Taekwondo Athlete Spotlight
Jingyu Wu - a shot at Olympic history delayed
When you are trying to earn a third Olympic gold at an age when most taewondo athletes have retired - as China's Jingyu Wu is - then hearing that the Games have been postponed for a year comes as a particularly heavy blow.
At 34, Wu, who won the under-49 kilograms flyweight title at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics, is seeking to achieve a taekwondo first in company with Britain's Jade Jones, who won the lightweight under-57kg at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Games.
"When I heard the news of the postponement of the Olympic Games, I wanted to return to my home country immediately, because I was training with the national team in Japan at that time," Wu told World Taekwondo.
"I wanted to see my family, especially my daughter Gloria."
Wu, who had her daughter in 2018, returned to China in April 2020 when the country was starting to get to grips with the virus. "Everything was very orderly," she said. After a short break, she got back to the hard grind of training for 2021.
"During the pandemic, we used the WeChat App to train and communicate with our teammates," Wu said.
"A good training plan can effectively regulate physical skills, which my coach Guan Jianmin has done very well. To be honest, it is not easy to maintain a high level because of my age, but I try."
Team training restarted. "We had to train outside Beijing city," said Wu, who lives there. The training sessions were closed.
Wu's last Olympic effort in Rio ended at the quarter-final stage, where she was beaten 4-3 by Serbia's Tijana Bogdanovic, who went on to lose 7-6 to South Korea's Kim So-hui in the final.
The following year Jingyu, who also has two golds, a silver and a bronze medal from the World Championships, as well as two golds from the Asian Games and one from the Asian Championships, stepped back from the sport.
Yet a few weeks after giving birth, Wu was lacing up her running shoes once again and starting on the long road back to elite competition.
After a two-year break she returned to competition as if she had never been away, adding further medals to her collection as she gathered momentum to make her fourth Olympic appearance.
"Returning was difficult for me, as my body is not the same and I have to leave my baby at home," she told World Taekwondo after taking silver at the 2019 World Championships in Manchester. "But I want to break traditions and challenge my dream.
"I was determined to prove society wrong and come back strong. Women can have children and still do what they love and I want not only athletes, but women in society, to know that too."
Wu had reached the world final -where she lost 21-6 to Thailand's Rio 2016 bronze medallist Panipak Wongphattanakit - the hard way, having come through qualification.
She was overjoyed with her experience - and had the additional surprise of being awarded her medal by the President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach.
"It was an honour to be awarded my medal by President Thomas Bach," she told World Taekwondo in Manchester. "Before I competed at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, he told me he would give me my medal.
"Unfortunately, I did not win at the Olympics and I was so disappointed. But it was a complete surprise to be awarded the medal by him [in Manchester]."
Leading up to the World Championships she had won the Fujairah Open, the WT President's Cup Asian section, the German Open and the Grand Slam qualification in Wuxi.
After her Manchester performance, she was soon back on the podium in the WT Grand Prix Series. After missing out in Rome she took silver in Chiba and then returned to the top of the podium in Sofia.
She followed up by taking two more prestigious silver medals at the Grand Prix final in Moscow and at the main Grand Slam event in Wuxi.
"My family have supported me the whole way," she said. "I can't wait to get back to the Olympics and show women around the world that we are strong and can have a successful career and be a mother at the same time."
This remarkable competitor is now hopeful about the year ahead.
"Now, we are in 2021," she said. "I hope the Tokyo Olympics can be successfully held, and I also hope that I and my team-mates can achieve excellent results.
"The Tokyo Olympics is destined to be an extraordinary Olympic Games.
"Its successful hosting will surely bring more positive energy and hope to people all over the world."
Mirhashem Hosseini: Courageous competitor spearheading Iran’s push for Olympic renewal
At 22, Mirhashem Hosseini has a world silver, an Asian Games gold and an excellent chance of helping to rectify Iran’s Olympic reputation in taekwondo at this summer’s scheduled Tokyo 2020 Games.
While Hosseini has earned numerous prestigious medals, it was the nature of victory in the 2019 Chiba Grand Prix that highlighted the courage and competitiveness that gives his country such high hopes.
In the third round of the men’s under-68 kilograms final against Britain’s Christian McNeish the Iranian fighter was hit in the neck by an accidental stray punch from his opponent.
"For some seconds, I could not breathe," Mirashem Hosseini told World Taekwondo as he recalled the moment when he found himself lying on the mats looking up at the ceiling of the venue. "Everywhere was dark."
It was the second punch he had suffered in an intense, high-scoring bout. "It was a very hard punch," he said. "I felt a lot of pain."
Once again he struggled to his feet and resumed battle.
A minute remained on the clock and he had the narrowest of winning margins at 20-19. Rather than seeking to play it safe and run down the clock, Hosseini fired into whirlwind combat.
