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Taekwondo fighter Tina Røe Skaar. Photo: Geir Dokken
Taekwondo fighter Tina Røe Skaar. Photo: Geir Dokken

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Meet olympic taekwondo fighter Tina Røe Skaar

At her weakest point, taekwondo fighter Tina Røe Skaar couldn’t get out of bed at all. Now she’s one of Norway’s Olympic hopes in Rio.

About Tina Røe Skaar

Born: August 31, 1993
Lives: Oslo
Family: Partner and dog
Career: Full-time taekwondo athlete and member of national team. Qualified in Istanbul for the 2016 Olympics. Bronze medal in the European Championships in Olympic weight class in Nalchik, Russia. Two silver medals at the European U21 Championships in Athens and Kisinau, 2013–2014. Quarter-finalist at the European Games 2015. Gold medals in the Turkish Open and Fujairah Open 2015 (international ranking events).
Weight class: 67 kg
Online: sponsor.no/Tina

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It’s Sunday and there’s no training scheduled for Tina Røe Skaar, a rare occasion considering she trains twice a day. This year’s big event, the Olympic Games in Brazil, starts on August 5, where Skaar will be competing for a medal in taekwondo. Nothing special about that, except that a few years ago, getting out of bed was too big of an obstacle for her.
“My first goal was to get well and then to get back in training,” she tells Scandinavian Traveler. “That dream was always at the back of my mind. I wasn’t sure I was even allowed to dream that far ahead, to be going to the Olympics.”

Ten years ago, when she was 13, she felt exhausted and listless. The doctor didn’t find anything seriously wrong, but she was diagnosed with glandular fever. She didn’t get better, though, and at her worst she had to crawl between the bed and sofa.
Then she was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), sometimes referred to as chronic fatigue syndrome.
“We had a disabled badge in the drawer at home,” says Espen Skaar, Tina’s father, who is an SAS pilot. “I couldn’t carry her so we had crutches, a wheelchair, and a shower chair. Some days, she’d lie there for 17 hours at a time.”
“I felt pretty lost,” Tina adds. “ME is tricky because it’s hard to diagnose. You can’t take a blood test to see that you have it. There’s plenty of skepticism that you are actually malingering. I lost many friends when I was ill, and because of this I was subjected to bullying at school. Training meant everything to me.”

Since there is no blood test, and since ME is diagnosed by the method of eliminating other illnesses, one person’s ME may be completely different from another person’s when it comes to both the degree of severity and the symptoms the person experiences.
Skaar was one of the few lucky ones who get better. She credits her recovery to a cognitive behavioral course.

Her father has always been a key figure in Skaar’s career, right from the start.
“I tried everything from handball and ballet to singing,” she says. “Dad played squash at the gym where the taekwondo club trained. I used to stick my head in the door to watch them, and after begging for six months I was finally allowed to start.”

Then it went blow by blow, with periods of highs and terrible lows, but today Skaar wouldn’t change her illness history for the world.

“There are several quotes that have been really helpful in my life and that inspire me.I have a tattoo on my back from [Japanese author] Haruki Murakami: ‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.’ Photo: Geir Dokken

“You quickly learn to value things when you fall into a ditch,” she says. “I think everyone would benefit from being there a while, as you learn so much about yourself when you start to build yourself up again. I’m more appreciative today when I see where it has brought me.”

A year after beating her illness, she qualified for the Norwegian championships – and won.
“I had regained my life,” she says. “Twelve months later I was picked for the national team, and since then it has been about gradually getting better and better, of trying to see how good I can be.”

Qualifying for the Olympic Games is incredibly tough. Millions of taekwondo practitioners from all around the world compete for the 128 places. In January, Tina won her ticket at a qualification in Istanbul. It’s the fourth time a female Norwegian taekwondo fighter has qualified for the Games since it became an Olympic medal sport in 2000.

‘There’s an important difference between self-reliance and self-esteem’

“When we were in Istanbul,” Espen Skaar says, “the national team doctor turned to me and said, ‘Do you see all the others around her? In a year or so they’ll be forgotten. But Tina won’t be.’ Many of us reach rock bottom, Tina has been lower than rock bottom. She has an extreme pain threshold. Many of her competitors have reached their potential, but Tina has more to give.”

Dr. David Cook, a physician of biomechanics and national taekwondo coach, had heard about Skaar before he came to Norway. He quickly saw her potential.

“My predecessor, Stig Kramer, had earmarked her as a future talent,” Cook says. “She’s incredibly focused on achieving what many people can only dream of: winning an Olympic medal.
“What she’s extremely good at is the ability to zero in such that she can blank out any ‘baggage’ she’s carrying about the past. This means she’s able to turn situations that many people would fear into something positive. She rises to the occasion.”

For Skaar, taekwondo and her teammates were a haven where she could relax during tough periods. She’s more relaxed today regarding her own position, and she feels it’s important to talk about her own journey and to reach out to others.

Photo: Geir Dokken

“Practicing taekwondo has given me more self-confidence,” she says. “There’s an important difference between self-reliance and self-esteem. Self-reliance is about knowing that you can master what you are doing. Self-esteem is something I have had problems with since I fell ill and was bullied.”

When Skaar was ill, she became hooked on video games as there wasn’t much else to do in the few hours when she felt a bit brighter and didn’t have school. And that brought an additional bonus.
“It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I met my partner through video games,” she says. “We talked to each other for six months online on Xbox before we finally met. I was incredibly shy but he refused to take no for an answer. When you’ve been talking to someone for six months before meeting, you talk about loads of funny things, so we had got to know each other well.”

Now she’s getting ready for a trip to Rio de Janeiro, and she envisions a hop onto the highest podium.
“I want to largely follow the routine that enabled me to qualify,” she says of her preparations. “Just before we leave for Rio, I’ve said I’d prefer to spend a few days in Portugal or Spain, to give me the feeling of being away and separating the two halves of my life. That will help me to relax more as to where I am and get in the right frame of mind.
“As Mike Tyson says, ‘a happy fighter is a dangerous fighter,’ and if you’re in a good place you automatically perform well. If you can smile in training, you’re doing well.”

She’s smiling all the time these days.

Text: Øysten Tronstad

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