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by Jenna Marotta
THEN First American Olympic gold medalist in tae kwon do (1988 Summer Olympics)
NOW Fifth-degree black belt, co-owner of martial arts studio
As a five-year-old living in Humboldt Park, Arlene Limas didn’t crave glory or medals when she implored her parents to let her try martial arts. She just wanted to be like her four older brothers, who had learned kicks, blocks, and chops at a local studio. Over the objections of her father—who thought little girls should take up ballet or a musical instrument—Limas got her mother’s consent. “I thought she would quit after a couple times,” says Diane Limas, whom this magazine recognized in 2008 as a Chicagoan of the Year for her affordable housing activism.
Turns out Arlene was born to spar. The only girl in her martial arts school, she was competing against and beating boys by age eight. At 13, she was challenging women at the national level in tae kwon do. And at 22, she was a member of the U.S. team at the Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea—where tae kwon do was making its Olympic debut.
Competing as a welterweight, Limas advanced to a semifinal match against the reigning world champion. “I was really nervous, but I feel like there is a sense of peace when you’ve done every single thing to prepare,” she says. Limas won, setting up a gold medal showdown against a South Korean—before a partisan crowd in their national sport. Tied entering the third round, Limas secured victory—and the first-ever U.S. Olympic gold medal in tae kwon do—with a deft face kick. “They didn’t anticipate the U.S. winning,” she says, recalling how officials struggled to locate the U.S. national anthem. As the flag rose, says her mom, “we just started singing. People she didn’t even know were excited, like Arlene was part of their lives.”
In 1993, after graduating from DePaul University and moving east, Limas co-founded Power Kix Martial Arts in Stafford, Virginia, today serving 350 students. “We started with 1,200 square feet and one kicking shield,” says Limas, 45. “Now we’re 12,500 square feet, with 30 kicking bags and 50 kicking shields.”
Meanwhile, she has stayed connected to the Olympic idea. When Chicago vied for the 2016 Summer Games, she campaigned for her hometown—work that led her to the White House and bonding with the Obamas (Michelle was three years ahead of her at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School). Though disappointed that Chicago’s bid failed, she still hopes to return to the Olympics someday—this time as a coach.
3 weeks ago