Time was up, and Rotterdam’s Sophia Greco fell to her knees, utterly defeated.
The 15-year-old, competing at the U.S. Team Trials at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs from Jan. 9-14, had just earned a spot as the alternate for the U.S. team to compete in Taekwondo at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, and she had done so while fighting up three weight divisions.
She couldn’t let that accomplishment set in, though. The curse of the true competitor kept her mind focused on all the work she had put in, how she had made her way through the 16-girl tournament, then fell one point short.
“That night, a few days after, maybe a week, I shut myself off from the world,” Greco said. “I didn’t text or tweet anything. I was so upset. Soon, everyone started talking to me and telling me how great an accomplishment it was, and that boosted my confidence and got me to work harder.”
She does that work at Peak Performance Training in Glenville with coach Tim Tocco, whose program has produced a number of national champions and national team members in its three years of existence.
Tocco said it was hard for him, to see her “devastated” after the loss, but he was confident she would shake it off before long.
“I said to myself that I was glad it was Sophia, because she has the character to bounce back,” Tocco said. “Not that my other athletes can’t, but I know that she can. I said to her, ‘A great athlete never lets a win get to their head, never lets a loss get to their heart. If you can remember that and push forward, you’re going to be strong.’ But it was tough.”
Greco is a national team member in the finweight division, which is for athletes under 42kg. This competition combined the finweight, flyweight, bantamweight and featherweight divisions, up to 49kg, and included the top four fighters from each division.
Greco worked her way through the losers’ bracket and back to the finals, where she faced Michelle Gonciarz of Utah, a taller girl who had a reach advantage. As Gonciarz had not lost in the double-elimination bracket, Greco had to beat her twice to claim the spot representing the U.S. at the Youth Olympic Games.
In their first bout in the finals, Greco came through in the clutch.
“I was losing by two points in the last five seconds, and I scored a headshot, so that put me one point ahead, so I won that fight in the last five seconds,” she said.
With the two even at a loss apiece, Greco said they were both much more nervous with everything on the line.
Gonciarz scored her point, slipping a kick in that left Tocco wondering if the electronic chest protector on Greco would even register the hit, it seemed so slight. It lit up the scoreboard, though, and then the seconds started running away from Greco.
“It was a little front-leg kick as Sophia came in and engaged,” Tocco said. “She kind of snuck it in under Sophia’s guard. It wasn’t a strong point, in a sense. She battled hard back with 30 seconds left, and she was pushing her, but she was unable to score a point in those last few seconds.”
“I knew time was running out,” Greco said. “I had to act fast. I pressured, went in really hard and pressured for the last 10 seconds and nothing scored.”
Even though Greco couldn’t break through Gonciarz’s guard, just being at this event is an enriching experience for an athlete, Tocco said. Greco has been to the Team Trials four times, finishing fourth, then third, then second the last two trips.
“I think anytime you get an athlete to go to the Olympic Training Center,” Tocco said, “to be part of that culture that’s there, that feeling of elite-level athletes who think of themselves, full-time, as an athlete . . . that’s their job, that’s what they’re supposed to be doing while they’re there — especially in an Olympic year, it’s special.”
Greco also has won gold at the Junior Pan American Games, and has been an AAU/USA national team member the past three years.
Now, a few weeks after the bout, she can talk about it with a smile on her face. She knows she has to be ready to go to China for the competition in August in the event of a training injury to Gonciarz, and she sounds proud to take on that responsibility.
In the meantime, she will compete this month in the Canadian Open in Montreal, then in Las Vegas a week later at the U.S. Open, and she will fly to Germany for another tournament in April.
All this while turning in grade-A work in honors courses at Schallmont High School. Those plane rides offer hours of study time for Greco, who would like to become an anesthesiologist.
She also is aiming for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It will be her first year of eligibility, as she will be 17, so she admits the odds are against her, but she’s ready for the challenge.
“It’s going to be a lot of work,” she said. “I’m going to have high school and college work, and I have to handle that. Then I have to be able to fit training into my schedule. I have to have the perfect balance.”