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Taekwondo star relates to Olympics theme of diversity

RIO DE JANEIRO – One of the highlights of the opening ceremony was Brazilian actress Regina Case urging the global family to “look for similarities and celebrate differences” before leading the audience in song while 1,500 dancers performed on the stadium floor.

The message struck a chord with Paige McPherson, a dancer-turned-taekwondo star who marched in her second opening that night. Diversity and family are the touchstones of her life; she says she wouldn’t be where she is without them.

McPherson, 25, is the fourth of five children who were adopted by a white South Dakota couple, David and Susan McPherson. The kids were raised in a tight, religious household in Sturgis, S.D., a city of about 6,600 souls in the western end of the state.

Paige, who was born in Abilene, Texas, is Filipino and African-American. She has a black sister, Hannah, who was born on the Caribbean island nation of Santa Lucia. Two of her siblings, Aaryn and Graham, are part Native American. Her older brother, Evan, is Korean.

Around Sturgis, hardly a thriving minority enclave, the McPhersons were known respectfully as the “Rainbow Family.” So the opening message about diversity and one happy family spoke to her Friday.

“Exactly,” she said Sunday. “That’s my life!”

“It’s awesome to see the world come together. My family is so diverse, the Olympics is just a little bigger image of it, and people being able to experience that type of lifestyle is truly a blessing.”

Like a true little sister, she followed her brother around and wanted to do whatever he did. Evan, not surprisingly, loved taekwondo – a Korean martial art that combines karate and Chinese martial arts. It became an official Olympic sport in 2000.

Paige took to it right away. At age 12, she won bronze in the Junior Olympics. She won gold at the Pan-Am Games in 2008. After graduating from Black Hills Classic Christian Academy in 2009, she made the difficult decision to move to Miami to train with Peak Performance.

It was a culture shock. McPherson had been home schooled until high school. But if she was going to evolve as a fighter, she needed to move. Soon, she was waking at 6 a.m. six days a week and training under Juan Moreno, who won gold when taekwondo was an Olympic demonstration sport.

McPherson made the Olympic team in 2012 and was the youngest U.S. competitor. She won a bronze medal. The first question she was asked afterward was whether she was going to Rio. She was speechless.

“I never considered another Olympics,” she said. “My goal in London was to win gold; I didn’t know what would happen after I won. It would be the end of the story. Winning bronze kind of opened up my future.

“It’s surreal that I’m here again,” McPherson said. “I’m truly humbled. People say it should be easier the second time around. Absolutely not. The ups and downs have made me stronger mentally and physically. I’m ready to go.”

McPherson is a bright and engaging sort, another example of how women ennoble these Games. But she’s a world-class fighter who has earned the nickname “McFierce” for her competitive fire in the ring.

“I’m shy and conservative by nature,” she said. “But when I get into the ring, I completely change. I have my alter ego, kind of like Beyonce. I’m in there to win. As soon as we’re out of the ring, we’re friends again.”

Friendship and family are big with the four-person U.S. taekwondo team Sunday. Jackie Galloway, a first-time Olympian, is coached by her brother.

So is Steven Lopez, a five-time Olympian considered the greatest ever in the sport. Stephen Lambdin, who has been on 25 national teams and finally made his first Olympics, credited Lopez for helping him along.

“I think family does encourage you with support and love,” said Lopez, 37, whose siblings Mark and Diana competed with him on the 2008 Olympic team. It was the first time in 104 years three siblings made the same Games.

“This is the platform my family chose, and it made me what I am.”

McPherson feels the same way. But when she was 18, she exercised her legal right to search for her biological parents. Her adoptive father hired a detective to help the search, which eventually led her to her biological brother, Bryce Rhodes.

“Getting to meet somebody like me was so strange,” she said. “It was awesome to meet him. It was like looking in the mirror. The way I laugh, the way I talk. I had a little social awkwardness when I was young. When I met him, it was like, ‘You’re my brother.’ ”

Rhodes told Paige she had a half-brother and half-sister. Her mother lives in California. She hasn’t met her mother in person yet, but connected by social media. Rhodes had nothing to say about their father.

McPherson said most of her adoptive family will make the trip to Rio for the taekwondo competition. She competes Aug. 20. She said none of her family have been outside the U.S. Some have never left South Dakota.

“Family is everything to me,” she said, her voice breaking. “Even though I’ve been away from them, they’re still my No. 1 priority, my biggest supporters. Sorry, I’m always emotional.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be adopted by such loving parents. I wouldn’t trade my family for the world. I’ve been to so many places and been around so many people, and it’s never been an issue. I think it came from living around a lot of different people.

“I love meeting new people and getting to know their story. The Olympics is people from all walks of life; it’s awesome to talk to them and see what journey they had. It all comes down to my diverse family.”

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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