Profile Story: Lisa Gjessing goes for the gold in the Paralympics

Lisa remembers exactly where she was in Hamburg that day in January 2015 when it was announced that taekwondo would be part of the Paralympics in 2020 for the very first time. It was a landmark in her life.

“From that moment I had a life goal. I felt completely calm because I knew it right away: This is what I have to do.”

Her goal is to win gold at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo next year. That’s how the Danish para-taekwondo star is wired. She always aims high.

Actually, taekwondo was not Lisa’s first choice.  She’s from the Western part of Jutland where girls used to play handball during the summer and badminton during the winter. So did she. At the age of 13 she was ready for new challenges, however. If they came with boys and parties, fine. And they did when her older sister and other locals established a taekwondo club.

Lisa has been reading Mandela’s autobiography for some time and this is where she finds inspiration for her answer when asked what taekwondo means to her: What boxing meant to Mandela.

“The primeval force that grabs hold of you when facing an opponent who wants to win just as much as you do. Focus. The adrenaline flowing. It’s de-stressing in a way. After a fight I feel cleansed and ready to put on my high-heeled shoes and go to court.”

When taekwondo came to Lisa’s home town, she found her true talent. She won the Danish Championships. Was selected for a supported team of young talented girls. Being a taekwondo fighter can be very painful and it felt good to have supportive friends in difficult times. One of the girls qualified for the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000. Four years later, Lisa hoped her time had come. But she didn’t succeed.  That was probably the end of her sports career, she thought.

Innate strength

“I stopped and focused on other things instead. My law studies. My husband. Got pregnant. The classic story. But I think the disappointment stayed with me for years, gnawing a little,” she admits.

Lisa Gjessing is endowed with a svelte physique, an enormous smile and a positive attitude. And something more: Her innate strength. She has always felt it when fighting on the mat. Strength was also her companion when she got cancer in her left hand in 2009. The cancer spread and in 2012 her lower left arm was amputated.

What did she do then, the successful 33-year-old prosecutor and mother of two? After an eight-year-long break she took up taekwondo again, entered the Danish National Championships in 2012 and won her class. For the able-bodied, that is.

One year later she took home the gold in the World Para-Taekwondo Championships and continued to do so four years in a row. This year, however, she was not able to defend her title but had to return to Denmark with an injured arm and a bronze medal.

Values for her children

“When I won my first gold medal in the World Para-Taekwondo Championships I was extremely moved.  I’ve beaten you, cancer! I control my own body! It was a feeling that gave me extra strength. I cannot recreate that feeling. Today, my motivating force is something else. It gives me energy to do something I’m so enthusiastic about. That’s my excuse for spending so much time without my children. Hopefully, I take some of that energy with me home. Their father, a top-level handball player himself, understands that. And I believe that my daughters will learn that you must not to stop fighting just because you have only one arm left – figuratively spoken, too, of course. Don’t give up or lean back in despair if you go through a tough time. These are values I would like to pass on to them.”

And this is why, far away, gold in Tokyo is twinkling full of promise. Lisa intends to make every effort to reach it. And she feels confident that she will qualify, although she did not win the World Championship for the fifth time.  The top four fighters on the World Ranking list are automatically guaranteed participation and she still tops it, because the fighters who moved up the list as a result of the championship came from well down on it. They pose no threat.

“I’m a born optimist,” she confirms.

Pain can be endured

The largest risk that she won’t succeed is her right arm. It has been aching since the World Championships in Turkey and a CT-scanning has just revealed a fracture. The physicians are confident it will heal, but she must have her custom-made arm guards approved before she is able to fight again. She’s willing to endure a lot of pain to reach her goal. But she cannot jeopardize the use of her arm. Not even for the Paralympics.

“I have always been fascinated by the Olympics - and the Paralympics. To participate is a life event and I won’t forgive myself if I miss the chance when I get it. I also think you’re obliged to make the most of your talent, and this goes for my little line of sport as well. Taekwondo has given me so much, now I want to give back a little. I hope this may pave the way for great experiences to other fighters.”

Lisa Gjessing has turned 40. She has exchanged her full time job as a public prosecutor with a position as legal adviser to the police direction of the regional police in Horsens.  By spending so much time and energy on reaching her goal, she has put a lot of pressure on herself both physically and with regard to her family. One last question inevitably pops up. Once she has reached this life goal which goal will she strive to reach next time?

Next life goal?

“In principle you can be a taekwondo fighter till you drop dead. That’s not my goal, but taekwondo will probably always be a part of me,“ she finally says.

She looks around the large open-plan kitchen and living room that appears to be connected directly to the lake and the beautiful landscape outside. The walls of the room are adorned with African trophies. There are several hunters in the family, Lisa is one of them and she has shot a blesbok among others.  She can sleep on the terrace outside when she gets old, she thinks. But she would not mind being able to finish a book in less than six months. And?

“There are so many things you can do where we live. I think I will enjoy watersports on the lake, someday. Maybe grow some flowers? I don’t necessarily have to be rushed off my feet to reach my next goal.”