EAGLE RIVER, Alaska — Moriah Martin is truly taekwondo elite.
Proving the name of her parents' club — Taekwando Elite USA — the 15-year-old from Eagle River became the first female from Alaska to earn a spot on a national taekwondo team after qualifying for the Junior World Championships on Jan. 15, according to her coach Sherman Nelson Jr.
"There's never been a girl from Alaska," said Nelson, who's been working with the national team for the past decade after retiring from competition in 2001.
Martin earned one of 10 spots on the U.S. Junior World Taekwondo team by defeating Kentucky's Kendall Yount in the final match of the middleweight division for girls 14- to 17-years-old at the Junior World open team trials at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Twenty athletes (10 male, 10 female) will compete at the ninth World Taekwondo Federation Junior World Taekwondo Championships in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, on April 4-8.
Though she had never tried out for the national team, Martin said she was determined to earn a spot.
"I was set on making it my first time," she said.
That way of thinking is what makes Martin such a fierce competitor, Nelson said.
"She's a very serious young lady," he said. "She's very focused."
Martin had been undefeated prior to the final match. Because Yount was coming from the loser's bracket, she would have had to beat Martin twice to win the middleweight division.
Even with a spot on the national team on the line, losing to Yount in the first match didn't faze Martin.
"It was one of those things you know you're gonna get it," she said.
Nelson said Martin turned her only loss of the team trials into a positive.
"That loss helped her get back on track," he said.
After her victory, Martin's corner erupted with joy.
"My coach kept hugging me over, over and over again," Martin said.
Emotion also overcame Martin's mother, Kristi.
"My mom almost jumped over the barricade," Martin said.
Martin had no time to enjoy perhaps the most important win of her career. She rushed straight from the match to a team meeting that was already in progress.
"It didn't really sink in much," Martin said. "It was just go, go, go."
Martin has since had time to reflect on the significance of her win.
"You have that moment of, 'I made it,'" she said. "Then, you have to get back to training."
Martin is currently preparing for her first international competition at the U.S. Open Taekwondo Championship on Feb. 21-24 in Las Vegas. Martin leaves for Sin City on Sunday, Feb. 19.
The U.S. typically has strong junior national teams, Nelson said. Out of 20 athletes at the 2011 Pan American Games, the U.S. earned 16 taekwondo medals, he said.
Martin started taekwondo at age 5.
A third degree black belt, the sport runs in her family. Martin's mom is a fourth degree black belt and her dad, Trevor, is a seventh degree black belt.
"I was born into it," Martin said.
In addition to Taekwando Elite USA in Eagle River, Martin's parents also own Tae Kwon Do USA. in Anchorage.
Martin said her favorite aspect of taekwondo is training for competitions.
"I enjoy the process leading up to it," she said. "All the major and awkward things we do."
Perhaps the strangest exercise, Martin said, is snorkel training. That's where Martin plugs her nose and breaths through a snorkel while training to help increase lung capacity.
The Junior World team trials were the first time Martin competed with someone other than her father as her coach.
Nelson said Martin handled the transition with ease.
"When you give her a directive, she follows that directive," he said.
Nelson said Martin's intensity is her best attribute.
"She's kind of no nonsense," he said. "I love that attitude in a young athlete."
Nelson and the Martin family go back a ways. He and Trevor were part of the same U.S. national collegiate team in 1993.
"I was extremely honored to be able to coach his daughter," Nelson said. "I knew he trusted me with her. He knew I would take care of her as if she were my daughter."
Nelson will serve as Martin's coach in Egypt, and Trevor is tasked with training her. Martin said there's no better duo to have than the one she has in her corner.
"My dad trusts him to coach me, and he trusts my dad to train me," Martin said. "I'm very blessed with teachers and coaches."
Martin is no stranger to pressure.
She participated in her first national competition at age 6, and won gold in 2007. Martin, who's only missed nationals three times since her first competition, has medaled every time she's competed at nationals.
Egypt will provide the biggest challenge of her career, Martin said.
"There will be more on the line," she said. "Who you're representing is a lot bigger."
But that doesn't worry her a bit.
"I'm ready for it," she said. "I'm real excited I can represent the United States."
The biennial, five-day competition will be arduous, Nelson said.
"It's a grueling tournament," he said. "That's because it lasts so long."
Nelson said he's hoping 2010 champion Cheyenne Lewis can repeat her gold medal performance this year.
He's also eager to see a fresh U.S. face reach the podium.
"This might be Moriah's year to break in and be a world champion," he said. "She definitely has the skill to be a world champion."
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