The board went to 25-20, then 27-20, then 31-20 as the Iranian fired multiple head kicks and McNeish hit the deck. The Iranian eventually took the title 36-20…
Born in the taekwondo-mad city of Mianeh, Hosseini announced his arrival in the premier ranks of the sport by winning the Asian Championships under-58kg flyweight title in 2016. He did so four months before Iran's taekwondo team failed to win a single medal at the Rio Olympics.
The following year the 6ft 3in athlete took another big step up as he moved to the under-63kg bantamweight class.
After defeating Britain's current world under-68kg champion Bradly Sinden - his contemporary - 33-32 in an epic World Taekwondo President's Cup Europe final, Hosseini went all the way to the world final, taking silver after an 11-5 defeat by China's Rio 2016 champion Zhao Shuai.
Two months later Hosseini added another gold to his collection as he won the under-63kg title at the 2017 Summer Universiade in Chinese Taipei, beating Argentina's Lucas Guzman in the final.
The following year he earned golden revenge for his world final defeat as he beat Zhao 17-11 to take the Asian Games under-63kg title in Jakarta.
The year of 2018 also saw Hosseini establish himself at his current fighting weight - the under-68kg featherweight class. At the Manchester Grand Prix he was narrowly beaten in the final, 11-7, by South Korea's Olympic bronze medallist and world champion Lee Dae-Hoon.
In 2019, Hosseini continued his momentum with Grand Prix wins in Rome and Chiba. He also earned a second Universiade gold at Naples in the under-68kg category, as well as helping Iran earn team gold.
The latter success in particular augurs well for Iran's next Olympic showing.
Recalling the 2016 Olympics experience, Hosseini's coach Fariborz Askari told World Taekwondo after his win in Chiba last September: "Rio was a very big surprise for us, for three years Iranian taekwondo was in shock.
"Now, we are slowly growing up and waking up. We should use those bad dreams from Rio and change them."
Victory in Rome had been another significant marker for the young Iranian, given that his opponent in the final was Lee.
His South Korean rival recouped his reputation in the last big event of 2019, however, by beating Hosseini in the semi-finals of the Grand Prix final in Moscow, a Tokyo 2020 qualifier, and going on to take gold with a defeat of Sinden.
Hosseini's favourite technique is the arcing head kick, fired from up close.
"In camp, we train the clinch a lot," Hosseini said. "I try to find an opening – up or down, left or right. I have a lot of techniques in the clinch: I can kick both ways.
"But for me, the first thing is the mind. In the camp, I am always thinking about the next competition, the next strategy, the next opponent – always thinking about attacking and defending."
Hosseini took up the sport when he was nine.
He told World Taekwondo: "I saw a Jackie Chan movie and was so interested in doing martial arts. Near my home was a taekwondo club so I went there and started.
"My city is a very small town, but the only medal we don't have is an Olympic medal.
"They have every other medal: juniors, cadets, worlds, Grand Prix – everything! The dream is to get Olympic gold for the city."
Dae-hoon Lee is taekwondo's baby-faced assassin
Dae-hoon Lee's peers in world taekwondo recognise him as a special talent.
Iran's master fighter Mahdi Khodabahshki has described South Korea's featherweight phenomenon as "a legend in taekwondo".
France's Haby Niara, the Rio 2016 silver medallist in the women's under-67kg class, says: "He is the best fighter I have ever seen. When he does taekwondo he is playing - it is a game for him."
At 29, Lee has the medals to back up his gifts - three world golds, three Asian Games golds, 11 Grand Prix golds. Only one golden target remains...
At the London 2012 Olympics, Lee won silver as he was beaten 17-8 by Spain's Joel Gonzalez. Four years later at the Rio Games he earned another medal - this time bronze as Jordan's Ahmad Abughaush became a surprise winner.
There is only one other Olympic medal left to win. Lee is thus focusing his energies as never before on the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games.
"I am preparing for this as if it is my last Olympics," the 28-year-old told World Takewondo. "Even if I fight in Paris 2024, I don't think I can get gold."
Lee's honesty extends to admitting that, despite the gifts that have made him one of the most respected male players in the game, he still has nerves.
"I am afraid that I will not be able to fight my best at the Olympics - it's the Olympic jinx," he said.
"This year, athletes could have changed their techniques and improved their skills. I have not seen them for a year as they have not been fighting, so I am kind of nervous."
Lee started taekwondo at his father's dojang as a toddler. "When I was five, I started learning taekwondo," he said. "Through growing up, with taekwondo, I love taekwondo."
World Taekwondo TV commentator John Cullen has watched Lee's progress for many years.
"When he was studying at Yongin University, he was playing at under-58 kilograms and he would do four training sessions a day, then he would go running at night to lose weight,” Cullen said.
"He ran so much, that he has this amazing heart and lung capacity."
Today, though he is still as lean, Lee is powerful with it. And in the new game - pushing has been allowed since 2017 - upper body strength is a bonus. "He is physically strong," said Cullen. "Nobody outwrestles him in the clinch."
The reason Lee is such a high scorer, according to Cullen, is his no-fear approach to distance management. "The reason he is so accurate is that he stands at danger-distance," the commentator said.
