After a long wait, these Para taekwondo fighters get to compete at the sport’s highest level at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. They also hope to finish on the highest step of the podium.
Amy Truesdale (GBR)
Truesdale picked up Para taekwondo at age 7 and grew to become one of the sport’s pioneers. Until a stunning golden point quarter final loss at the 2019 World Championships, the veteran fighter had medalled at every Worlds since the sport started – none sweeter than winning her first gold on home soil in 2017.
The three-time European champion has fallen to some of the division’s top fighters, including three-time world champion Aynur Mammadova of Azerbaijan, Morocco’s three-time African champion Rajae Akermach and, at the last Worlds, two-sport phenom Shoko Ota from Japan. Still, the No. 1-ranked Truesdale remains the favourite for gold in the women’s +58 kg K44 in Tokyo.
Bolor-Erdene Ganbat (MGL)
Few athletes rise to the occasion like Mongolia’s No. 1-ranked Ganbat. In fact, there was a time when the four-time world champion was considered unbeatable. That all changed when he was shocked at the 2017 IWAS World Games final by Russia’s Daniil Sidorov in the men’s -61kg K44. He has won only half of his tournaments since – although he has never failed to reach the podium – developing fierce rivalries with Turkey’s dynamic duo of Mahmut Bozteke and Ali Can Ozcan.
Ganbat bested Ozcan at the 2019 World Championships on the way to his fourth straight title in what is widely considered ‘the greatest fight in Para taekwondo history’, before Ozcan stopped him at the 2019 Asian Championships to deny him a fifth title.
The once inevitable Ganbat has some things left to prove as he again fell at this summer’s Asian Championships, this time to Bozteke. Still, he remains one of the most technically gifted fighters in the sport and one of Mongolia’s top medal threats in Tokyo.
Angelica Espinoza Carranza (PER)
There might be no fighter on a hotter streak right now than Espinoza. At her home Parapan American Games at Lima 2019, she provided the hosts with one of the event’s enduring memories by winning gold in the women’s -49kg K44.
She continues to show her Paralympic bona-fides by besting some of the division’s top athletes on her way to winning five of her last six tournaments, including denying No. 1-ranked former world champion Enkhtuya Khurelbaatar of Mongolia a fifth straight Asian title with a convincing 28-4 win at the 2021 Asian Open Championships.
Bopha Kong (FRA)
France’s No. 1-ranked Bopha Kong stood atop the podium at Para taekwondo’s first World Championships in 2009. He stood there again at the most recent edition in 2019. Along the way he has seen the sport grow, collected four World crowns, five European medals – including two titles, and an IWAS Games title. His rivalry with Spain’s four-time world champion Alejandro Vidal Alvarez is the sport’s most enduring and could be renewed for a grand finale as both fighters have qualified for Tokyo 2020 in the men’s -61kg K43.
Kong got his start in the sport because he was drawn to the martial arts philosophy after losing his hands in an accident when he was 18. Still strong as he approaches 40 years old, he saw an impressive 13-tournament win streak snapped in late 2019 while trying to pick up his third European title. But expect Kong to be at his best in Tokyo as he looks to lead the way when France hosts Paris 2024.
Lisa Gjessing (DEN)
The only thing left for the sport’s biggest superstar is Paralympic gold. The four-time world champion was the last undefeated veteran in the sport, losing for the first time to Brazil’s up-and-coming Silvana Mayara Cardoso Fernandes at the 2021 Pan American Championships.
Gjessing lost her hand as a result of a tough battle with cancer, which stopped a promising Olympic career but launched one of the most successful Para taekwondo resumes of all-time.
Along with her four world titles, Gjessing has four European Championships and an IWAS Games gold. All that is missing from the Dane’s trophy case is a Paralympic title in the women’s -58kg K44. Look for Gjessing at the Opening Ceremonies, as she was named one of Denmark’s flagbearers.
