Michelle Silva knows how to defend herself.
She’s been doing it all her life.
Most of the 18-year-old’s defense comes on the mat, where she’s on the fast track to compete in the 2016 Olympics in tae kwon do. She’s already guaranteed a spot at the Olympic trials in 2015 after nabbing gold at the U.S. Teen Nationals in Chicago in July.
But dipping in and out of kicks isn’t the only type of evasion Silva has perfected.
The other type is much different.
It comes not far from her home near 97th Street and Houston Avenue on the South Side. It's is a world darkened by drugs and gang violence. A world Silva knows all too well.
“People ask if you want a hit of this [drug] or that,” she said. “People are always trying to fight you to see if you’re legit. You know, to test you.”
Silva’s first test came at age 11, though she’s never looked her age. Silva towered over her classmates as a youngster.
It was a fall afternoon nearly a decade ago. Silva thought she was just playing with friends, passing a soccer ball back and forth across upturned pavement in an alley behind her elementary school.
During the game, an older girl approached the group and trapped the worn ball beneath her shoe. She walked toward Silva.
“You need to be in a group,” the girl said, a hard edge to her tone. “You need people to have your back around here. What do you say? Wanna join our group, Silva?”
Silva immediately responded. But not with fear, not with anger.
“I just said, ‘No, I’m sorry. That’s not for me,’ then walked away,” Silva said.
She has always been different that way. She’s a teenager. But you wouldn’t know it. Not then, not now.
She talks about her education, her goals and how she’ll achieve them. It’s all she ever talks about.
Immediately after school would let out, she’d walk the three-odd blocks to Champyon Taekwondo. She’d do homework for a few hours then train for the rest of the evening.
“I’ve never met anyone like her,” said her instructor, master Luciano Medina. “She’s so focused, so mature.”
Silva credits her maturity to her mother, Lourdes, who signed her up for tae kwon do classes at 5 years old as a simple after-school activity. But it quickly turned into much more than a means to keep her out of trouble.
“I knew it was only a matter of time before she started competing at the national level,” Medina said.
By 11, Silva was fighting and winning at the junior level against 14- to 17-year-olds. Silva won gold at the U.S. Open in Texas that same year. The gold medals soon came in floods.
“She’s always been driven to be the best,” said Nedra Medina, who trains alongside Silva. “She’s always been the best.”
But tae kwon do has given Silva much more than a wall bursting with medals, plaques and ribbons.
It’s callused her mindset.
“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” Silva said. “Tae kwon do has taught me that I can overcome anything.”
At 15, Silva was on top of her game. She made the National Junior AAU team back-to-back years and earned a spot to compete in Singapore with the Youth Olympic team.
That’s when the pain started.
In the weeks leading up to the Youth Olympics, Silva’s left knee began to throb. There was a pulsing pain that knifed down her kneecap and wound its way to her lower shin.
“I kept telling myself, ‘I just need to ice it and I’ll be fine,’” she said. “I convinced myself I was fine.”
Silva collapsed during a fight in May 2010. Her ACL and meniscus were snapped like old rubber bands.
Surgery was now on the horizon, not the Youth Olympics. Her spot was handed to the No. 2 seed.
“I was down,” Silva said, “but knew I could come back.”
She did. It just took longer than expected. Much, much longer.
Silva had surgery on her left knee in August 2010. After three months of rehab, her right knee started to sting. Silva feared the worst.
An MRI showed her right ACL was torn. She scheduled her second surgery in less than three months.
“It tore me down. I cried right there in the doctor’s office,” Silva said. “I was thinking about going through that process again, feeling the pain when you wake up in the middle of the night and the pain meds have worn off.”
Once more, Silva was back to square one. She didn’t start sparring again until a full year later. When she did, the pain returned.
Silva needed a third surgery to repair her meniscus. The news brought her to a low she’d never felt before.
“I was crushed,” she said.
After a third dose of rehab, Silva struggled to reach her old form. She felt sluggish, like cinder blocks were strapped to her feet.
“I thought about quitting,” Silva said, “I just wanted to give up.”
Silva’s mother wouldn’t let that happen. She reminded her of the 5-year-old girl who fell in love with the sport because she could hit “stuff” and not get in trouble.
Day after day, Silva's mother whispered a simple message into her ear: “Your time will come. Be patient.”
Silva took her mother’s words to heart. Come July, Silva was healthy for nationals in Chicago.
A few valiant fights later, Silva was climbing atop the podium. She scanned the audience, gold medal around her neck. She spotted her mother. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
Her time had arrived.
“After all the letdowns, all the disappointment, it was unbelievable,” said Silva, who begins her freshman year at Saint Xavier University in August with plans to become a physical therapist. “All I was thinking was, ‘It’s about time.’ It’s been a long, long journey.”
Silva paused abruptly, chewing on her thoughts before continuing.
“But then again, my journey is just beginning.”