Anastasija Zolotic is a fighter.
“It’s the one thing we look for more than anything else,” said her taekwondo coach Gareth Brown. “Ultimately it’s: ‘Do you want to go down for scrap? Will you fight with somebody?’ ”
Last month, the 18-year-old became the first American woman to win gold in taekwondo at the Summer Olympic Games. But 13 years ago, her fighting career started in Largo at U.S. Best Taekwondo Center.
Zolotic’s father, Dalibor, first enrolled 5-year-old Anastasija and sister Natalija in the studio’s after-school program. It was all fun and “kicking paddles,” Anastasija said, until she was about 8 years old and earned her blue belt (the fifth of seven belt colors in the sport, signifying that the athlete, like a tree growing toward the blue sky above, is maturing and becoming stronger).
That’s also the age when she started running around the school yard unknowingly shouting a prophecy she’d soon fulfill: Anastasija Zolotic is going to be an Olympic champion.
“Honestly, I think she’d probably be in disbelief,” Anastasija said of how her 8-year-old self would feel to know she actually did win gold. “Everybody has this dream of doing something ... but you don’t know if it’s actually going to come true. And when you’re that young, anything’s possible. So, to actually be told that, (she’d) probably be like, ‘No, I was just joking. What are you talking about?’ ”
Family, friends and members of U.S. Best Taekwondo Center greeted the unsuspecting international champion at Tampa International Airport just two days after she won gold. People donned American flags and USATKD gear while snapping pictures of their triumphant fellow citizen. Largo bakery Frida’s Cafe made Team USA, Olympics-themed cookies in her honor. They read “Proud of Anastasija Zolotic Gold medalist From LARGO.”
Although the Zolotics moved to Colorado Springs in 2019 for Anastasija to train for these games, their Florida community still fervently supported her Olympic journey and proudly claimed her as one of its own.
But well before they moved from Eastern Standard to Mountain Time, Brown knew Anastasija had golden potential. In fact, he knew when he first saw her compete at Junior Worlds in 2018.
She made so many mistakes on the mat, Brown said, but managed to win. And win. And win.
Anastasija wasn’t the most talented athlete at the competition, but she still managed to kick and punch her way to gold.
What makes her great is that she’s scrappy. In taekwondo, being a good training partner and a well-behaved athlete is important. But an authentic fighting spirit is paramount. And Anastasija’s spunk suits her well.
Despite Brown’s confidence, Anastasija has doubted herself for quite some time.
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She’s thrown lots of “little temper tantrums,” she said, certain she was ready to end her taekwondo career. She felt flooded with negative energy. People insisted she wasn’t good enough, didn’t belong in the 57-kilogram weight category and would never be able to string together enough victories to translate into success.
But Brown threw her a life preserver.
“He would sit me down and talk to me for hours and days on end and just point stuff out to me,” Anastasija said. “‘Look how much progress you’ve made in the last week that people take months to accomplish.’ And just little things like that that I never realized just because I was seeing it from other people’s perspective instead of my own.”
So for Anastasija, the no-fans environment in Tokyo was a blessing in disguise.
She didn’t have to worry about who was watching, doubting, possibly heckling her in the crowd. It was just her and her opponent on the mat.
“Girls tend to underestimate her, I think, because of her age,” Brown said. “And that’s a big mistake to make with Anastasija.”
And now the swiftly rising star has an Olympic gold medal to prove it.