Rising Serbian star battles back from 2019 horror injury to plant her feet on the path to Paris
TAIYUAN, China (Oct. 12, 2023) - One of the core, classic reasons for anyone to take up a martial art is to defend against a bigger attacker.
Meet a master of that protocol: Serbian giant killer Aleksandra “Perka” Perišić.
In the finals of the W-67kg at the Taiyuan Grand Prix, Perišić, whose previous career highlights were silvers at the Guadalajara 2022 Worlds and at the Manchester 2022 GP, faced off against Belgium’s Sarah Chaari.
Chaari holds silver from the Roma 2023 GP and gold from the Guadalajara 2022 Worlds. Perhaps even more significantly, Chaari towered over Perišić with well over a head in height advantage.
That matters: Leg length is a definitive plus in Taekwondo. But once combat began, Perišić asserted control from the outset, taking Round 1 via smart distancing and close-in play that confounded the kicks of Chaari, who failed to score a point.
In the second, the frustrated Belgian sought to reassert herself and fight forward, but the Serb again took the lead, controlling the distance, impacting with power and – remarkably - threatening Chaari’s distant head with her high kick.
Things got close and rough as Chaari equalized in the last seconds. But it was Perišić who took the round – and the gold – on superiority, for the biggest victory of her career.
“I was like, “Aaaaahhhh,’ I finally made it!” said a delighted Perišić – who, in 2019 had suffered an injury that almost severed her relationship with Taekwondo. “But that was not my best performance! I can do a lot more!”
If the best is yet to come, that almost certainly means rematches against those tall, leggy opponents. But slaying giants is a Perišić specialty.
In the semis, she had fought another player with a head in height advantage, Elizabeth Oluchi Anyanacho of Nigeria – and disposed of her in two rounds.
So: What is the secret?
“The game plan was to block the long kicks and shorten the distance,” said Perišić’s coach, Petra Butala. “Aleksandra has ‘light legs ‘so can kick many times and is very strong. We try to incorporate all that into our tactics.”
Those tactics look bang on. Of Perišić’s five fights in Taiyuan, four were won within two rounds - meaning she lost just one round in the entire competition.
She is also proof positive that Serbia’s game is expanding.
The country’s Taekwondo has, since the London 2012 Olympics, been led by Coach Dragan Jovic’s now-famous Galeb gym, a veritable factory of champions. But Perišić and Butala both hail from Belgrade’s competing Azija gym.
“Galeb made a great road for us,” Butala admits. “But there is not just one club, and there is a new energy we brought.”
Belgrade-native Perišić started the game at age four – following an elder sibling into Taekwondo. “My sister stated and then I joined, I fell in love with it, and since then, everything else is history,” she said.
Now 21, she has a bulging technical repertoire. “I can kick multiple times in the air,” she said. “That is what I use in my hardest fights.”
In addition to flexibility – what Butala calls “light legs” - she boasts upper-body power; an unusual combination of gifts.
“Her physical preparation is really good,” said her coach, who has known her student since she was 10. “There is nothing she is unable to do.”
But sport is not just about physicality. “I’m willing to leave my heart on the mats,” Perišić said.
That should not be necessary. However, she almost left her right leg on them.
In 2019, she broke the front collateral ligaments in her right leg. “It was so painful,” she said. “I did not know if I could come back.”
Her coach had different ideas.
“I told her I wanted to come to the training hall every day and watch,” she said. “I knew that if I did not have her in team training every day, sitting with me and doing recovery movements, she would probably give up.”
They were hard days. Meanwhile, her enforced inactivity forced her position in the rankings way down to the 170s.
“We were nowhere!” her coach said. “But I told her we would make it.”
Victory in Taiyuan suggests recovery is complete. Now Perišić has “one leg in Paris” but plans to fight through the year-end in hopes of enough ranking points to take her to the Summer Games without going through the grueling qualification fights.
“We don’t want to settle for this [victory] we want more points,” Butala said. “We don’t want to go to the Olympics as tourists - we want to grab a medal.”
One thing Perišić will be taking with her on the path to Paris is a message tattooed on her right lower leg - a message that is her de facto motto. It recalls her toughest bout ever – the agonizing process of injury, rehabilitation, retraining and fighting back to the top.
It reads: “The pain you feel today is the strength you feel tomorrow.”