At age 4, Carolena Carstens showed she might be a prodigy in the making.
She joined a kickboxing club in her hometown of Glen Ellyn; her parents thought it would be good for her physical development. But Carolena not only liked it -- she was good at it. That first foray into martial arts morphed into participation in the traditional Korean sport of taekwondo, and Carolena began training at clubs throughout the area.
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By 14, she was competing in international events.
Now, at 16, Carolena will compete in her sport on the biggest platform in the world: the Olympics.
She will represent Panama in the London 2012 Summer Games in July, the youngest of 128 athletes aiming for the gold medal in taekwondo. She's currently ranked 14th in the world and fourth in the Pan-American region, which includes the Caribbean and North, Central and South America.
Taekwondo, Carolena says, "just became a passion, and I really fell in love with it. I had been doing it for such long time, I wanted to step it up and go to the next level."
Carolena is eligible for the Panamanian Olympic team by virtue of her dual citizenship, which she obtained three years ago.
Her mother, Elsa, was born and raised in Panama, and the Carstens family has made many trips there to visit other family.
Carolena is one of only six athletes representing Panama and has become a bit of a local hero.
After it was announced in April that she had won a spot on the team, she arrived in Panama to a barrage of cameras and microphones. Soon enough, her image was on the front of the country's major newspapers and on TV.
"I didn't expect it," she said. "It was a really good experience. I'm thankful to have these opportunities I have at such a young age."
Laureano Barría, a reporter at the Día a Día newspaper in Panama, said that although Carolena was unknown before the Olympic announcement, she's been getting significant attention of late.
"With all the publicity surrounding her trip to London, she is becoming more well-known," Barría said.
How Carolena punched her ticket to the Olympics in the first place makes her story that much more special.
In November, she competed in the Pan American Olympic qualifier in Mexico and faced a fighter from Argentina in the bronze medal match. The winner would get an automatic berth to the Olympics.
In taekwondo, points are awarded two ways: by a kick that makes contact with electronic chest gear and by a panel of judges who evaluate kicks to the head.
Carolena was down in the match 5-1, but she evened it to 7-7 with 15 seconds left.
"My wife stands up and starts cheering my daughter's name," said Carolena's dad, Richard. "(Other) people started cheering too. It reminded me of Rocky in Russia. It was magical in that sense. It was a very miraculous, special moment, and she just came roaring back." Now in sudden death overtime -- with the first kick winning -- both girls kicked at the same time, but the Argentine was awarded the point.
"I was pretty devastated," Carolena said.
But then she learned she still had a chance, through the International Olympic Committee's wild card system, which allows nations without large teams to expand their delegations.
But Carolena also had the stats to back it up.
She was ranked 12th in the world at the time, making her "extremely deserving," said her coach, Eric Laurin.
After receiving the news in April that she had made it, the serious training began. Laurin arranged practice sessions with some of the best in taekwondo in the world.
She's already trained in Vancouver, British Columbia, with Ivett Gonda, whom Carolena competed against in the 2011 Pan American Games. Gonda eventually won the gold medal.
Gonda didn't qualify for this year's Olympics, and the sport of taekwondo is such, according to Laurin, that you can be competing against someone one day and train with her the next.
In June, Carolena will travel to South Korea to practice with one of the country's national teams, and she'll stop in Manchester a week early to train with Great Britain's team.
In the meantime, she's spending time at her base training camp in Jacksonville, Fla., with Laurin.
And while physical practice with taekwondo pros around the world is important, the off-the-mat training that Laurin employs may be just as valuable.
He and Carolena often play checkers to develop strategic skills she can take back to competitions.
"Every action has a consequence, as in life," he said. "I guess this is a life journey in the ring."
Laurin likes his pupil's chances in the Olympics. She has beaten the third- and sixth-ranked taekwondo athletes in the world. Plus, it's a sport where "one kick changes everything," he said.
The Olympic opening ceremonies are July 27, but Carolena will have to wait until Aug. 8 to compete.
That's the lone day of taekwondo competition, consisting of a total of four six-minute matches. If you win the first, you advance to the next round.
"At the end of the day, 24 minutes stand between her and an Olympic gold medal," Laurin said.
Though Carolena is representing another country, the opportunity is still special for her and her family, said her father, a 20-year U.S. military veteran.
"An Olympian is an Olympian," Richard Carstens said.
"It's a dream coming true that this little girl living in a small community in Glen Ellyn is going to go out there and be competing against the best in the world."
• Daily Herald staff writer Annalisa Rodriguez contributed to this report.