Making the U.S. Olympic team in taekwondo was never enough for Paige McPherson. She wanted to earn a medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Her parents, Dave and Susan McPherson of Sturgis, said they told their daughter they were proud of her for making the team and never expected anything more.
But the 21-year-old entered the Olympics with visions of a gold medal. What she got was bronze, but realized along the way that being a medal winner of any ilk would suffice.
"After winning my final match, I was overjoyed," Paige McPherson said in an email from Paris on Tuesday. "I looked at my family and teammates in the stands cheering, and it made me realize that we did it. We are all victorious."
McPherson says the feeling of actually being a medal winner is "surreal."
"It still feels like it was yesterday when I moved to Miami to pursue my dream of going to the Olympics," she said. "I am at peace with myself, knowing that I showed my true colors at the Olympics."
Things started well for McPherson when she knocked out British world champion Sarah Stevenson in the first round of the 67-kilogram division of the taekwondo competition Friday with a 5-1 victory, sending shockwaves through the hometown crowd at the ExCeL Centre. She controlled the fight from the start and scored first after nailing Stevenson with a head kick. Stevenson had won a bronze at the Beijing Olympics in a heavier weight category.
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McPherson said she wasn't put off by the thousands of British fans cheering for Stevenson, saying "I saw my family and my boyfriend, and that gave me all the enthusiasm I needed."
McPherson seemed amazingly calm in her first match.
"We had lunch with Paige a few days before the match," her dad, Dave, said. "I gave her a hug and said, 'just have fun.'"
But as fun as winning in the first round was for Paige, the second round left her frustrated and put into question whether an Olympic medal was within reach.
Turkey’s Nur Tatar handed McPherson her lone loss at the Olympics, downing her 6-1 in the quarterfinals. Tatar made the gold-medal round but lost to South Korea’s defending Olympic champion Hwang Kyung-seon 12-5.
"Even though I lost in quarters, I knew that it was God's will," she said. "Yes, I was sad, but my family and teammates kept me fighting.
Paige McPherson said her boyfriend and her coach both told her to put the match behind her and know that she still had a chance for a bronze medal.
Dave McPherson said he watched the video of Paige's match against Tatar two or three times and said Tatar is one of those competitors who is really difficult to score on.
"Part of maturity for Paige is to adapt to whatever and whoever she is dealing with," he said.
Dave McPherson, who say's he watches his daughter's matches through the viewfinder of his video camera, said he could tell his daughter was tight in the match against Tatar, who Paige had faced once before in international competition.
"I know by how she bomps, moves and K'ihaps (the yell made by taekwondo athletes) that she’s OK," her dad said. "The match she lost, she was way more tentative. She wasn’t relaxed."
She told her parents later that after the loss she realized she had nothing to lose, so she just let it all hang out in the remaining matches.
McPherson then posted a 15-2 win over Andrea St. Bernard of Greneda as she made her way through the repechage (French for another chance) round once Tatar made the gold-medal round.
In the bronze-medal match, McPherson scored first with her initial kick of the match against Franca Anic of Slovenia, but Anic took a 3-1 lead when she landed a strike to the head. McPherson, who had defeated Anic in previous competitions, did not panic and tied the score at 3-all by the end of the first period.
McPherson again struck fast in the second round, connecting with a kick to carry a 4-3 lead into the third. After another quick point in the third, the aggressive fighter put the match away with her own three-point kick to the head.
McPherson entered the Olympics ranked ninth in her weight class.
Dave McPherson believes that because of her limited participation in international competition Paige had an advantage over other Olympic competitors.
"Europeans can travel one day and get to an open. Another negative is that they learn each other as opponents," he said. "Paige was an unknown quantity."
McPherson said his daughter stuck to her pre-match ritual which he believes helps her focus on the task at hand.
"She's as serious as a heart attack. She comes in, puts down her clogs, walks down to the end of the mat and then back to the center. She's always talking to God," he said.
She literally wears her religion during the match. Printed on the black belt tied around her waist under her competition vest are the words: "Trust and Prov 3:5-6 which reads: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."
Going into the games, her coach didn't think the printed belt would be allowed.
"Her coach (who's a three-time Olympian) told me, 'she's not going to be able to wear that belt. And the sponsor on her water bottle will have to be covered up," Dave McPherson said. "Kids had their own bottles and she just wore her belt and no one said anything about it."
Paige McPherson says her belt with the word "trust" and then the Bible verse shows her response towards life.
"Whatever happens in competition and life, God is my trust, and his will be done," she said.
The U.S. Olympic Committee provides cash awards to Olympic winners: $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. Dave McPherson says that award and her stipend as a member of the Olympic team will help Paige continue to train while attending college in Florida.
He said she hasn't told her parents whether she will compete in four years, but that she tweeted this week: "Rio?" (pondering if she would compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janiro Brazil).
With her win at the Olympic games, Paige McPherson becomes a member of an elite club in South Dakota. She joins names such as Randy Lewis, Dennis Koslowski and Billy Mills, all of whom are South Dakota Olympic medal winners.
McPherson ventured to Paris with her boyfriend following the games, then is committed to being a bridesmaid in the wedding of one of her sparring partners later this month in Mexico. Her dad said Paige actually broke one of the woman's ribs while they were sparring in Florida before Paige left for the Olympics.
Dave McPherson said they are attempting to get Paige home in September for a visit at which they are planning several "open houses" in Sturgis, Spearfish and Rapid City for people to meet and greet the new Olympic medalist.
"We live in Sturgis, but Paige went to school and took dance in Spearfish and she took taekwondo in Black Hawk," he said.
But the rest and reflection will only last a short time.
The world championships of taekwondo are in May of 2013. Then, there are several European open tournaments followed by the World Cup in November. And she will compete in the PanAm Games prior to the 2016 Olympics is she so chooses.
Through it all she can be assured that her parents will be behind her.
"Before her first match I texted her and said: 'Do what you do so well and don’t look back,'" Dave McPherson said.
The last message he got from his daughter before the first match was this: "Dad, I have to medal."
Now that the Olympics are finished she has a new perspective on her performance.
"No matter the result, I gave my all to represent God, USA, my family and friends, and my supporters to my fullest."