18 Under 18: Deireanne Morales

Olympic hopeful won bronze at the Pan Am Games against fighters 10 years older

Updated: February 29, 2012, 12:33 AM ET
By Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie | ESPNHS GIRL Magazine

ESPNHS honors 18 female teen athletes who are doing remarkable things on the field, in the classroom and in their communities. Click here to read about each of them.

One kick-blow in sudden death overtime destroyed taekwondo fighter Deireanne Morales' shot at the 2012 Olympics in January. The small consolation? At just 15 years old and fighting for the first time in a new weight class -- she had to gain close to 10 pounds to compete in the Olympic Trials -- time is on her side. Her opponent was 24 years old, typical of the competition Morales has faced since she became old enough to fight in the senior division. Still, the defeat was crushing. "I just wanted to stay in the ring and start the fight all over again," she said. "But at the same time I was proud of myself fighting these ladies. It's a new beginning for my taekwondo career. Wow, I made it to the finals and beat the top fighters in the U.S." The Olympic Trials weren't the first time Morales had faced off against world-class athletes nine, 10, or even 11 years her senior. She made the U.S. senior national team at age 14, and in 2011 she took home a bronze medal in the Pan Am games, placing her among the top adult fighters in the world.

You'd never guess Morales, who's a sophomore at Lynwood (Calif.) High, to be a world-class fighter if you saw her on the street. "When I'm at home or at school I'm the nicest girl you'll see," she said. But along with her brother, Nelson Jr., 14, Morales has been fighting since she was just 5 years old. These days the sibling duo does just about everything together, starting each day with a three-mile morning run at 5:50 a.m.

While Morales would love for taekwondo to be a school sport, she has no regrets. "There are always new goals to accomplish," she said. Then again, she also admits to being just as competitive on a geometry test. But with taekwondo, reaching those goals means missing quite a bit of school -- a week just about every month, and two weeks for international competition. That means a lot of homework on airplanes, and often having to stay in her hotel room after a competition to catch up on schoolwork when she'd rather be out sightseeing. Just as she dreams big in taekwondo (in addition to winning a gold medal at the Olympics, she hopes to go down in history as a legend of the sport), Morales also dreams of someday going to medical school and being a pediatrician. But first she has a lot more fighting to do.