2004 Hall of Fame Competitor of the Year: Nia Abdallah
by Russell Gray
In 2004 Houston-based Nia Abdallah made history by becoming the first American woman to win a medal in Olympic taekwondo since the martial sport became an official event in 2000. Olympic success like that doesn’t just happen overnight; it takes years, even decades, to cultivate and fine-tune. In Abdallah’s case, the arduous path to the top began more than 10 years ago.
While sitting with her grandfather and watching the Olympics on television, Abdallah boldly proclaimed that she not only wanted to compete in the games but that she would win. The sport that happened to be on the tube at the time was gymnastics, but the girl favored taekwondo, partly because her cousin was training in it. After some heavy-duty lobbying, she persuaded her family to let her sign up at a dojang. She was 9 at the time.
From the beginning, the martial artist displayed an aptitude for taekwondo, faring well in fighting, forms and breaking. In the Junior Olympics, she blazed a trail that spanned gold medals in fighting and forms in 1994, as well as a gold in sparring and a silver in forms in both 1995 and 1996. Then in 1997, she secured her first victory in an international event by winning at board breaking and placing second in forms at the U.S. Cup Taekwondo Championships. She continued her winning ways at the Senior National Championships in 2001, then bagged gold and silver at that same event in 2002, when she also won the Quebec Cup Championship.
In 2003 the 28th Olympiad was approaching, and the taekwondo contenders knew it was time to make their run. At least half a dozen athletes seemed destined to rise to the top of the women’s division—including former Olympians and elite national champions. Abdallah wasn’t even a blip on the radar. Things changed radically when she won a bronze at the 2003 Pan American Games and a gold at the Peru Open.
What finally catapulted the Texan into the limelight was her performance at a pivotal event in Mexico City in January 2004. She single-handedly qualified the United States for a slot in the Olympic featherweight division. (A country isn’t guaranteed a spot to compete in an Olympic sport; rather, athletes must earn the berth and then compete for a spot on their nation’s team.) Abdallah’s efforts handed the American women a chance to be represented in the games.
During the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in San Jose, California, everyone was gunning for Abdallah. The challengers knew that if they didn’t defeat her, it would be four more years until they got another chance. The third-degree black belt ended up blowing away all comers. She was free to focus on Athens, Greece.
Abdallah launched her quest for Olympic glory in blazing fashion. She scored 16 points—winning more points than in any other match up to that time—against Russian opponent Margarita Mkrtchyan, who scored just nine. The tough Texan then bested Italy’s Cristiana Corsi 3-2 and earned a spot in the medal contest by winning a close overtime against Thailand’s Nootharin Sukkhongdumnoen. That victory secured her a spot on the Olympic podium, where she received her silver medal.
Since her victory last year, the 21-year-old has been having the time of her life traveling around the world, making appearances at competitions, conducting seminars and being honored at banquets. She’s already set her sights on striking gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Black Belt is proud to make her its 2004 Competitor of the Year.
About the author: Russell Gray is a freelance writer based in Southern California.