Two for the Gold in Taekwondo

Jessica Lee wearing a black belt.
Maple Grove sisters earn top spots at Pan Am tournament.

To say that Ava and Jessica Lee have taekwondo in their blood would be an understatement. The Maple Grove sisters are the daughters of Eui Lee, one of the most accomplished taekwondo grandmasters in the Midwest. They are the granddaughters of Byung Yul Lee, the founder of Maple Grove’s World Taekwondo Academy and one of the original Masters who immigrated from Korea to the U.S. in the 1960s to teach and grow the martial art.

These days, the Lee sisters are carving out their own places in the sport. Last June, they each brought home gold medals from the Pan American Championships in Costa Rica. Competing for Haiti, where their father has been working to develop an Olympic team, Jessica won her gold medal in the morning, taking top honors in the Kyorugi Cadet -47 kg division. Ava followed later that afternoon with her own gold medal in the Kyorugi Junior -68 kg division. Ava was also named best female athlete at the event.

“It was a really cool experience to share with her,” says Ava, of winning gold alongside Jessica.

“We feel really blessed,” Cheri Lee, Jessica and Ava’s mom, says. “It’s a strong team. We knew they had a good chance to place.” Ava, 16, a junior at Maple Grove High School, and Jessica, 13, who attends Osseo Middle School, along with their older sister Lauren, 18, a freshman at the University of Minnesota, each started practicing taekwondo around the age of 2. “We grew up with it,” Ava says. “It was a good way for our family to get close.”

Maple Grove High School 11th grader Ava Lee demonstrates her taekwondo form.Maple Grove High School 11th grader Ava Lee demonstrates her taekwondo form.

Cheri says the only expectation she and her husband had for the girls was that they earn their black belt. “It was known that they would have to get their black belt, but they never had to compete. They decided to do that on their own,” she says.

Ava started competing at 5. By 12, she was vying for international titles. Her little sister has followed suit. As members of the U.S. National Team (which Eui has coached since 2006), Ava and Jessica have filled their passports with stamps from competitions around the world, including Brazil, Serbia, Uzbekistan, Mexico, France, South Korea, Canada, Bulgaria and the Dominican Republic.

Along the way, there have been wins and losses and all of the emotions that come with the pressure of competition. “It’s a big deal to lose,” Jessica says. “The more you win, the more fun it gets.”

Osseo Middle School student Jessica Lee reaches for new heights with her taekwondo kick. Osseo Middle School student Jessica Lee reaches for new heights with her taekwondo kick. 

For Ava, who took home gold at the Tashkent 2019 World Taekwondo Cadet Championships, winning is a double-edged sword. “Once you win such a big tournament, you can struggle with expectations. It’s something I’m working on right now,” she says.

“I didn’t understand how massive the tournament was,” Ava says. “These were basically the best of the best.” But best of the best is what Ava strives for. She has her sights set on the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris and added gold medals to her collection at the Poland Open and the Slovenia Open G-2 in September. She trains twice a day during the summer and two to five days a week during the school year, combining taekwondo practice with strength training and conditioning.

Ava says she meditates and focuses on her breathing to stay calm before matches. “Talking is also a big thing. I usually talk to my sisters or my teammates to get in a good mindset,” she says. Ava also leans on her coach. “Dad and I have a good bond that I wouldn’t change for the world,” she says.

Jessica isn’t ready to start thinking Olympics just yet. She is currently preparing for the next Pan American Championships, training three to five times a week for an hour to an hour and a half each. At 13, she leans on her teammates for motivation and tries “not to worry too much,” though she admits to being competitive with Ava. “They push each other,” Cheri says. “The competition helps them.”