Las Vegas, N.M. — The Sochi Winter Olympic flame was extinguished Feb. 24, but New Mexico Highlands University has its own Olympian with her sights set on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Jessie Bates, a taekwondo athlete, wore the red, white and blue for the USA team in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics, bringing home the bronze medal in the flyweight division. She was among 100 taekwondo competitors from 67 countries.
In 2013, the diminutive Bates — who stands at 5’3″ and weighs 108 pounds — was the U.S. national flyweight taekwondo champion. She has fought globally in elite competitions in Germany, Korea, Switzerland, England, Canada, Mexico and beyond.
The 20-year-old Bates is Navajo and was born in Shiprock, N.M. Her mother, Lynette Bates, is a U.S. Air Force captain and the family has lived overseas and stateside, calling Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque home now.
“To me taekwondo is a life philosophy rather than just the sport I love,” Bates said. “You develop a respectful, disciplined quality and become a well-rounded person.”
Taekwondo is a 1,000-year-old martial art that originated in Korea. Famous for its whirling kicks and jumps, taekwondo also involves punching, dodging, parrying and blocking. Loosely translated, the word taekwondo means the way of the hand and foot.
Taekwondo became an official Olympic sport in 2000.
“When you step into the ring for a taekwondo fight it’s a beautiful feeling of being in the moment, with blood-pumping adrenaline. It takes a tremendous amount of focus and belief in yourself. When taekwondo fighters are technically equal, it becomes like a chess match with a lot of strategy,” Bates said.
Bates started learning taekwondo at five when her family was based in England. She was 12 in 2002 when she earned her first gold at the USA Taekwondo National Championships.
“That’s when I set my sights on the Olympics and working hard to make my dreams a reality. I have an overwhelming passion to represent my country in the 2016 Summer Olympics,” Bates said.
To make the Olympic team, Bates must continue to compete successfully at international taekwondo competitions as well as the U.S. Olympic team trials. She is the only Navajo taekwondo athlete to ever compete at world-class tournaments for the U.S.
“I’m very proud of my Navajo heritage and culture. At the Olympics, I want to be an ambassador for Navajos and all Native Americans,” Bates said.
She travels with a little package of corn pollen to bless herself and pray before competitions.
“I’m a very spiritual person and these traditional Navajo practices help me stay grounded. I also play the violin. It’s a different kind of beauty that is so calming and peaceful,” Bates said.
She drew on her strong faith and determination when she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee while competing at the Costa Rica Open in October 2013. She had reconstructive ACL surgery in November and said she’s making a good recovery.
Bates enrolled at Highlands this semester as a first-time freshman, juggling her studies, knee rehabilitation, and teaching five taekwondo classes every weekend in Albuquerque.
“Coming to Highlands is giving me the opportunity to experience college life for the first time. I really enjoy my professors and am learning so much. You can tell they love what they do,” Bates said.
She is enrolled in anthropology, psychology, freshman composition, intermediate algebra, and yoga classes. One morning Bates wore her USA Olympic warm-ups to her algebra instructor Carla Romero’s lab.
“I’d been watching the Sochi Olympics so Jessie’s Olympic warm-ups caught my eye and I asked about them,” Romero said. “She’s highly intelligent, and an extremely motivated, good student. Jessie is very proactive in asking questions, which is important in mastering any subject, especially math. She’s also humble.”
Bates says her strong work ethic comes from her parents. Her father, Chee Bates, is a martial arts expert and her coach.
“Having my dad be my coach created a very positive environment and my mom is incredibly supportive. I’m so grateful to all the people who have believed in me and mentored me during my journey,” Bates said.
She says her family made many sacrifices over the years to make it possible for her to compete at the elite level. Once she became successful at the senior level, she gained sponsorships from companies like Adidas and Nike.
Looking ahead to life after taekwondo, Bates’ long-term goal is to be a traveling physical therapist and sports psychologist for a U.S. national team.