Russell Gresham towered over his Iranian opponent as he studied his adversary under bright gymnasium lights. Long arms that once corralled rebounds on basketball courts reacted instinctively, shifting to defend punches and leg strikes.
The range of his attacks reached wide, like the branches of South Carolina’s Angel Oak, landing jabs on his opponent’s red head guard.
His long legs kept his adversary in check, acting as a barrier from attacks.
The private first class takes advantage of his 7-foot frame, using his enormous reach to land cut kicks and reach opponents from farther distances. He connects an attack before his opponent can make contact with theirs.
In the first round of the Military World games in China last October, Gresham eventually overwhelmed his opponent, whose head sits level with Gresham’s shoulders.
In only his second year competing at the senior level, Gresham has already sparred and beaten some of the world’s best. The international Taekwondo stage is a far cry from South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where he imposed himself on high school courts with thunderous dunks and blocked shots.
In a sport that breeds its fighters from childhood, the South Carolina native stands out as an anomaly, reaching the martial art’s elite levels in only two years. He finished fifth in the heavyweight class at Wuhan, China, falling a mere point shy of winning a bronze in his first World Military Games. Now his meteoric rise has led him to a No.3 national ranking and closer to his ultimate dream, a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
He recently completed only his eleventh Taekwondo match – at any level. During that time he has decisively defeated U.S. No. 2 heavyweight Stephen Lambdin in September, winning the bronze medal at the 2019 presidents cup and a silver medal at the 2019 Canada open.
At the Grand Slam competition in Colorado Springs in January, Gresham defeated the USA No.1 heavyweight fighter and World No.13 Jonathan Healy in the semifinals, eventually earning a gold medal.
Gresham has gone from a red belt two years ago to an Olympic prospect, a rare feat, said his teammates.
“It’s definitely pretty unheard of,” said WCAP teammate Nik Poland. “I’m not really sure how he was able to shoot up so high. He met the right people. He got the right coaches. So I think that was definitely a big step. And I think just his mentality.”
For Gresham to have his shot at the Olympics, Healy, who remains the No.1 U.S. heavyweight fighter in the points-based ranking system, must reach the finals of the Pan Am Olympic Qualification tournament in Panama, in order for the U.S. to be eligible to host its own Olympic team trials. Gresham could then earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
FROM THE HARDWOOD TO THE SPARRING SQUARE
Eight years ago, a basketball scholarship landed Gresham in Olney, Illinois, a sleepy town of 9,000 in southern Illinois’ wooded prairie land. A sport he had played his entire life had burned him out. Playing for a small college didn’t have the same luster it did competing for the Ashley Ridge High varsity in his native South Carolina.
“(Basketball) wasn’t the same as high school,” said Gresham, 25, who played center on the hardwood. “It was a job at that point. I really didn’t enjoy it anymore.”
He didn’t get to play with his friends and family watching from the stands, and fellow students cheering each time he threw down a slam.
He and his fraternal twin brother, 7-1 Hunter, always had been the tall kids and gravitated toward hoops from a young age. That interest likely came mostly from strong adult encouragement, he said. Gresham didn’t always like the stigma, or the cliché that tall players inherently belong on the hardwood. But he began to enjoy the game and continued to play through middle school and into college.
But finally, while attending classes at Olney, he had enough.
So Gresham dropped out of school and left behind the Illinois plains and the small college and small town. He also mostly left the game of basketball with them.
He thought perhaps he had left competitive sports all together, as he settled into his job as a firefighter with Dorchester County near his hometown of Summerville, South Carolina.
Summerville, South Carolina, with its rich colonial history and towering pine trees lined along its roads stands out among the South Carolina’s unspoiled coastline. It earned its nickname “Flowertown in the Pines,” for its blooming azalea flowers, stunning landscapes and historic downtown architecture. A year ago Gresham went from riding fire trucks there to standing out on Taekondo’s international stage.
An adrenaline junkie, he joined the Summerville Fire and Rescue Department after college to challenge himself mentally and physically.
One day, while going for a stroll in his hometown, he found a Taekwondo Dojang. He asked about taking lessons and quickly became hooked.
“I just wanted to do something on the side,” Gresham said. “I didn’t want to get bored.”
As a 9 year old, Gresham had taken Kenpo Karate briefly but left the sport in less than two years.
In 2017, he formed a friendship with fellow Summerville native Spc. Niklas Poland who competes at the 68.1-74 kg weight class. Poland introduced Gresham to U.S. coaches, including WCAP head coach, Sgt. Maj. David Bartlett.
Bartlett, a 21-year Army veteran, stayed in the sport to mold athletes into championship contenders. Bartlett faced a different type of challenge in helping Gresham, an adult who had never competed in martial arts.
Bartlett saw great potential in Gresham and the advantages his 7-foot frame could lend him.
Few could have predicted how quickly Gresham has rose in the sport. Many of his teammates spent years grinding their way to the top of the sport since childhood. “I just feel like I’m progressing really well,” Gresham said. “Especially with my lack of experience. But really good coaching is helping me.”
How could a relative newcomer in the sport rise to Olympic prospect in such a short amount of time?
Bartlett says it lies in his discipline and work ethic.
"Most people are just overwhelmed by his pure size," the sergeant major said. "What they don’t see is his dedication to being the best Soldier-athlete he can be. From eating and sleeping to training, everything he does is to make himself as mission ready as he can be once he steps on the mat."
Gresham eats clean, focusing on lean protein and a healthy, high calorie diet. He goes to bed at 9 p.m. and wakes at 5:30 a.m. so he can attack morning workouts and weightlifting sessions vigorously.
It also helped that Gresham had an outgoing personality that endeared him quickly to his teammates. Taekwondo Soldiers in the Army’s World Class Athlete Program quickly rallied behind the 7-footer from the Palmetto State when he began training at the senior level, giving him pointers and tips.
In basketball, teams rely on constant movement and teams must work together as one to create an open look at the basket. While Taekwondo fighters compete individually, much of the teamwork seen on the basketball court continues in the martial art, but in a different capacity.
Teammates on WCAP’s Taekwondo squad act as coaches and mentors themselves, coaching their fellow USA fighters about what they saw in their last match.
Gresham, 25, also has the benefit of great coaching from Bartlett and from former U.S Nationals gold medal winner Terrence Jennings.
In addition to Gresham’s advantage of size, he has terrific flexibility for someone who stands so tall.
Shorter opponents who cannot match Gresham’s flexibility must settle for lower point shots to the body, as Taekwondo officials award two points for shots to the head and one for body blows. Opponents must also expend more energy attempting to land kicks on Gresham’s head.
Gresham stands out among the crowded field of Taekwondo competitors, not only for his immense size, but in his dedication to a sport that requires rigorous discipline.
GIANT AMONG THE TAEKWONDO'S GIANTS
At the Military World Games, Gresham sat huddled in a dark corner of a Chinese athletic center, guarded outside by armed police. In his traditional white dobok uniform on a rainy October morning, he stretched his long legs on a floor mat as a Chinese announcer in mandarin spotlighted the nearby action in the competition space outside the back room.
Competitors practiced their front kicks and back kicks, thrusting their bandaged limbs into thick pads. One fighter shouted encouragement to a teammate in Italian.
Gresham’s eyes locked onto his coach, Sgt. Maj. David Bartlett, listening intently to Bartlett as he reviewed Gresham’s final match of the morning, a 20-4 loss to the world heavyweight No.1 Vladislav Larin. The match vs. China’s Jian Tian, Gresham fell behind early before Gresham rallied to an extra round. Gresham lost the contest 11-10.