Taekwondo champ Caroline Maher is changing the way the world views athletes

By Macaela MacKenzie, SHAPE Magazine November 17, 2015

In the United States, we’re in the midst of an awesome time for women in sports. In fact, with badass role models like Ronda Rousey, Misty Copeland, and Serena Williams to look up to, over half of all school-age girls got involved in organized sports this year. While we’d like to see that number higher, it’s pretty impressive considering it wasn’t too long ago that “athlete” was a term reserved only for the boys. (Meet 12 Strong Women Changing the Face of #GirlPower.)

And while there are still strides to be made—here and all over the world—imagine growing up somewhere where this kind of female athleticism wasn’t encouraged. That was the case for Caroline Maher, one of the world’s toughest taekwando champs. These days, she’s got an arsenal of awards under her belt—including being named a Woman of Achievement by the UN Women—but Maher grew up in Egypt, where many people still believe women shouldn’t be engaging in professional sports at all. “My parents have always been so supportive,” she says. “Other people were sometimes skeptical and shocked as to why I would want to play such an aggressive sport.”

In spite of her skeptics, she kicked her way to the top of a seriously male-dominated sport. Actually, she kicked so much butt that in 2013, she became the first Arab-African female to be inducted into the Taekwondo Hall of Fame—the highest honor you can receive in the sport. Girl’s got skills.

So how did Maher’s journey start? At the age of 10, she would watch an older girl practice on a taekwondo team at a gym in their neighborhood. “She used to beat me up really hard,” Maher laughs about when she first joined the team. “So I had a goal that I had to beat her. She was the best on the team and I had this target in mind and I wasn’t going to stop until I did it,” adds Maher, who actually sees taekwondo as more artistic than aggressive.

Shortly after joining the team, she traveled to an international taekwondo competition in Germany, where she unexpectedly won a silver medal. “That was the turning point,” she says.

Maher was hooked, earning title after title in her quest to be the best. In her competitive career, Maher has earned over 130 trophies in 38 countries (oh, and she did end up besting her childhood opponent, in case you were wondering). “I love that this sport combines your brain and flexibility and power,” she says. “I became addicted to it.”

That’s not to say the road to athletic dominance was without bumps. In 2010, Maher was informed that she had failed a routine drug test and tested positive for steroid use, getting hit with a two-year suspension from the sport. She fought the accusation, taking her case to the highest ruling body in international competitions, the Court of Arbitration for Sport. She won, completely clearing her name.

This year was Maher’s last year competing in on Egypt’s national taekwondo team, but her long career as an athlete has thrown her into a whole new project—one aimed at passing along the opportunities she has had to women all around the world. As she works to become an international taekwondo referee and coach, she’s also working to redefine the word “athlete”. For her, that means making the world of competitive sports more open to women and para-athletes. “It’s time to give back. I hope I can give back by repping my country,” says Maher.

She’s off to a solid start. This year, she was part of espnW’s Global Sports Mentoring Program, an initiative started by Hillary Clinton and ESPN to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX. In this program, Maher joined a group of fellow badass females in learning how they could better impact the world of sports and empower young girls in their home countries.”I met a lot of inspiring young women who want to have an impact in their country just like me,” she says.

For her part, she wants to see more exchange programs like GSMP for girls around the world, more openness to women in competitve sports from institutions, and, most importantly, more support for girls in sports from other women. “It’s really empowering to be in a sisterhood of women that want to make an impact,” she says.

Maher is also helping to lead the charge to empower people with disabilities in Egypt. HELM, an organization she helped found, helps people with disabilities find employment largely by empowering them through sports. “HELM gives me a lot of positive energy in life because I feel like I can do something to help people,” she explains.

With all the projects she’s juggling, Maher hopes the legacy she leaves sends one major message to the next generation of female athletes: Hold fiercely to the things you believe in. She’s not alone there. She’s joining a tribe of women who hit the courts, the mat, the gym, or the track every day to show us that no matter what your challenges are, you can fight them.

“Never ever give up on your dreams,” says Maher. “No matter how impossible or difficult they seem, if you work really hard, dreams come true.”

If nothing else, Maher is proof that you can fight your way to the top—and fight to make sure we’re all given that chance.

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