Taekwondo world champion Daba Modibo Keita eyes an Olympics gold.
When Daba Modibo Keita won the taekwondo world championship in 2007, he became an overnight sensation. The first person in Mali to ever win a world championship in any sport, Keita has become a household name in his native country. Now, Keita can’t walk the streets without getting mobbed. Children reared on soccer now want to learn the ancient Korean sport. And women from his African homeland swoon in his presence.
“I come from a poor country, so for me to be world champion it’s a big deal,” he said. “People come up to me and say that they are proud of me. It’s a lot of responsibility. People are watching me. I’m a role model now.”
In fact, it has been such a transformation for Keita that he felt compelled to move to Virginia to train for this summer’s Olympics. Now this unassuming international champion spends his days in an unassuming taekwondo studio in a strip mall in Alexandria. “I like Virginia because it’s quiet,” he said.
Keita trains under Master Patrice Remarck at Remarck Sport Taekwondo. One of the country’s top trainers, Patrice is an Olympian and world champion with more than 30 years of competition and teaching experience in taekwondo.
It has been a major adjustment living in Virginia for Keita, who recalls life as a child in Mali. “When I was 14, I would play soccer in the street,” he said. “We used to play in the street. We used to be dirty. Our house in Africa is different than here.”
He first tried taekwondo when he was 14. “When I started I didn’t like it,” he said. “I wasn’t that good and I didn’t want to go to practice. Then I was doing it so much that I started loving it.”
At 16, Keita had a growth spurt, which made him a formidable taekwondo competitor. “Being tall is an advantage,” said Keita, who is now 6-feet-8-inches tall. “I have a reach advantage over my opponents.”
Keita has developed a nonprofit association to help prospective athletes from Mali. “For me, it’s like a duty now. I have to give back to my country. I have to do it,” he said. “In my country [there are] many people who have talent. But they don’t have the money to train. I want my country to have people to come along and do better than me. Not just in taekwondo, but other sports.”
While he is not the Olympic favorite in the heavyweight division, Keita has beaten the favorite, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist Cha Dong-Min of Korea. “Everybody is going to be good, and everybody wants to win,” Keita said. “Whoever you fight is going to be just as good as you. Anything can happen.”
In preparing for the Olympics, Keita trains three times a day, seven days a week. Now 31, he knows that his years in the sport are limited. While he said that he doesn’t have the speed he once did, he believes that his experience more than makes up for it.
“If you fight someone who is 21, you know that [he is] going to be more athletic than you because he is young,” he said. “But if you have to fight someone 31 or older, that guy is not going to be more athletic, but he is going to have experience. So you’re going to have to deal with something. It’s really good to be young, but the most important thing is experience. Because when you have experience, you know how to fight, and you know what to do and how to do it.”
He leaves Alexandria for London in July, but said that he wants to stay in America after the Olympics, maybe in the Washington, D.C., area. He has a girlfriend back home, and would like her to move to the United States. And he said he hopes to bring his parents here one day.
“They are proud of me,” Keita said. “Whatever I’m doing, I’m doing it for my family. They are here for me. When you win, everybody loves you. When you lose, all you have is family. Family is the most important thing in life.”