Mehdi Pourrahnama (IRI)
Since picking up his first Worlds medal in 2009 at the age of 13, the “Iranian Hurricane” has strung together one of the best resumes in the sport – four World Championships, six Asian Championships and two IWAS World Games titles. He has been so dominant that he has – at times – looked simply unbeatable.
Still, in the ultra competitive -75 kg division, he has run into trouble. Since ascending to the top of the division in 2012, he has been bested just twice – famously to Magomedzagir Isaldibirov (RUS) at the 2016 European Open final and then a shock golden point round of 16 exit at the 2019 World Championships.
However, he showed why he is still the man to beat by crushing his competition 78-10 in three fights to pick up his fifth straight Asian title in his very next tournament and added a sixth in 2021 with a 31-15 win over rival Isaldibirov.
Born without a hand, the sure-fire medal threat picked up the sport as a child.
Silvana Mayara Cardoso Fernandes (BRA)
Cardoso is one of the faces of the sport’s new generation. The 21-year-old is perhaps the best medal hope from a strong Brazil team that includes world champion Debora Menezes (+58kg) and has had some of the most eye-catching results of 2021.
She has won four of her last five tournaments, including Parapan Am gold and the Pan American Paralympic Qualification title in the women’s -58kg K44. In fact, her only loss during that span was to Danish legend and No. 1-ranked Lisa Gjessing at the 2019 European Open Championships.
Cardoso turned heads in 2021 at the Pan American Open and Asian Open tournaments, where she outscored her opponents 199-47. None was more remarkable than a 12-4 win over Gjessing, ending the Dane’s eight-year winning streak.
Ibrahima Sèye (SEN)
One of 2020’s most pleasant surprises was the emergence of Sèye. Moving down a weight class to compete in the -75kg division for the first time, the talented Sèye raised eyebrows by posting 117 points in just three fights at last year’s African Paralympic Qualification tournament.
He showed why he is one of Africa’s best medal hopes by outclassing 2019 World Championship bronze medalist – and perhaps Africa’s top fighter – Morocco’s Mohammed Aatif 24-16 in the final.
Senegal has never had a medallist at an international tournament – and has yet to win a Paralympic medal – so, Sèye will be eyeing a memorable medal on the sport’s biggest stage.
Vika Marchuk (UKR)
There is no one in the same league as Ukraine’s six-time world champion Marchuk in the
-49 kg K43 division – and she keeps getting better. Marchuk has won 13 straight tournaments in her division since her last loss in 2015, adding three European titles along the way. In her last tournament before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Marchuk set then-records for most points in a match and largest margin of victory with a 72-2 demolition in the semi-final on the way to a fifth European crown.
The world’s top K43 fighter will have a new challenge facing new K44 foes in the competition – as the classes will be combined in Tokyo. She showed she can compete by picking up bronze at the 2018 Pan American Open K44 tournament, pushing Turkey’s No. 2-ranked Meryem Betul Cavdar in the semi-final.
Overcoming the odds has been something of a life motto for Marchuk, who was orphaned as an infant due to her impairment. Since then, she has amassed one of the sport’s busiest trophy cases and has been awarded the prestigious Merited Master of Sport in Para Taekwondo by the Ukrainian government – the first fighter to receive such an award.
©Oleg Petrasiuk / Kyiv Post
Juan Diego Garcia Lopez (MEX)
Garcia is the face of the sport’s newest generation of stars. Nearly flawless in 2019, he started the year by capturing his first World title – at just 16 years of age – before adding a Parapan Am Games gold. He ran his international tournament winning streak to five before falling in the European Open final on a last second kick. He picked up where he left off in 2021, easily capturing the Pan American Championship by a 21-1 score in the men’s -75kg K44.
Discovering the sport as a child, the prodigy has been competing at a high level for years, claiming his first Pan American medal at 14 and bettering that to gold in 2018. Garcia’s incredible year even earned him the 2020 award as Mexico’s top Para athlete, awarded to him by the Mexican president.