Six weeks after rising to the top of her age division, 15-year-old Cassidy Meade is sweating through a training session at Big Sky Martial Arts in Kalispell in preparation for another challenge.
In early July, Meade became the first Montana girl to win an AAU taekwondo national championship in the 14-17-year-old black belt division. Now Meade is pushing herself harder than ever in an attempt to make the U.S. junior national team as one of six competitors for a slot that will be up for grabs at the U.S. team trials Sept. 7-9 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Standing 5-foot-6 with her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, Meade uses her powerful core muscles to unleash kicking combinations as a part of a fast-paced 50-minute workout in Big Sky Martial Arts’ gym.
Her demeanor is so intense, it’s not evident she’s having fun until a light moment at the end of the session when she cracks a smile after getting knocked off balance by her male sparring partner.
This is Meade’s first day in the gym after a two-week vacation in Hawaii, which she says her parents forced her to take. Hanging loose in Honolulu was the last thing she wanted to be doing a month before the U.S. team trials.
“I disliked being in Hawaii because I had two weeks off of training,” Meade said.
“I was doing kicking combinations in the hallway of the hotel for a few hours each day. I’d be doing step-back kicks and all these other kicks while trying not to kick the people that walked by.”
Her instructor, John Paul Noyes, chuckled recalling her Facebook update from the vacation which read, “This is taekwondo suicide. I can’t believe I have to be in Hawaii.”
Now that she’s back, Meade’s focus is on re-gaining the fitness she lost, which will require making the nearly 60-mile trip from her home in Condon to Big Sky Martial Arts’ gym five times a week.
“I just have to give it all I’ve got in the gym, and do more than I have to do so I’m on top of the other girls, and I’m a lot more prepared than them,” Meade said.
“She’s got the speed but because of the two-week holiday, the conditioning’s not there,” Noyes added.
“So for us the initial week-and-a-half will be just grinding her down. We need to break her down a little bit to get those muscles back on-line. Next week will be refining some of the technique we’re comfortable with and the last week is just fighting.”
Meade grew up in a taekwondo family. Her mother and three sisters are all black belts, and she took up the sport as a 4-year-old. When she was 8, she moved from eastern Pennsylvania to northwest Montana. That was when Meade says taekwondo became her passion.
“We moved out here and it was more of a national school that went all over the place to compete, and that’s when I got interested in competing,” she said.
Outside of school, where she is an A-student at Seeley-Swan High School, Meade’s sole focus is taekwondo. She played soccer when she was younger, but dropped the sport in grade school, and is lost for words when asked to describe her other interests.
“Just taekwondo. That’s pretty much all I like,” she said.
That narrow focus has allowed her to ascend to the top of her age group. She broke out at the national level in February when she won a bronze medal at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas, an international competition featuring competitors from 56 countries. Meade competed at the U.S. Open each of the previous two years, but lost in the first round to a Mexican opponent both times.
She drew Mexico in the first round again this year, and buried her demons with a convincing victory that sent her confidence soaring.
“It was a huge stepping stone because I finally beat Mexico this year,” Meade said.
Then came AAU Nationals in Fort Lauderdale, where Meade drew a first-round matchup with Pearl Imperial, a current U.S. junior national team member who has won multiple national championships. Meade said she was undeterred by the tough draw.
“I was pretty much thinking that she cannot have my spot on the team. I just couldn’t give up and move backwards. I had to keep going forward and keep at it.”
Meade trailed by three points 30 seconds into the first round, but rallied to take a narrow lead by the end of the round. Then she wore Imperial down in the second round for an 17-14 win.
“She faced hurricane Cassidy and there wasn’t much she could do,” Noyes said of Imperial.
“After the match one of the other coaches came to me and told me it was one of the best fights he’d ever seen any player do. And as he was talking he said ‘I have goosebumps on my arm. That was such an impressive match.’”
