Leading into the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, taekwondo athlete Skylar Park has two advantages: Authentic enthusiasm for her sport and the rich legacy of her family. In her hometown of Winnipeg, MB, Park comes from a family of 16 black belts. From her grandparents, cousins, and brothers, the family is steeped in experience—and it’s all been passed to Park, who will be showcasing her skills at this summer’s Olympics. “I was immersed in the sport even before I started walking,” says Park. “And that’s why it was fun. When we started training, we weren’t thinking of it as training—we were just hanging out with our cousins.”

Canadian Taekwondo Olympian, Skylar Park

I’m bringing those years of experience that my family has—and the joy that that brings me—and people can see that shine on the mat. It’s the joy that seems to help me perform really well.

Skylar Park

From the beginning, Park’s father coached her through training, and even progressed his own skills to be able to grow with his daughter as she entered an elite level. To this day, Park’s career is still a family affair: Her dad remains her coach, her two younger brothers are on the national team (one will be her training partner at the Olympics), and her grandfather—a grand master himself—observes her fights, lending tips and advice.

And while some athletes may feel the pressure of a legacy of that magnitude weighing on them, for 25-year-old Park, it’s only added joy to her journey. “When I qualified for Tokyo, and then Paris, it’s almost like it was our family that qualified. Everything that we do as a family revolves around this dream, so there’s an added level of teamwork and support,” says Park. “I’m bringing those years of experience that my family has—and the joy that that brings me—and people can see that shine on the mat. It’s the joy that seems to help me perform really well.”

Park’s career skyrocketed when she took home the gold medal at the 2016 World Taekwondo Junior Championships in Burnaby, B.C. Deemed “the new face of taekwondo,” she was favoured to medal at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. At those Games, Park was at her physical peak—the strongest she’d ever been at the time. But her mental strength wasn’t a match; she suffered a loss in the quarterfinals, ending the hope of a medal. “The Olympics are a completely different atmosphere than any other competition—the stakes are higher, the pressure is higher,” says Park. “Physically, you can be 100 per cent ready—but if you’re not ready to deal with those pressures and expectations, the rest of your preparation doesn’t matter.”

After the loss, Park was faced with the challenge of climbing her way back—she took it head on, and overcoming those obstacles have proved to be some of the most fulfilling times in her career. “It’s not only the highs that I’m proud of,” she says. “I’m most proud of the times I felt like I was at rock bottom, and I climbed my way out—I rose to the occasion.”

And rise she did. In 2023, Park took home gold at the Pan Am Games. “It was a huge confidence boost going into Paris,” she says.

Canadian Taekwondo Olympian, Skylar Park

Now as she prepares to head back to the Olympic stage, she knows her mental training needs to be just as strong as her physical training. Through intense physical training which includes up to four hours on the mat six days a week and grueling conditioning sessions on the assault bike or running hills, Park has a team of specialists in her corner to ensure she’s performing at peak condition through the bumps and bruises that come with every fight.

Working with a mental performance coach, Park’s training includes navigating some of those pressures she’s sure to encounter in Paris. “I’ve been working on mental strength leading into Paris. I’m excited to bring that strength with me,” she says. The expectations of being in the ring, the anticipation of going into the fight, and how she’s going to decide on approaching the fight are all scenarios that she works through to be ready when the time comes. “In physical training, I’m very intentional,” says Park. “When my dad tells me to execute something, I create that pattern of executing on demand.” In her mental training, the same principles apply: “On that day, you need to be ready to perform at your best, on demand.”

Canadian Taekwondo Olympian, Skylar Park

But there’s an elephant in the room for any Olympic athlete: The fear of losing. And Park admits she’s not immune to this feeling. But for her, it’s the beginning of the story that keeps her moving forward: The authentic fun and joy she’s cultivated for her sport. “When I started competing on the world stage, no one knew I was a girl from Winnipeg with her dad coaching her,” she says. “I’ve struggled a little with the pressures and expectations of what people were saying, but I’ve found my way through that. I love to fight. I love to be in the ring. I can shut out the noise of the rest of the world, fight freely, and perform my best every time I step out there.” 

Photography by Jocelyne Hebert

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Summer Outdoor Travel Issue 2024

Read This Story in Our 2024 Summer Outdoor & Travel Issue
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