A legally blind Taylor Mill woman is winning taekwondo medals en route to even bigger dreams

Olympics are Clara Fightmaster's ultimate goal
A legally blind Taylor Mill woman is winning taekwondo medals en route to even bigger dreams
Posted at 6:00 AM, Aug 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-18 06:00:39-04

TAYLOR MILL, Kentucky -- She's preparing for the Olympics, training five to six days a week, and normally that would be enough to make her noteworthy. But there's even more to the life of Clara Fightmaster.

Like how she's legally blind due to a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which has slowly closed her retinas since she was diagnosed at 16.

Or how she was in college when she discovered taekwondo, which became a passion and filled her with a confidence she never knew.

"I fell in love with taekwondo because of the people and what it represents as a sport," says the 23-year-old Taylor Mill resident. "When going into the sport I was scared that I would be turned away for being blind but my master and her children, which are my instructors, encouraged me to try and I fell in love with the sport from there.

Clara Fightmaster of Taylor Mill, Kentucky, hopes to one day win a spot on the U.S. Olympic taekwondo team, despite being legally blind.

"As a blind athlete, taekwondo has helped me in my every day life. I own a cane but do not really care to use it because I do not care for some of the questions I receive, but when I participate in competitions it really does not matter because I am seen as a true athlete and martial artist and it encourages me to not be afraid."

In life, Fightmaster is colorblind, with a cataract in her right eye. She suffers night blindness and has no peripheral vision. But in the dojang, when she practices her taekwondo, none of that matters.

"Taekwondo is like my safe haven," she says. "It is a part of my life that I turn to in the best and worst of times. If I am depressed or stressed out, I train for about an hour or two and always seem to feel better."

And she's good -- so good that she may be able to compete among the best in the world. But it wasn't always that way.

Learning to adapt

When she was 16, she wanted to be a star at something, so she participated in cheerleading, basketball and soccer, but she was chubby and clumsy, as her progressive condition slowly took away her eyesight.

"All my friends were getting to drive and get cliche jobs and I was learning how to readapt to life," she says. "The hardest part of knowing that I am going blind is that almost everyone around is me is sighted and I feel like I am missing out on milestones at times.

"There was a point when I could read a book and now almost everything is read to me electronically and colors are not the same as they used to be. I think the one thing that helps is knowing I have a supportive family who deals with me on a daily basis."

When people learned of her disease, they asked her what she was going to do with her life.

First, she went to college at Northern Kentucky University, and when her ex-husband suggested she try taekwondo, she liked it. She then joined NKU's club team and immersed herself in the sport. Even though she graduated May 2016, Fightmaster still practices up to three hours a day, six days a week, to perfect the craft.

"Clara has been an inspiration to us all," says her coach, Susie Jang. "I think that I have learned more from her than she has from me. She is always positive and encouraging to all the other students and she always has something nice to say.

"She severely injured her knee last year during training. She actually tore her ACL. Recovery took a full year, but she still continued to attend practices and trained to the best of her ability even though she was in a leg brace. I am so proud of the athlete that she has become and the wonderful person that she continues to be."

All the practice and effort led up to this year's Taekwondo National Championship in Detroit. "My dad kept making the joke that I would be the first family member to be on a cereal box, and I loved hearing that," she says. "Nationals is the most intense competition in the world because you are competing against the best of the best and you want to prove to everyone that you are the best."

She was able to do just that, as she won gold, meaning she became No. 1 in the country as a para-athlete, or disabled athlete. But she also won gold in the able-bodied or nondisabled category, too.

On the back of the medals, an inscription reads, "The first step to the Olympics."

"I honestly had no hope in ever becoming a national champion, that was God's plan and not mine," she said. "When I was little I always had this dream of doing something amazing with my life. Knowing that I have such a big goal to accomplish is a great form of motivation."

Road to the Olympics

She is now on the road to the Olympics, with two other competitions leading up to them -- the 2017 World Para Taekwondo Championships in London, then the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. In 2020, it's the Olympics in Japan.

"This is a big expense," her family recently posted on their Facebook page. "Clara is such an inspiration to us and so many others." They are asking 800 of our friends and acquaintances to donate as little as $5 to support Clara and her team. You can deposit money at any Fifth Third Bank -- ask for the Benefit for Clara Fightmaster/Fightmaster taekwondo team."

"I have been working really hard towards this competition in October," she says. "If I am able to place in the competition I will then be a part of the Olympic team for the USA and I will be fully funded as an athlete.

"If I were going to ask for any help from the community it would be that I am in need of funding and sponsorships. Traveling to London is a big expense and anything would truly would help. I will be competing Oct. 19-20, and truly only have a month or so to raise funds for the trip."

No matter the result, she says this won't be the end of her career. This is only the beginning.

"As an athlete, I want to open a school for para athletes to teach them taekwondo," she says. "My dad recently asked if, after the Olympics, I would hang up the uniform, and I said 'No way.' Taekwondo is my life and I will most likely want to compete in more than one Olympic games."