Buoyed by the confidence gained from her first-round victory, Meade defeated her next three opponents 10-3, 9-2 and 23-18 to claim the national title in her 114.7-121.3-pound weight class.
“I was just sick of coming in third or second or losing my first round. I really wanted to win this year,” Meade said.
Noyes’ wife, Debbie, who also coaches Meade, said she wasn’t surprised to see Meade become a national champion.
“We always know,” Debbie said.
“We’re always waiting for them to do what they’re capable of, so it’s never a surprise to us.”
To usurp Imperial as a member of the junior national team, Meade will have to take first at the U.S. team trials, which is a round-robin tournament featuring Meade, the silver and bronze medalists from AAU Nationals and Ana-Marie Frampton, another current national team member. Now that she’s tasted success, Noyes believes Meade has the ability to stay at the top because she’s such a well-rounded fighter.
“A lot of athletes get specialized in one or two things that they get really good at, and it’s hard to get around it, but if you have an answer for those one or two things, they’re in trouble,” he said.
“We try to give a wide spectrum of possibilities, but that means it takes a little bit longer for athletes to reach the top. Once they’re up there, they usually hang onto it for quite awhile because of their variety of skill sets.”
Meade attributed her success to her conditioning and speed, which she says have improved dramatically over the last year, but Noyes said it’s her power and intelligence that set her apart from her opponents.
“For her size she is really powerful,” Noyes said.
“When she hits the other girls, it shocks their whole system because she just hits so hard for her weight class.
“And she’s very analytical. She can read the match and she’ll come back to me or my wife and she’ll be able to say what’s going on, and I’ll say, yeah exactly. A lot of athletes do not see the problem and you have to say here’s the problem, here’s the solution. She comes back with I know what the problem is, help me with the solution.”
Beyond the U.S. trials, Meade said her long-term goal is to compete at the World Championships, and possibly the Olympics. Noyes said she has the talent to compete at the highest level.
“I watched all of the Olympic fights, and there’s a couple girls that are better than her for sure, but there’s a whole lot of girls on the Olympic venue that she could beat,” he said.
Noyes said the United States can only send two women to the Olympics for taekwondo, and they come from pre-assigned weight classes, so it’s possible for someone to miss out on an Olympic berth simply because their country wasn’t assigned their weight class.
“The World Championships are less political,” he said.
“If you are good, you make it.”
That said, the Olympics are still a possibility for Meade.
“She’s got the ability, everything just has to be timed perfect,” Noyes said.
“You have to have the right ability at the right instant.”
But for now, Meade’s focus is on making the junior national team.
“I have to keep that same confidence and determination I had at nationals,” she said.
“Then I think I’ll be on the team.”
2012 AAU Taekwondo
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Results for Big Sky Martial Arts
Cassidy Meade, black belt, 17-14, 10-3, 9-2, 23-18
Meg Miller, blue belt, 11-5, 17-17W, 14-12, 11-4
Meredith Bedford, blue belt, 6-4, 0-7
Kyah Gislason, blue belt, 18-1, 6-15
Cheyanne Arndt, blue belt, 33-28, 24-22, 2-11
John Hinchey, red belt, 3-11
Dante Iffert, blue belt, 0-8
Michael Bedford, red belt, 8-6, 7-12
LJ Stringer, blue belt, 11-4, 2-4
Bella Waldher, red belt, 8-15
Tracer Gislason, blue belt, 18-16, 5-12
Kegan Stringer, blue belt, 2-4 DQ, 1-8
Tali Miller, blue belt, 2-9
Jack Waldher, black belt, 7-8
Alex Bondurant, black belt, 6-8
Taylor Reed, black belt, 4-11
Dakota Arndt, black belt, 7-0, 1-6
Josh Dohr, black belt, 13-17
Cassidy Meade gets pointers on her form from coach John Paul Noyes at Big Sky Martial Arts.
Cassidy Meade smiles during a break from her training at Big Sky Martial Arts.