How the delayed Olympic Games became a “blessing” for one taekwondo athlete

Victoria Stambaugh, a taekwondo Olympic qualifier for Puerto Rico, is taking the time to learn a “new normal” during the postponement of the Tokyo Games.

By Patricia Lim
Illustration by Emily Whang

Illustration by Emily Whang

When taekwondo Olympic qualifier Victoria Stambaugh looks at her knees, she counts 17 scars. They’re a humble reminder of the six knee surgeries she’s overcome throughout her athletic career. But Stambaugh never expected a global pandemic would be the thing to keep her from competing and representing Puerto Rico on one of the biggest stages in sports.

After her sixth surgery in 2019, Stambaugh only had six months to prepare for her chance to make the Tokyo Olympic Games. Even though that procedure left the 27-year-old Houston native with about 20 percent of her meniscus in her left knee, Stambaugh earned her ticket to Tokyo at the Pan Am Olympic Qualification Tournament in Costa Rica on March 12.

Victoria Stambaugh

Victoria Stambaugh wears the medals she’s won at competitions that helped her reach her dream of becoming an Olympic athlete. Stambaugh trained with Body Opponent Bags leading up to the 2016 Olympic qualification tournament. (Photo by Patricia Lim)

Days after, COVID-19 forced nationwide lockdowns.

“My career is over,” Stambaugh said. “I have a certain amount of time in my life, a gap, a window gap to qualify for the Olympics. And Tokyo is going to be my last try for me personally.”

This wasn’t the first time Stambaugh thought that she was going to have to put away her uniform forever.  At the qualifier for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, she lost to Peru’s Julissa Diez Canseco by one point. 

“I was about done, like, mentally, physically and emotionally. I was drained.” said Stambaugh, who is Christian. “I just surrendered it all to God.”

Through prayer and support from the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee, Stambaugh decided to try one last time.

But because of her last surgery and the postponed games, she and her coach, Young In Bang, who’s taken seven athletes to the Olympics, had to change their game plan.

Victoria Stambaugh shows the scars from the six knee surgeries she’s had

Stambaugh shows the scars from the six knee surgeries she’s had over the course of her athletic career. Stambaugh said, “my scars represent victory and victory through God.” (Photo courtesy of Victoria Stambaugh)

Unlike before her surgery where they trained two to three times a day, Stambaugh now trains her body one hour of intensive workout a day, five times a week. She also trains her mind with sports psychologists once a week and daily visualizations.

“It’s not only physical, it’s mentally and emotionally, too,” Stambaugh said. “There is going to have to be a time where you’re going to have to lay back a little bit on all the physical training and just train smart, and do what you got to do at that time of training and be content with that.”

Leading up to Tokyo 2021, Stambaugh plans on training the same as she did for the qualifiers: “short, sweet and smart.”

Stambaugh’s taken the unexpected pandemic as an opportunity to let her body heal.

“This little pause of the Olympics not being this past summer gave me more time to get confident in my new body. I consider it as a blessing that I have this break for my body and mentally.”

Victoria Stambaugh

It also gave her the opportunity to launch her new business, something she planned to do after the Olympics. Stambaugh was inspired to start something non-traditional and opened up a parkour and taekwondo studio with her fiancė, Juan Cernada, and business partner, Ahamid Alijaafreh.

“My fiancė was working at a parkour school in Houston that was the only parkour school at that time,” Stambaugh said. “They ended up closing down.”

Victoria Stambaugh and Juan Cernada

Tokyo 2021 Olympic qualifier, Stambaugh shows her taekwondo medals to her fiancé and business partner, Juan Cernada, at her Believe. Commit. Achieve. parkour and taekwondo studio. Her chance at competing was postponed due to COVID-19. (Photo by Patricia Lim)

Taekwondo and parkour have similar qualities, but also unique differences that make the studio stand out. With parkour, athletes move through urban areas, clearing obstacles by running, jumping and climbing.

“So like [my fiance] does parkour, I do taekwondo. But if students want to do both, they can learn taekwondo and parkour in the same facility and then try to be the ultimate ninja.”

Victoria Stambaugh

The vision for their studio, called Believe. Commit. Achieve., is to create an atmosphere where students can learn discipline, self-control and mental toughness. 

“The goal for me was not to only teach taekwondo,” Stambaugh said. “But to also be a light, however I can, to anyone who walks in here … the goal is to bring out the best in each student.”

Victoria Stambaugh

Stambaugh of Puerto Rico’s taekwondo national team lands a tornado kick to Team Canada’s Josipa Kafadar during quarterfinals at the Pan Am Olympic Qualification Tournament in Costa Rica. (Photo courtesy of

After she finally reaches the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Stambaugh plans on getting ready for her wedding and travel. She also hopes to continue her athletic journey with trying a different branch of taekwondo, poomsae, which consists of various fundamental patterns of stances, blocks, punches and kicks. 

“I want to grow in all areas of the sport, and I really want to learn some poomsae,” Stambaugh said. “I want to keep competing, if my health permits and if it’s God’s will for me.”