Editor's Note: This first-person piece was written by Natalie Hershberger of Mansfield, a 16-year-old member of the U.S. National Junior Taekwondo Team. She writes how COVID-19 impacted her journey towards making the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team.
Recently, World Taekwondo (the global governing body of Olympic Taekwondo) announced to the world very disappointing news. This year’s Junior World Championships, to be held in Sofia, Bulgaria, were cancelled due to COVID-19.
When I first heard the news, a feeling of extreme sadness fell over me. I purposely trained very hard for this event for two years. The mantra, “This year I’m going to be the best on the planet,” swirled in my head from the very beginning of the year.
I spearheaded my world title campaign in February of this year with a dominating win at the U.S. Open Championships. It was the best performance of my four U.S. Open titles since 2015. Just a few weeks later, the world was caught off guard by the worst pandemic of my lifetime.
I skipped Friday Night Football. I skipped dances. I missed out on hanging with my local friends while traveling the world to compete in 2018 and 2019 — a necessary component of preparing for international elite competitions such as Junior World Championships.
This was the news I dreaded to hear. I missed my chance at proving to the world my preparation was better than everyone else’s. I train to win, not to just compete.
This would have been my first ever Junior World Championships (ages 15-17). Actually, my first World Championships in general, because I was not able to attend the Cadet World Championships when I was competing in the 12-14 division due to security concerns in Egypt at the time. The U.S. State Department advised U.S. athletes to stay away at all cost.
I saw the possibility coming, but I still had high hopes COVID-19 would not curtail my dream. Many of my friends who were planning on going to Junior Worlds are as devastated as I am. Winning a medal at Junior Worlds would have given me very valuable points needed to make the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team.
My fellow U.S. National Team Members and I were all chatting on social media recently about how we were looking forward to going to Bulgaria as a team to compete together. Now I am wondering when our next opportunity to just see one another again will be.
2020 is the year that could have been, but wasn’t.
I pray that I can get back to competing and doing what I love soon. Learning of this news has not made me want to stop training. My resolve to be the best in the world at what I love is even stronger now. I just need to be more patient. One upside is I’ve had some time to catch up on my Netflix shows!
My disappointment for this is nothing compared to a life tragedy. Losing a loved one due to COVID-19, or even losing a job, makes my sacrifices less significant in the grand scheme of things.
I’m sharing this with you not to sound like a cry baby, or pretend sports are remotely as important than human health. I just want you to know that setbacks come in a variety of scenarios — even Olympic Hopefuls are vulnerable.
It doesn’t matter what someone’s passion is; whether it be art, dance, football, or even chess. The disappointment is shared among all levels of athletes.
I wish everyone the best of luck in seeing anything positive through all of this. You’ve got this. Keep your head up! Keep training like your biggest athletic test of all time is next month.
Oh yeah — I’m still planning on bringing Olympic Gold back to Mansfield/Richland County in 2024! COVID-19 can’t stop me. I pray that everyone stays safe through these challenging times.