MANSFIELD — Her trophy case already contains enough gold to rival Fort Knox, but the gold medal Natalie Hershberger covets most won’t become available for another five years.
Mansfield’s Taekwondo prodigy has her sites set on the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The 15-year-old Hershberger’s most recent gold medal came earlier this month at the 2019 Pan Am Cadet & Junior Taekwondo Championships in Portland, Oregon. She won the junior division under-63 kilogram weight class with a 15-7 win over fellow American Akilah Franklin in the finals, putting an exclamation point on an overwhelming performance that saw Hershberger win her other two matches by 21 and 20 points, respectively.
“She point-gapped two of her three opponents,” her father and coach, Chris Hershberger, said. “It’s a mercy rule after a 20-point differential is reached.”
The younger Hershberger has been on a rampage in 2019. She struck gold at the U.S. Open in February, took third at the competitive Dutch Open in March — suffering her first loss in three years after moving up from the cadet division (12-14) to the junior division (15-17) — then won the Belgian Open a week later.
“The loss really motivated me to improve myself,” Natalie Hershberger said. “I fought the girl I lost to twice and I beat her by point-gap both times.”
Hershberger is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in the female junior division under-63 kilogram weight class by USA Taekwondo.
While remarkable in their own right, all the cadet and junior division national and international championships are a prelude to the ultimate prize. Age restrictions disqualify Hershberger from vying for a spot on the 2020 Olympic team, so Hershberger is already looking ahead to 2024 and beyond.
“My goal has always been to win an Olympic gold medal,” she said. “I have to keep improving myself. I have to keep adding to my arsenal.”
Hershberger’s meteoric rise in the world of Taekwondo has been well-documented. She began training when she was 5 and won her first AAU national championship in 2012, a year before capturing her first USA Taekwondo national title.
“Everyone in our sport thought Natalie was an anomaly. People called her a unicorn,” Chris Hershberger said. “When they say Natalie is a unicorn, they strip her of all the sacrifices she makes. She said no to high school. She’s doing online academy so she can travel. She doesn’t go to dances. She doesn’t do any of the stuff that most teenagers would find very important.
“She trains seven days a week. A lot of people don’t see that. The sacrifice that she makes is her recipe for success.”
All the hard work has put Hershberger in a position to chase her dream. No American woman has won an Olympic gold medal since Taekwondo became a full medal sport at the 2000 Sydney Games.
“After her first national (competition) in 2012, we watched the Olympics and she said, ‘I want to be an Olympic gold medalist,’ ” Chris Hershberger said. “So we sat down and wrote a 10-year plan and I told her this is what it was going to take. She’s like, ‘OK, what do I have to do for you?’
“I told her she might not be able to do some things on the weekends that other kids her age were doing. As a 9 year old, she’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ She’s been doing it ever since.”
Hershberger is competing in Minnesota this week and will fly directly to Florida for next week’s AAU nationals.
“I love to travel and Taekwondo has given me the opportunity to see the world,” Natalie Hershberger said. “I just don’t like the getting there. That part is not always fun.”
She will gladly hop on a plane for a trip to Paris in the summer of 2024.
“The Olympics is my ultimate goal,” she said. “It would be the highlight of my career.”