So the 25-year-old Pelham, who lives in south Everett, did the next best thing. She earned a spot on the U.S. national taekwondo team for the 2009 world championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, and then captured the gold medal, one of two golds for the Americans at the October championships.
“A lot of people were surprised (at her victory), but I always knew that I could compete at that level,” said Pelham, who briefly attended Woodinville High School before being home schooled as her taekwondo career took off. “I really go into every competition knowing I have the opportunity to win.”
Pelham, one of 53 fighters in the bantamweight class at the world championships, won six consecutive matches in one day for her title. She defeated Thailand’s Sarita Phongsri 5-4 in the final match, and scored the winning point with a kick just as time expired.
For her victory at the world championships, Pelham has been named The Herald’s Woman of the Year in Sports for 2009.
Pelham missed out on the 2008 Olympics because the sport is contested at the Games in just four weight classes for both men and women, not the usual eight at other national and international events. Pelham’s competitive weight is 116, which is a normal bantamweight, but it’s also between the Olympic weight classes of 108 and 125 pounds.
Not being in Beijing was disappointing, but she found consolation with her showing in Copenhagen. She was the only American woman to win a gold medal, meaning she placed ahead of other women who had been on the Olympic team.
“I’ve always loved fighting,” she said of her world championship experience, “and being able to fight at such a high level over and over again, with everything on the line every single time, was amazing.”
When she won her opening bout with a knockout against a tough opponent from Egypt, “from that point on, I knew it was my day to win,” she said.
“And then in the final, where I was tied going into the last 10 seconds, and making the decision that I was not going to go to overtime, that I was going to go in and get my point. That was really exciting.”
In addition, she said, the opportunity to spend time with other athletes and find out “what it takes to be an elite athlete was great.”
In recent months, Pelham has enjoyed the celebrity that follows a world championship.
“People have been seeing the (newspaper) articles and talking to me on the street, so that’s been kind of cool,” she said.
And she has stayed busy since winning in Denmark. Coming up later in the year are the U.S. team trials for the upcoming Pan American Games, “so there’s been a lot of training, a lot of fighting,” she said. “There has been no real break after the worlds.”
She is also trying to figure out how she can be on the U.S. team for the 2012 Olympics in London. She will have the same dilemma — either lose a good bit of weight to fight at 108, or go up to 125 and compete against taller women — but she is determined to try.
“It’s kind of crazy, because I’m short already fighting at 116,” said the 5-foot-3 Pelham. “But I’m definitely going to be at the team trials (for the Olympics). I’m just not 100 percent sure where I’m going to fight.”
Whatever happens competitively in the coming months and years, Pelham expects to benefit from what happened at last year’s world championships.
“I think there’s a carryover (for a world champion),” she said. “I mean, just the confidence of knowing what I can do on the biggest stage, and proving that I can be the best at what I do.”
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