compete and must leave within 24 hours after their event. McPherson is traveling July 17.
“We don’t know if Opening Ceremonies will happen, Japan overall as a country is kind of against the Olympics, but I’m ready,” she said. “If they need to put us in a bubble, put us in a bubble. I’ve been waiting five years for this moment.”