Houston's Danielle Wassell is moving into the national taekwondo scene at an opportune time.
The U.S. junior national prep team member and two-time national champion is taking advantage of this week's athlete development camp to prepare for the new cadet (ages 12-14) competition at nationals July 3-8 in Chicago.
That new division opens up international opportunities for the 81-pounder with the inaugural cadet world championships in 2014.
"Getting international experience would be great," Wassell said. "You get to see the different styles and mentalities each country brings to competition. The camp prepares you for nationals because you just focus on taekwondo all day long. You really work on developing the right mindset and techniques."
John McAfee, USA Taekwondo's events and high-performance manager, said more international competitions for younger athletes should help the sport retain them. Some drop out to focus on other sports, especially ones with college scholarships available, while others quit in college.
Occasionally, an unknown emerges but many of the athletes are already on the Colorado Springs-based national organization's radar. The small camp size allows the national team coaches to work closely with all of them and learn their personalities and work ethic, McAfee said.
Wassell is no unknown after taking home seven medals in major competitions over the past four years. But the annual six-day camp, which drew 48 athletes from around the country to the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, is a great help, the 13-year-old added.
"It has really upped my confidence and helped a lot with learning new techniques," she said.
That kind of attention is critical for a young athlete's development, said senior national team member Olie Burton, 20, who competes at 127 pounds.
"It's huge," he said. 'You get to work directly with the USA staff and you get to know what their expectations are at a young age. It gives you a real sense of what you need to do to advance."
Wassell plans to stick with taekwondo for her lifetime. Competitive careers usually end sometime in the 30s. After that, she plans to study sports medicine and come back to the OTC as a certified athletic trainer for taekwondo.
"I just love this sport and am thankful my parents have done all they can to help me," she said. "They travel with me everywhere. I cannot imagine not being around this sport."