BROOKINGS – Laurissa Thomas knows what she wants: to do well at the 2019 USA Taekwondo National Championships, and then the sky’s the limit.
Thomas is ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Taekwondo in the Cadet Female Heavyweight Division for blue belts ages 12-14. She will compete July 1 at nationals in Minneapolis, and from there she wants to compete in the Olympics.
Just getting started
Thomas is 14, lives in rural Brookings County and will be a freshman at Brookings High School in the fall. She started in taekwondo almost three years ago and is a student at Brookings Tae Kwon Do with Coach Mark Anawski.
Her reason to get into martial arts was simple.
“Mostly just to get active. I was kind of like heavier when I was younger,” Thomas said, adding she wanted to get healthier. “I just thought martial arts would be really cool and different.”
Now a blue belt, Thomas is 5 feet 9 inches tall, slender, and making a name for herself in the sport.
She’s been doing well in her division, often placing first, even against black belts, as she did in a recent tournament.
“They just wanted more of a challenge for me,” she said of the move up in competition. “I won that bracket and I went for the grand championships after that and I got third.
“I like sparring black belts because they are definitely more of a challenge and they let me practice and then I can learn from it,” Thomas said.
“I definitely did learn something from it, that I need to get my head clear and stay focused,” Thomas said.
“She’s a natural presence in the ring,” Anawski said. “She’s raw, so she still has a lot to learn, which is kind of the exciting part.
“She kicks fast and hard,” he added. “She’s very naturally gifted, but there’s some things that we still have to develop.”
Ranked No. 1
Thomas is currently ranked No. 1 in her division with USA Taekwondo, the governing body for taekwondo in the United States, Anawski said.
She will take that ranking into the 2019 USA Taekwondo National Championships in Minneapolis, which runs from June 28-July 4. Thomas will compete July 1. She received a first-round bye in the single elimination tournament, because it’s based on rank, Anawski said.
Thomas is looking forward to the competition from a wider range of athletes than she’s faced, expecting girls from California and Utah.
She said she’s excited and nervous.
“I’m excited to compete on that level, but I am nervous at the same time, just because I will have definitely way tougher competition and I’m not sure exactly how I will do since this is my first nationals,” Thomas said.
Anawski thinks his student will do fine.
“She’s having continued success in the region,” Anawski said. “She’s very coachable … she has a very good ring presence about her, so when athletes come in, she immediately sets the tone.
“Her reactionary position is good – very good – and when she’s initiating the kick, she’s very fast,” he said.
Sights set high
Thomas intends to compete at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, and she has a game plan to accomplish it.
“Training five or six days a week, at least. Just coming to class, practicing, going to tournaments, and listening to my coaches,” she said.
Thomas knows training doesn’t end when she walks off the mat.
“With taekwondo, you actually have to take it home and practice and you have to work outside of practice to get better,” she said. “You can be as physically prepared as possible but, like, if you’re not mentally prepared, you won’t be able to win your bracket.”
She admires Paige McPherson, who is from Sturgis and has competed for Team USA in the Olympics, winning a bronze medal in taekwondo in London in 2012.
There’s a lot to do in the next five years, Anawski said.
“Next year, we’ll bump up in that division to red belt. She’ll go up to the juniors, so she’ll go from Cadet to Junior” which will move Thomas up in age as well as rank, he said.
“The anticipation is (in) two years she’ll be a black belt as a Junior so she does have those opportunities to be on that Junior National Team and go to Worlds as a Junior National competitor,” Anawski said.
Those are the first steps to getting Thomas on the U.S. National Team.
“It’s based on points. So once you make black belt, you can start becoming world-ranked,” Anawski said. “It all starts with national points, then you have your international points.”
Going to camps, regional tournaments, and national qualifiers will help add up the points and allow the coaches to evaluate the athletes.
“Of course, there’s a nice chunk of points that come with winning nationals,” he said.
An athlete has to have success and have it consistently, he added.
“That’s what the U.S. is looking at right now. It’s not just success now, but they are building a foundation for success – not just 2024, but in 2028 in Los Angeles, and so their long-term mission, all of this is starting now,” he said.
Anawski thinks Thomas has a pretty good shot.
“She is right in the perfect prime of what they’re trying to develop for that,” he said.
“I just want to compete at the highest level possible,” Thomas said.
Thomas said she’d like to be a taekwondo instructor herself in the future. She knows she’s got a lot of support from Anawski and on the home front from her parents Jason Thomas and Becky and Phil Rutkowski.
Anawski thinks she can do it.
“One master said it best: to be a lead instructor is one thing; anyone can be a babysitter, to be a parent is different. When you’re a head instructor and owner of a school, there’s so many things beyond just teaching kids,” he said.
“She’s got a great platform already. She’s got a good head on her shoulders. She’s extremely intelligent. If that’s her goal, she’s gonna have fantastic success as a head instructor,” Anawski said.
Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]