Other fighters merely adopt taekwondo; Skylar Park was born in it, moulded by it.
And that’s not even hyperbole.
“From the very beginning, I was crawling on the mats… I first put on pads and stepped into the ring for competition at two years old,” the 22-year-old tells Complex.
The Winnipeg native was born into a family of 16 black belts. Her grandfather, who taught hapkido to the U.S. military in South Korea, is a grandmaster. So is her dad, Jae, who’s also her taekwondo coach. Her first coach, though, was her mom, Andrea, who also goes by Master Andy. Both of her brothers and all 10 of her cousins are black belts. Her aunts and uncles? Same deal.
Turns out that sort of environment can rub off on a kid.
Today, Skylar, who got her black belt when she was seven, is fast becoming the face of taekwondo in Canada. She’s one of the top fighters in the world in her weight class, an adidas-sponsored athlete, and the only Canadian in the taekwondo competition at this summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games.
You might’ve also caught her in the Canadian Olympic Committee’s new “Glory From Anywhere” campaign, which celebrates not just athletes, but regular Canadians who perform incredible feats.
Over the phone, Park herself sounds like a regular 22-year-old. She’s easygoing, quick to laugh, and speaks fondly of hanging with friends when she’s not training or pursuing a kinesiology degree at the University of Manitoba. But on the mat, she’s a cold-blooded menace. Park moves swiftly and unpredictably, delivering staggering axe kicks to her opponents’ heads, from the oddest of angles, without warning.
That killer instinct led to a breakout gold medal win at the 2016 World Junior Championships, and several other medal-winning performances over the last few years. Earlier this month, she defeated all challengers to claim gold in the women’s 57-kilogram division at the Pan Am Championships in Mexico. She’s now headed to Tokyo ranked third in the world, and has a legit shot at bringing Canada its first Olympic gold medal ever in taekwondo. Not only that, she’s got a real opportunity to inspire young women, Asian-Canadians, and all-around fans across the nation.
So, you know, no pressure.
We caught up with Park to chat about her quest for gold, her unexpected choice of a pump-up song, and her desire to empower others.
So, how does it feel, at 22, to represent Canada in taekwondo all by yourself at the Olympics?
It’s pretty crazy and honestly surreal to think about it, but it’s been a goal of mine and a dream of mine for so long. Finally getting to this stage and having the opportunity to go to the Olympics and fight for that gold medal is something that I’m grateful for.
When did this whole taekwondo journey start for you?
For me, it started as soon as I could walk. I have a long history of taekwondo in my family and I’m the third generation of martial artists. Taekwondo comes from Korea, which is where my dad’s family is from. And my grandpa taught hapkido, which is another Korean martial art, to the U.S. military in Korea. My dad got his Black belt in Korea when he was six, so his family immigrated to Winnipeg and in 1993, he and my grandpa opened up a taekwondo school, the Tae Ryong Park Academy, which is where I grew up. From the very beginning, I was crawling on the mats and just hanging out there. I first put on pads and stepped into the ring for competition at two years old.
What’s it like having a dad who is also your coach? Are you able to separate family and taekwondo, or is there no use even trying?
At this point, no, we don’t even try to separate it. It’s just all I’ve ever known and all my dad has too. It’s all my family’s ever known, just to be together in the sport, to be together at home. Sometimes it is a lot, especially during the pandemic, when we aren’t able to get away from each other. I’m super blessed to have my family still be on this journey with me, but obviously there are some challenges to it. If you have a hard day in practice or in a competition, you’re in the car next to them, you’re eating dinner across from them. You just never get away from it. So there’s that. [Laughs.]
What’s on your training playlist? What do you play to get in the zone?
This is actually a funny question because I don’t love to listen to music right before I fight. A lot of athletes do, but I like to hear what’s going on around me. Right before the World Championships in 2019 when I won a bronze medal, my dad wanted me to get into a rhythm before I fought. So he suggested I listen to the song “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I don’t know if you know it, but I had that playing over and over in my headphones all competition. And everyone’s like, “What are you listening to?” I was like, “You don’t even want to know.” So yeah, that’s my go-to before I fight, if I’m going to listen to music.
“I hope to empower as many people as I can, whether that be the Asian community or whether that be young girls who see me.”
Right on! “Relax.” I mean, it’s no “Eye of the Tiger,” but if it works, it works.
Yeah. I think it just puts me in the rhythm of my style of fighting. I don’t know, it seems to work so I’m going to keep doing it. [Laughs.] Another one is “Fighter” by Christina Aguilera. That’s one I’ve listened to since I was little.
There have been concerns about the Tokyo Games moving forward with the number of COVID infections still pretty high in Japan. They’re still battling a fourth wave. What are your thoughts on going into the Olympics right now? Are you worried?
Ever since they postponed it, which I guess was now over a year ago, [our mindset] has been that we’re going to compete in the summer of 2021. I think as athletes, we just have to really be like, it’s happening, we’re training for it, and no matter what happens, we’re going to be ready when the day comes. So I know that I’m competing on July 25 and whether that happens or not, I’m very optimistic that it is going to happen, especially with the Glory From Anywhere campaign coming out now and everything. It’s getting real. But I think for me, I’ve just been blocking out the noise and just really believing that it’s going to happen and being ready for it.
