There's a 22-year-old South Dakota native on the loose in South Beach, and she likes to pick fights. She goes by "McFierce."
Paige McPherson isn't some crazed bar brawler, though; in the tae kwon do arena, she's one of the world's best, wreaking havoc on opponents at the 2012 Summer Olympics on her way to bringing home a bronze medal.
"It felt like I won gold," she says of her third-place finish in London.
The small-town girl's journey to Olympic glory included a major leap of faith in moving to Miami when she was 18. McPherson made the move to train with Juan Moreno, a world-renowned instructor based in the Magic City. But it wasn't an easy transition.
"It was one of the hardest things of my life," she says. "My family is very important to me... It's a culture shock here. Where I come from, everyone knows everyone."
McPherson initially had trouble adjusting to her new coach and finding her way in a city of cafecitos and Cuban accents.
But for her, an ethnic and cultural mix has always been a way of life. McPherson, who is half-African-American and half-Filipino, grew up in an adoptive family with Caucasian parents and Native American and Korean siblings. That's why she took up tae kwon do — to follow in her older brother's footsteps. "I loved the diversity of it all," she says.
By the time she enrolled at Miami Dade College, she was already excelling under Moreno and prepping to compete at the Olympics.
In London, she struggled at first on the world stage and feared she was out of medal contention after a loss.
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"I gave it my all, and when I found out second place was taken from me, my coach told me there was still a chance for bronze," she remembers. "This is once in a lifetime... So I kicked her in the face and got three more points."
But when she's not sparring at the Olympics and scoring medals for the U.S. team, McPherson lives the life of a regular college-age kid. She's still a student at Miami Dade and enjoys going to the movies, grabbing sushi, and hanging out at the Clevelander after hitting the beach.
"You'll never be able to be somebody else," she says, "so you might as well be yourself."
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