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First Step to the Olympics

Junior theatre major Clara Fightmaster is legally blind and a taekwondo champion. 

fightmaster Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko

By Jayna Morris
Assistant Editor, NKU Magazine

When Clara Fightmaster was a teenager, she approached a milestone all 16 year olds spend a lifetime waiting for: getting a driver’s license.

But when she took the vision screening, she couldn’t see anything in her peripherals. After a frantic visit to her optometrist, Clara was faced with a life-altering diagnosis: retinitis pigmentosa. The disease progressively causes retinal degeneration and leaves most people without vision by their 40th birthday. There is no cure.

Clara, now a 23-year-old theatre major and electronic media broadcasting minor at Northern Kentucky University, is legally blind. She has no sight in her left eye and only a small pinhole of sight in her right.

“It’s been interesting having to not only learn to adapt myself, but for other people around me,” Clara says. “A lot of people have a hard time understanding it because they don’t know how a blind person can function so well.”

But the best of Clara’s experiences at NKU lie in the taekwondo club, she says.

Clara’s husband, Josh Fightmaster, is a first-degree black belt. He’s been involved in taekwondo since the pair started dating at Simon Kenton High School. It wasn’t until after Clara’s vision began to deteriorate that Josh helped spark her interest in taekwondo. The two married in June 2015, and suddenly Clara had both a live-in taekwondo partner and the coolest martial arts name on the planet.

Clara also found a home at Legacy Taekwondo of northern Kentucky, where she trains and has a close relationship with her master.

In the nearly two years as a competitor, Clara has taken home five medals—one gold from the Arnold Classic (Taekwondo Ohio State Championship), two gold in Indiana for Paralympics and able body, and two gold from the U.S. Taekwondo National Championship. She competes in both Paralympic and regular able-bodied competitions.

This is the first step to the Olympics is engraved on the back of each of Clara’s medals.

Clara hasn’t been able to compete since last May when she hyperextended her left leg during pracice and tore her ACL. She’s spent nearly a year rehabbing her leg and learning to walk again, but that won’t stop Clara from competing in the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru. That opportunity could lead to participation in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan—her dream competition and dream competition city.

She’s also been invited to compete internationally in Fiji and Poland but turned those opportunities down to finish her degree.

Clara is taking it easy, but she’s already counting down the days to when she’ll be released to train and compete again. She and Josh have a practice studio in their Independence, Kentucky, home. On one wall, Clara displays her medals and belts as a reminder of her progress.

“I just want to be that person who does the best, but one of the biggest lessons my master has taught me is to focus on myself,” Clara says. “He says, ‘Don’t care about anyone else but you and those judges.’ It’s one of the foundations of taekwondo.”

But taekwondo isn’t the only thing that Clara’s involved in on campus.

She’s a member of NKU’s Phi Sigma Sigma chapter, and she’s active in the Theatre Department. Clara has even directed a few shows on campus. This semester, one of the plays Clara wrote for a playwriting class will be presented by the Department of Theatre and Dance during Earth Week.

Her interests change often, but she ultimately hopes to open a martial arts school for disabled children.

When it comes to the future, the possibilities are endless, Clara says.