My dad is a traditional Latino man. There are certain things that his sons should do and certain things that his daughters should do. I was 5 when I started taekwondo. My older brothers were taking it; I wanted to do whatever they did. My father would say, "Mi' ja, why don't you play tennis or piano?" [But] I fell in love. I loved being different and being challenged, and the whole philosophy of having respect for your teachers and for yourself and of persevering. I would stay at the school all afternoon and take every class I could. At age 9, I started competing and had immediate success.
Nineteen eighty-eight was the first year taekwondo was in the Olympics. It was a demonstration sport. We heard over and over from our coaches that if we didn't do well, it was not going to get the support to become an official Olympic sport. I felt like I could win. I had already been the number one female fighter in North America, in a slightly different style, for probably four or five years. In the final, I scored a face kick with just a few seconds left on the clock. I thought, "That's got to be a point." Back then, we had to wait for the final score to be posted. Then the referee lifted my hand. It was awesome.
At the medal ceremony, they didn't have the American anthem ready. Taekwondo is [South] Korea's national sport, [and] I think they were so sure that Korea was going to win. So the flags were almost completely up, and there was no music. I was looking right at my family, and I just started singing, "Oh, say can you see . . . "
There were a lot of Americans there, and they all started singing with me. It got louder and louder. We were probably two-thirds of the way through before the music started. So we got to hear the anthem twice. It was so spontaneous. It was like, "I'm American, they're American" -- they were sharing this incredible moment with me.
Limas stopped competing in 1991 and opened Power Kix Martial Arts, a taekwondo school in Stafford. She also worked on the Washington area's failed bid to host the 2012 Olympics and is involved in Chicago's bid for 2016. Taekwondo became an official Olympic sport in 2000.
PHOTOS: Current Photography by Keith Barraclough, 1988 Photograph from Associated Press; AUDIO: Whitney Shefte WEB EDITOR: Amanda McGrath - washingtonpost.com