Nashayla “Shay” Harper Smith puts in her time with the Army National Guard once a month.
The job takes her to Albany International Airport. The duty is flight operations management for military aircraft.
“It’s pretty easy, actually,” said Harper Smith, 23, who lives in Schenectady.
Another duty takes more time, and is pretty hard, actually. Harper Smith is a fourth-degree back belt in the Korean martial art of taekwondo and in July took the national gold medal in the women’s welterweight division at the AAU Taekwondo National Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That earned her a spot on the AAU/USA Taekwondo team.
Current plans put the team in Europe next year for spring competition. That means Harper Smith is trying to train as much as she can now, looking forward to future moments in the international limelight.
There’s still work to do. A 2010 graduate of Schenectady High School, Harper Smith is used to the quick punches, back kicks and roundhouse rights that are part of the sport. She began training at age 5, after watching her aunt, Mechelle Smith, and father, Mike Harper, gear up and practice offense and defense.
Mechelle Smith is well known in the taekwondo community. As a seventh-degree black belt, she has won 14 national titles, four international titles and one world title during her 34 years in the sport. Her taekwondo school, Mechelle’s Way, is located in Schenectady’s Crosstown Plaza at Route 7 and Watt Street.
With two strong family connections, Harper Smith said she really didn’t have a choice when it came time to choose a favorite exercise. But she’s happy with the choice she made.
“I loved it,” she said. “It came naturally to me and helped with my physical aspects, my discipline.”
I have great respect for people who know the martial arts. As I’ve mentioned a couple times before, I spent three years in taekwondo during my 50s, progressing to green belt at Pil Sung Taekwondo in Guilderland. After talking to people like Shay, and watching people run through the kick-and-punch drills at Mechelle’s Way, I always feel like signing up again. To me, it’s exercise with a purpose — in addition to using muscles and working up a sweat, you’re learning all about self-defense. It’s not about learning how to become a tough guy.
That’s one of the things I learned at Pil Sung — “We never look for trouble” — and Harper Smith has learned the same thing at Mechelle’s Way. She’s never been in a fist fight.
“You don’t want to be a bad example,” she said.
Right now, it’s practice, practice and more practice. She works from 7 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. in sales for Green Mountain Electrical Supply and then goes to training sessions four or five times a week.
The AAU/USA team has already gathered once, for a team training session in Virginia earlier this month. Another road trip will take place in January. It’s one thing to raise a leg to your shoulder — or higher — to drop an ax kick; it’s quite another feat to raise money for competition expenses.
The AAU fully funds the 12-to-14 and 15-to-17 age divisions for travel and lodging. The cadet (10-to-12) and adult (18-32) divisions are on their own. Friends have sponsored cookie sales on Harper Smith’s behalf, and she has started an account on GoFundMe to raise a few more bucks.
While the international matches are the immediate focus, Harper Smith is thinking beyond 2017. The 2020 summer Olympics will be held in Toyko, Japan, and taekwondo, a full medal sport since 2000, will be on the schedule.
“The Olympics should be everybody’s goal,” she said. And that goal means mental and physical strength and a lot of willpower.
“The main question I get is, ‘Oh, so you’re going to the Olympics!’ ” Harper Smith added. “I say, ‘Well, that’s the goal, but that takes a long, long time to accomplish.’ ”
She has competed against Olympic-level fighters but also likes to train with people in the Capital Region area. If there’s a chance she can help make training partners a little better, she’s all for it.
Right now, Harper Smith is nimble and quick. She ran through drills with Mechelle Smith earlier this week, practicing footwork and kicks to hand-held pads. The mini-session also included back kicks to a heavily cushioned pad Smith held in front of her body.
At 23, Harper Smith has plenty of time left for the sport. She doesn’t think she’ll ever retire.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “I’m never going to get tired of it.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/wilkin.