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ATHENS 2004

Abdallah of U.S. Wins Silver

The 20-year-old is the first American female to win an Olympic medal in taekwondo. It was only her second international event.

August 28, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Gymnastics was too rough for young Nia Abdallah.

After Abdallah had an up-close-and-too-personal vault one day -- "I got hurt; I busted my lip," she says -- she turned to a much quieter, sedate sport.

Taekwondo.

A joke, of course. Even Abdallah realized that didn't quite make sense when she was telling reporters about her sporting career reversal.

But everything seemed a little upside down at the Sports Pavilion at the Faliro Sports Complex when the 20-year-old Abdallah upset the status quo.

Conventional wisdom did not give the newcomer much of a chance in only her second international event.

But Friday, Abdallah gave conventional wisdom a fast, high-spinning kick and made history as she won the silver medal. The Houston resident became the first American female to win an Olympic medal in taekwondo, which became an official medal sport in 2000.

Jang Ji Won of South Korea defeated Abdallah, 2-1, in the 126-pound class. Winning the bronze was Iridia Salazar of Mexico, whose brother Oscar lost in the final of his weight division Thursday.

Abdallah was joyful about her newfound fame.

"This is an amazing time in my life," she said. "Everyone is asking for my picture. I'm just happy to be here."

Said U.S. Coach Jean Lopez: "There's a new face to our sport. We've shown we're on the upswing. The pendulum has swung."

Off the stage, away from the news conference, Abdallah was delightfully candid. Her immediate plans are to get a drivers' license, have her teeth fixed and maybe get the chance to indulge in her favorite food. "Korean," Abdallah said.

Then she was asked what she planned to do with her silver medal.

"My mom is probably going to do some arts and crafts thing," Abdallah said. "She already claimed the wreath, even before I started fighting. She claimed the wreath and my stepfather claimed the medal. I'm like, 'OK, what do I get, the flowers?' They're going to die in a couple of days."

She caught the Olympic tournament off guard as a largely unknown quantity despite winning a bronze medal last summer in the Pan American Games, which was her first international competition.

Lopez, whose younger brother Steven will compete today, said part of the success comes from an unconventional style, saying her offensive and defensive techniques do not follow the usual mold.

Abdallah said her Korean opponent might have had an advantage by getting to scout her in the earlier rounds Friday. Lopez thought Abdallah did not seem nervous beforehand. That same sense of calm did not filter over to her mother, Rhonda Duhart, who was in the stands with her husband, Thomas.

Afterward, Duhart stood outside with a couple of reporters, talking about her nerves and how her daughter got started in the sport.

"When she was 4, she could outrun me," Rhonda Duhart said. "She wanted to do taekwondo. I wanted her to do a girlie sport."

Duhart held up her fingers when she said the word "girlie" like she was making quote marks. Her husband and daughter overruled Duhart on this thorny issue. The stepfather thought his skinny daughter needed some self-defense skills.

So did she ever have to use it on the playground?

"Just once," he said.

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