Just slap those headphones on and blast the Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Yes, exactly. [Laughs.] Those are the vibes going into Tokyo.
It’s been a really messed up year, obviously. On top of the pandemic, we’ve seen the reopening of racial wounds in North America. And lately, we’ve also seen a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes, especially in Canada. I know, being Asian myself, it’s definitely affected me, just seeing people who look like my mom get victimized. What’s it been like for you, being Korean-Canadian, to see all this stuff happening?
I’m very proud to be Korean-Canadian, especially doing taekwondo and having these opportunities and still having that connection to Korea and to my family there, and all the history. It’s super important to me. I’ve been lucky to not have experienced much racism and my family has been grateful not to have experienced much racism, but I know that it is a real thing. And I think it’s important that it’s coming to the forefront and people are talking about it. It’s sad to see in this day that it’s still a problem, and that it’s still happening to people. But I think it’s important that we’re starting to talk about it and starting to stand up for our communities and for everyone as a whole.
I was reading this article recently by an Asian writer, who was saying watching martial arts movies like Mortal Kombat right now is a cathartic experience for them, because they depict Asians as powerful, which counters the stereotypes of us being timid and weak. Do you feel that you’re doing that in a way—empowering other Asians by fighting and succeeding?
Yeah, that’s definitely something that’s important to me. I’m very proud to represent Canada, obviously, but also my family and where we come from. I think it is empowering. I hope to empower as many people as I can, whether that be the Asian community or whether that be young girls who see me. I know I’ve really been inspired by so many other athletes who’ve come before me. And I think especially right now, we talk a lot about representation and that’s very important. So, yeah, I’m proud to be representing my Korean heritage as well as my mom, who’s from Chile and from Italy. Just being able to represent all of that while being Canadian, I think that’s a big part of what being Canadian is all about. And I think, as we’re talking, that’s kind of what this new campaign is all about. It’s really just about finding glory from anywhere and being Canadian and representing those Olympic values. I’m proud to be able to do that, have the opportunity to fight, and have people watch and be inspired by that.
I know the UK’s Jade Jones is ranked No. 1 in your weight division going into the Olympics. But I also know you’ve been putting in a ton of work. What do you think your chances are of taking the gold this year?
Yeah, she is probably the favorite going in, having won the past two Olympic Games. But hopefully we’ll be able to stop her from winning a third. The goal for me has always been a gold medal. I remember telling my dad, even when I was little, it was never that I wanted to go to the Olympics—it was that I wanted to win a gold medal for Canada. And for me, that’s still the goal. I really feel like I have the potential to do that and I have the opportunity in five weeks to realize that goal. So I’m going to put everything I have into that and try and give my best performance. Hopefully that’ll lead me to the top of the podium.
What do you think winning a gold medal in taekwondo would do for Canada?
Hopefully it’ll inspire others, and hopefully it’ll raise the profile of taekwondo a little bit. Taekwondo is not one of the most popular sports. And I don’t think a lot of people know exactly how it works. So hopefully it’ll raise the profile of the sport and inspire others to get involved, because, I could be biased, but I think taekwondo is great for young people and especially young girls, to help empower them. Taekwondo has really given me a lot of confidence and helped me develop a lot of those skills within myself. I’ve been able to teach it at my family’s taekwondo school and see the power that it’s had on so many other young girls, and the confidence it’s been able to bring them.
Did you ever deal with bullies at school growing up? And did you put them in their place?
I don’t think I ever, thankfully, had to deal with them. Everyone at my school knew me and my brothers did taekwondo. [Laughs.] No, I’m kidding. But definitely there’s times when, whether it be me that people were picking on or others, I just had the courage and ability to confront them. And not only confront them, but also to be respectful about it and do it in a way that was obviously safe and that made sense. That’s something that taekwondo has taught me. So not using kicks and punches per se, but having the confidence and discipline and respect to confront them in a proper way.
Do you ever envision winning gold at the Olympics in your mind? Set the scene for me. What does that look like?
Yeah, I think visualization is very powerful and important. It’s been something I’ve been working on with a sports psychologist at the Canadian Sports Centre, just thinking about what it means to win a gold medal, what it means to me, and what will happen if I win it. Just envisioning me standing atop the podium, but also envisioning the way I want to fight and who I want to be on that day. Just how I want to show up. Even the work I’ve done within the past year, I’ve seen it reflected in Mexico during my performances and seen the benefits of that come into play.
Do you have, like, a finishing move? Or signature move?
I would say an axe kick, which is kind of where you just bring your leg straight up and straight down. It’s a head shot, so it scores three points. And yeah, that’s kinda my go-to. [Laughs.]
OK. So, on that day, you’ll do a big axe kick and that’ll be it. Boom! Finish ‘em!
Yes. [Laughs.] Sounds good.