LAGUNA NIGUEL — Training sessions are a 150-mile round trip from the Murrieta home of Charlotte Craig, whose taekwondo skills made her a teenage Olympian four years ago.
She makes the drive four times a week to practice in three-hour segments with her coach, Olympic gold medalist Jimmy Kim. She’s also a student at Mount San Jacinto College. Oh, yeah. She has two part-time jobs.
So when she found out last year she wouldn’t be repeating her Olympic experience in London — thanks to a boardroom decision — no one would have blamed her if she scaled back her commitment to her sport.
She went the other way.
“I was disappointed and hurt,” said Craig, 21. “But I’m using it to fuel my fire for the next time. I still feel that anger. I never want to feel this way again.”
Said Kim, who won gold for the U.S. at Seoul in 1988, “Her demeanor, her intensity is different since the decision. She’s more determined than ever. She’s going to make sure there isn’t a doubt next time.”
Ironically, Craig will still go to London. She remains the best flyweight in the country and a member of the USA Taekwondo national team. Unfortunately, the American team is limited to competing in two weight classes for the men and two for the women at the Olympics. When the selection committee skipped over her class, she was relegated to participating in London as a training partner for featherweight Diana Lopez.
Craig, who made it to the quarterfinals in Beijing in 2008, even fought the decision, noting that one of the committee members had a conflict of interest — namely, was the coach of a woman in one of the selected weight classes. The appeal was heard, but denied.
Kim has his own bias, of course, but sees it as an opportunity lost for the team, as well as Craig.
“Based on the (federation’s) criteria, I think Charlotte was a strong candidate (for a medal) in her weight category,” said Kim. “Her experience (from Beijing) would have helped a lot. She’s smarter now — older, stronger. As a fighter, she understands tactics and strategies more.”
Craig — older and smarter — plans to absorb whatever she can in London.
“Just experiencing another Olympics will definitely benefit me,” she said. “Seeing the fighters, watching the girls in my weight class, I can learn things … and it’ll bother me.”
Said Kim, smiling, “She looks nice and sweet, but she’s a fierce competitor.”
Her parents, James and Charlotte, and her older brothers, Randy and Logan, found that out early. When dad and the boys took up taekwondo, Charlotte was soon imitating their moves. Although she had surgery as a toddler to remove one malfunctioning kidney, and doctors advised against contact sports, they couldn’t keep her away.
“Logan and I were always going at it neck and neck,” she said, adding that when she found out he was good at math, “It made me want to be better at math, too.”
She met Kim at a tourney when she was little. She began training with him full time at his school in Laguna Niguel eight years ago, despite the long distance.
“I always looked up to him,” said Craig, whose mother often helps her with the drive. “Why not train with an Olympic gold medalist if you can?”
Her prowess put her on the national federation radar early. She has competed internationally for years, traveling to all corners of the planet, including several stops in South America, China four times, Thailand and Europe, among other places.
If her devotion to taekwondo cost her some teenage social time, especially during her four years at Murrieta Valley High, Craig never doubted her choice.
“I love what I’m doing, I never saw it as sacrificing” she said, smiling and adding, “Wouldn’t you rather go to the Olympics than a prom?”
She will continue to compete for the U.S. at the Pan Am Games, and various international championships, knowing that her performances must trump table-top debating points four years from now.
“I know I’m not just fighting girls in my weight class,” said Craig. “This whole experience made me realize how bad I want it … to bring home a medal.
“If everything falls into place, I can go (to the Olympics) in 2016 and 2020. I know I can make it happen.”
Starting with one, 150-mile trip at a time.