Mechelle Smith went from shy girl to fierce taekwondo champion

Now she's a seventh-degree black belt
Mechelle Smith won a middleweight Pan-Am gold medal in taekwondo.
Mechelle Smith won a middleweight Pan-Am gold medal in taekwondo.

SCHENECTADY — Mechelle Smith said she was “very introverted, extremely shy” in high school, “the typical target for a bully.”

She saw a friend, John Mitchell, who also was picked on, practicing some taekwondo moves in the gym one day, and she expressed some doubt that he knew what he was doing.

So he invited her to the class he taught, and she was blown away.

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Watching him teach this class with such confidence, that’s what really got me,” the 1979 Linton High School graduate said. “I started on my 17th birthday. Once I saw his class, I knew what I wanted for my birthday — a one-month class.”

Smith will join the class of a lifetime on Monday, when she’s inducted into the Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame.

From her initial baby steps as a taekwondo player, she rose to national prominence, winning three national championships in the U.S. Taekwondo Union and 14 at the AAU level while nearly making the U.S. Olympic team in 1988, when it was introduced as a demonstration sport.

The middleweight went on to win the gold medal at the 1992 Pan-Am Games and was inducted into the U.S. Martial Arts Hall of Fame in 2003 as female instructor of the year and in 2004 as a Master.

A retired New York State trooper and seventh-degree black belt, she runs a school called Mechelle’s Way Taekwondo.

She has attended the SCSD Athletic Hall of Fame dinner, and now will be one of those honored at it.

“I was very impressed when Pat Riley was speaking,” she said. “He’s one of my idols, so I had to go that year. I was very overwhelmed by how much care they put into it. I got to meet Pat Riley, which was a big thing for me.

“When I got the notification, I was like, ‘Whoa, it’s happening.’  ”

It’s happening because of Smith’s stellar taekwondo career.

Although she set some school records and went to the Empire State Games as a discus thrower and shot putter at Linton, basketball wasn’t exactly her sport.

“I would panic every time I got the ball and overshoot it,” she said with a laugh. “It was pretty hilarious. I was in for defense and rebounding, I guess. I knew my role.”

Her athletic pursuit of taekwondo took off, although not without some bumps along the way.

At first, Smith hated sparring, she said, so coach Les Zampino dialed it back and encouraged her to compete in forms, where technique is judged without fighting.

That laid the groundwork for her to excel at fighting, first as a point fighter, which is light to medium contact, then at the full-contact level.

“I used to get in trouble, disqualified for hitting too hard, so that was the transition to full-contact,” she said. “The strategy was different. Instead of controlling your technique, you had to let it fly.

“Then in 1985 they announced that the ’88 Olympics would be full contact. That was the segue. So the first thing I did was look up who was No. 1 in the country, and I circled her name.”

Smith deferred enrollment to the state police academy to chase the Olympic dream, which was shattered during the final stage of trials, after she had won the team 
trials a month prior to become top-seeded.

In a match she believed she dominated over Sharon Jewell, the referees gave it to Jewell, leaving Smith stunned, then devastated.

It didn’t help matters that the three corner judges each individually approached her and apologized while she was watching her friends compete in other weight classes the next day.

Smith, who was a “B” team alternate, didn’t get to the Seoul Games, but got a measure of vindication a month after the Olympics when she beat the gold medalist, from Korea, in a Goodwill Tour competition. In 1992, Team USA only funded four weight classes, and hers wasn’t one of them, but she got another consolation prize when she beat the Olympic silver medalist, Marcia King of Canada, for the gold at the Pan-Am Games.

“We’re standing there, waiting to go out, she had all her Olympic gear on,” Smith said. “Her coach asked her, ‘How do you feel?’ ‘Great.’ So my coach asked me the same thing, and I said, ‘Sir, I’m going to rip her head off.’ Her mouth dropped. That was it. I went to town. When they raised my hand, I was so elated, I was crying.”

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 395-3148 or [email protected] Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

Categories: High School Sports, Sports

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