World champion finally gets her shot
After she was held back from the Olympics four years ago, Karine Sergerie is ready for Beijing — and she's the favourite
Karine Sergerie was supposed to be in Athens. Instead she was at a restaurant in Quebec waiting for a movie to start, trying to think about anything else.
Then she accidentally saw it, the opening ceremony for the 2004 Olympic Games. Tears ran down her face as she watched athletes streaming into the Athens stadium on the restaurant TV.
The 18-year-old was the Canadian lightweight taekwondo champion and world silver medallist. Top three international finishes filled her resume, but it wasn’t enough to earn a ticket to Athens.
Sergerie says "a contradiction in the selection process" ended her Olympic dream. One document said she needed to win the Pan-American Games to qualify, another didn’t make it a requirement. Sergerie placed third at the Pan-Ams and the Taekwondo Federation of Canada ruled that since she didn’t win, she didn’t qualify.
"It wasn’t an option not to go," she says, the disappointment still in her voice. "I was 18, I knew I could go again, but when you work really hard for something, you convince yourself you’re going and you put everything into it. When it doesn’t happen, it’s so difficult."
‘It was so beautiful’
The tears that came watching the opening ceremony weren’t solely anger over the selection process. "I was also crying because it was so beautiful," Sergerie says. "I wanted to be part of it."
Four years later not only is the 23-year-old going to be a part of it, she’s the gold medal favourite. Sergerie is the world champion — a first for a Canadian in the sport — and has lost only one major international tournament in the past two years.
At five-foot-six, standing at least an inch shorter than most of her opponents in the 67 kg weight class, speed and smarts are keys to success on the mat for the Canadian. Fancy footwork is important, too.
"I’m quick, and that’s one thing that really works for me, so stepping is really important. I’m the kind of person who likes to set something up and make sure that at the right moment I’ll be able to surprise my opponent and snatch that point."
She’s a stronger fighter than she was four years ago, but it’s the mental game the Quebec native says has improved the most.
"Four years ago it was only results," she says. "Now it’s more a state of mind, how I’ve prepared for it, everything. It’s a big package. Everything I do is towards that Olympic dream."
The strength of the mental game stems from having to pick herself up after the devastating decision that kept her from competing in Athens.
"She fell from a cliff mentally, to be frank with you," says her father and coach, Rejean. "And me, too."
It’s in his taekwondo gym in their hometown of Ste-Catherine, Que., where Sergerie grew up fighting and honing her skills under his direction. Rejean introduced his daughter to karate at age five and continued to coach her when she took an interest in taekwondo after her older brother picked it up. The sport became her focus in the ’90s when rumours circulated about its addition to the Olympic program, which became reality at the 2000 Sydney Games.
"Ever since I was young I really liked the idea of going to the Olympic Games," Sergerie says. "I guess I could see the glory, the energy you see the athletes giving out. There’s glory in there but you can see they suffer for it, they’ve worked so hard to be there.
"My father explained all of this to me when I was young. It sounded like it was an impossible thing to do, and I fell in love with that."
Coach dad can’t go to Beijing
The dream they achieved together is one Rejean won’t be watching in person. Financial constraints mean he can’t attend many bouts outside Canada, and since the Canadian team allows only two coaches to attend the Games, Alain Bernier, who coached Sergerie at the 2007 Worlds, will again be with her in Beijing.
Rejean admits it’s "frustrating," but says not only does he have faith in Bernier, but his own coaching is at play even when he’s not on the mat.
"I developed Karine to be self sufficient of any exterior coaching, due to the fact that I could not follow her. She became independent of any other coaching that was offered to her and could play and learn more by herself."
Even though he wasn’t with her, it was her father’s voice Sergerie heard during the gold medal match at the 2007 World Championships in Beijing. Down 3-0 in the final round to Park Hye-Mi, the South Korean needed only one more point to clinch gold.
"My father always says, it’s never over until the judge says it’s over, and I thought about that," Sergerie says. "It wasn’t over. I really wanted it. I remember saying, ‘This time I really want it.’"
She had won silver at the 2003 Worlds and bronze in 2005. This time she came back to win gold in sudden-death overtime.
Rejean huddled at his computer watching the bout live on a website, cheering his daughter’s victory. During the Games in August he’ll be watching the fight live on TV, and, as always, from the perspective of a coach and a father.
"In my case it is inseparable, you see. My reaction watching the event looking at the TV screen is to try to encourage her to win, even if we are far from each other," Rejean says. "What counts is her dream comes true."
‘I love it when I’m fighting’
Sergerie doesn’t mince words about her goal in Beijing.
"Obviously I’m there to win. That’s what I’m hoping for, that’s what I’m working for. It’s very motivating and it’s exciting."
That excitement is in her voice when she talks about stepping on the Olympic mat.
"I love it when I’m fighting and I’m able to set up my strategy, just get in there and take those points and win. I can’t wait to fight and do what I do best. This is what I do every day. If I can do that, I’ll get the result I deserve. It’s easy to do your job when you know you’ve done everything for it."
Aside from competing at the Games, Sergerie is most looking forward to participating in what she could only watch on TV four years ago, right around this time.
"When I was at Pan-Am Games I was overwhelmed at the opening ceremony. I can’t wait to see what it’s like for the Olympics," she says. "This is what I’ve been waiting for."