April 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Think carefully before picking a fight with Katie Smith—she’s a black belt in taekwondo. Oh, yeah, she’s also 12 years old.

Last summer, Smith earned a gold medal with Amateur Athletic Union Taekwando at a national championship in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—garnering a spot on their national team to participate in the German Open in April.

She won another gold medal last summer at the USA Taekwando national championships in Austin, Texas, earning a spot with USAT on the cadet national team. That enabled her to compete at the World Cadet Taekwondo Championships in Muju, South Korea, in August 2015.

Her mother, Carmen, was in the crowd of more than 400 competitors and even more audience members to watch her daughter vie for the gold—the only girl in her weight division. Katie made it to the quarter finals.

Katie-Smith2

She’ll kick your you-know-what, but as far as punching you:

“People always get confused between taekwondo and karate,” Smith explains. “In taekwondo, we don’t punch to the face. There’s more punching in karate, and taekwondo is more kicking.”

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art distinguished by its emphasis on different types of kicking; karate is a Japanese martial art focused on striking and punching, while kung fu is a collection of Chinese fighting styles that combines both external and internal exercises. Smith also clarifies that taekwondo competitions judge by electronic chest protectors to show the force of kicks and strikes, which is how a competitor gains points against her opponent. Competitions are segmented by weight divisions based on rank, age, weight, and gender.

Smith started taekwondo lessons when she was four as an activity to do with her father, Todd, owner of Todd Smith Fitness. She also has experience in judo, a Japanese form of martial arts. Her 7-year-old brother, J.T., competes as a yellow belt in taekwondo competitions.

Aside from honors classes and life as a sixth-grade student at St. Robert Bellarmine school, Katie juggles piano lessons, singing lessons, track practices, soccer practices, weekend workouts with her dad—and a social life, of course. She still fits in six taekwondo lessons a week.

“My friends think it’s cool,” Smith says when asked what her peers think. “Taekwondo isn’t really a popular sport like football, though, so they don’t really know what it is.”

I told her I look forward to seeing her on my television screen at the Olympics in a few years. A wide grin spreads across Smith’s face.

“That’s the plan.”

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