The sounds of feet smacking mats, panting and soul music filled the small garage in Elk Grove on a recent evening as two teenage girls crossed the blue and red matted floor over and over, kicking rhythmically.
Cheyenne Lewis and Kyra Potter are international taekwondo champions who live in Elk Grove. They both qualified for the USA Taekwondo senior national team on Feb. 14 and have worked out together since then as they set their sights on the 2016 Olympic Games.
Despite only having practiced together a few times, the two girls were in sync, trusting each other as practice kicks came close to their faces. Lewis’ father, who is her coach, called out combinations of kicks for the girls.
Taekwondo is an ancient traditional Korean martial art practiced by thousands of people across the U.S. To make the U.S. national team, Lewis and Potter had to win a lot of fights – they had to be in the top four competitors in their weight classes in California, top four at nationals and then had to fight the other three national winners in team trials.
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Lewis, at 5 feet 9 inches and 116 pounds, is in the featherweight class for the national team and Potter is in the lightweight class.
U.S. national team coach Sherman Nelson Jr. said the accomplishment is especially significant for both girls because of their youth; most team members are in their 20s.
“It is difficult in that you have to go through several different layers of competition,” he said. “And at team trials you are going up against former team members and people who might be a lot more experienced than you are.”
Taekwondo is a full-contact, knockout sport. Points are scored in competition by connecting with the colored body or head protectors worn by both competitors. If one of the fighters goes down and isn’t ready to restart the fight within eight counts, the match is over. It has been a medal sport in the Olympics since 2000.
While punching is allowed in taekwondo, Lewis said it’s usually an afterthought in fights – to set up a kick or as a last-second move to avoid being hit. Hands are mostly for blocking, she said.
Lewis and Potter are both calm and soft-spoken until they step into the ring. Nelson said the transformation is remarkable when they begin to fight.
“When you sit down and talk to them, they don’t seem like people who thrive on kicking people in the face,” he said, laughing. But they do.
Lewis, 18, first made the national team in 2013 and was on the junior team for several years before that. She’s competed on a high level since 2006, going to at least five major tournaments a year. This year, she has one a month in many different countries from Bolivia to Australia.
“She’s known all over the world,” her father said.
And she has her sights set on the highest level of international competition ‑ Lewis is hoping to qualify for the 2016 Olympics by winning the World Taekwondo Federation’s World Championships in Russia in May. If she gets first place in her division, she will move from the 12th-ranked taekwondo artist in her weight class to the third-ranked. The top six automatically go to the Olympics.
She and her father think she has a really good shot.
“I can kind of see the ultimate goal,” she said. “I don’t want to just go (to the Olympics), I want to go and win. Maybe it’s foolish of me, but I feel like that’s realistic.”
If Lewis doesn’t qualify through that route, she would have a tougher road to reach the Olympics by winning other competitions and maneuvering through the national selection process.
Nelson, who has known Lewis since 2010, said she is one of the American athletes closest to reaching world champion status.
“Cheyenne is a unique individual,” he said. “Some people are born for taekwondo. She has fought some of the best people in the world and I think this is the time for her to break through.”
Potter, 16, is newer to competitions. She’s been practicing taekwondo for 12 years, but only began competing two years ago and has already fought her way to the top.
“It was both humbling and an unbelievable experience because I’ve been doing it for such little time and then I’ve worked so hard, so it was definitely something to be proud of,” Potter said.
Nelson said Potter also has a good chance at winning in Russia, despite her relative inexperience with competitions.
“Everybody’s first time (winning) is their first time,” he said. “She’s just got to go out there and what she lacks in experience she has to make up for in athleticism, skill and willpower.”
Potter has to balance her competition schedule around her classes as a junior at Laguna Creek High School. Lewis has a lot more freedom, for now – she graduated from high school last year and is taking a gap year before college to pursue her Taekwondo dreams.
Trying to go to school and compete on such a high level is hard, both girls said. Potter, who is also in the school band as a trumpet player, has to take assignments on the road or make up her work when she gets back. Lewis starting taking classes online through California Virtual Academy during her sophomore year.
In addition to academic rigors, both girls have to meet certain weight requirements for their divisions, which involves a lot of dieting and exercise. Lewis said “cutting weight” is the hardest part of the sport for her.
“After you make weight, the easy part is going in and fighting and doing what you do naturally and having fun with that,” she said.
She’s put a lot of time and discipline into her success as a martial artist. She could have gone on to college right after high school, but she said she felt she had to see if she could make it all the way to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“You definitely put so much in to it and you don’t want to lose, you don’t want to stop doing it because, for me, I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Lewis said, “If I stop now, I will regret.”
Potter said her commitment to the demanding schedule and the dieting is born of her passion for the sport.
“I can’t imagine my life without taekwondo, that’s what keeps me motivated. I love what I do and I just can’t imagine living any other way,” she said. “It’s my everything.”
Both Potter and Lewis have worked with Robinson’s Taekwondo on Watt Avenue, one of many locations in the chain of studios. Lewis took classes there when she was younger and Potter still practices there up to five days a week and is coached through the studio.
Lewis and her father are practicing every day in the lead up to the World Championships.
It’s somewhat unusual for Lewis’ father to be her coach, but Jason Lewis got his black belt alongside his daughter and said he taught Cheyenne how to mentally prepare to fight.
“I’ve been to every class that she’s ever been to,” he said. “Plus I can fight, so I was able to teach her how to fight, how to spar and how to get control of her mental faculties.”
The two are definitely a team – when the elder Lewis talks about his daughter’s training, he always uses “we” – “we don’t go to classes to learn anymore” or “we’re on the hummus, pita bread” diet.
He said he took over her coaching because he felt a hired coach would be looking out for his or her own interests as well as Cheyenne’s. He just wants her to be the best she can be.
“I’m just into her success,” he said.
Before the World Championships, all the U.S. national team members will get together for a weeklong training camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Lewis will be gearing up for her chance at the Olympics.
“The goal is to win, no matter what,” she said.
Call The Bee’s Ellen Garrison at (916) 321-1006.