"He’s a killer. He looks so quiet and kind - but he is a baby-faced assassin."
During the pandemic Lee has been fortunate to live and train in Korea - which has been managing to contain COVID-19 without imposing lockdowns, meaning he has been able to work out with his home team in the city of Daejeon.
"I have been training with seven people, I never trained alone - we live together and my coach also lives in Daejeon," he said.
There were fears that once Lee had married and had a child - his son, Ye-chan, is 24 months old - his form would deteriorate. That did not happen.
"I also thought that athletes who are parents go down," he said. "I want to prove that this is not true."
Lee is known for his fitness and ability to battle tirelessly for three rounds, as well as a golden round when necessary.
But 2020's enforced break from the competitive schedule has offered him the opportunity to upgrade his bodywork.
During this time he has been concentrating particularly on upper body strength, a key component of clinch combat.
"If you do weight training, your physique gets really good, but it soon goes down again," he said. "So I made it a rule to do this every day to be consistent."
Challenging the self is a key factor in Lee's personal training. "I am increasing my number of pushups every day, for example," he said.
"I need motivation. I am harsh on myself. I will double my physical training just before the Olympics.
"From the start of 2021, I will double my training and expert coaches will come in to work with me."
Many players have been using 2020 as an opportunity to rehabilitate chronic injuries. Not Lee.
"Usually if you get injured, you have to stop training but, for 11 years, I have not had any injuries," he said. "Very physical players can get injured as they are putting a lot of power into their techniques, but athletes like me do not put in so much power - we concentrate on flexibility."
For most athletes, simply winning the ultimate prize in sport would be enough. But Lee does not just want a gold medal - he wants great fights. "I want to fulfil everything - both fighting style and outcome," he said.
"I want to meet everyone who is preparing for the Olympics. I hope they are healthy wherever they are, and I want to meet them all in Tokyo."
Bae Jun-seo: World champion at 18, Paris 2024 the long-term goal
South Korea's teenage prodigy Bae Jun-seo, whose gold-plated career saw him win the world title at Manchester in 2019 as an 18-year-old, has already fixed his eyes upon the highest peak of the Olympic Games.
A career that began with a world junior title in 2016 reached its highest point so far when he beat Russia’s Georgy Popov 53-24 in the final of the men’s under-54 kilograms finweight class.
Despite this success, Bae will not be able to compete at the re-scheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics if they go ahead this summer as the under-54kg is not one of the eight Olympic weight divisions.
By the end of the 2019 season, however, before the coronavirus lockdown froze the action in 2020, Bae had already had his first outing in the under-58kg, or flyweight category that is currently the lightest on the Games programme.
It could not have gone better, as he won the title at the Grand Slam in Wuxi, defeating fellow countryman Lee Min-Yeong 2-1 in the final.
"I will make it to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games in five years, I will make sure of it," he told World Taekwondo.
"I will train with the seniors and control all physical and mental aspects of the training.”
His win contributed one of four gold medals to the South Korean cause out of the eight contested divisions.
Expectations for Bae are high - which is hardly surprising given his extraordinary record of victories since he began in the sport.
At the 2016 World Junior Championships, where he competed in the under-45kg category, Popov was among those Bae defeated in the five rounds required to reach the final, where he beat Chinese Taipei's Chang Cheng-Chun 5-0.
The following year he won the Asian Games youth title before moving up to the senior ranks in the under-54kg class.
The weight and company may have changed, but the victories continued as he won the Korean Open and the WT President’s Cup - Asian.
The World Championships began Bae's 2019 season in spectacular fashion, and he followed up with wins at the Korea Open and then in Wuxi.
Speaking to World Taekwondo after his Manchester win, Bae said: "I didn’t even realise I had won the gold medal; it all went so quickly.
"Only when people asked me for photographs and my autograph afterwards I realised it.
"I am really happy I won the World Championships. I have been training since middle school and I am now at University. I train three times a day for almost five hours."
When preparing for the tournament, Bae only had one motivation.
"I wanted to take the gold medal home to my parents and my coaches. They have supported me since I started practicing the sport and it was all for them.
"Physical training is very important, so I have been practising more and more. This is how I got the medal and my dream has now come true."
He added: "For the last two months, I have been training my mind every night before I go to sleep. I also think that is what helped me win this time around."
Bae is now wary of what his future opponents will try and do to defeat him.
"It is great that I won by so many points, but now my next opponents will have seen my techniques.
"I am worried about this for future matches, so I will have to slightly change my fighting style so I can beat them again."
Saleh Elsharabaty: Leading Jordan's new generation
The achievement of Ahmad Abughaush in winning Jordan’s first Olympic taekwondo medal - a golden one - at the Rio 2016 Games created a wave of enthusiasm for the sport in his native country.
Among the principal figures surfing on that wave right now is 22-year-old Saleh Elsharabaty, who is coached by the man who guided Abughaush to his landmark victory, Faris Al-Assaf.
"Now in Jordan taekwondo is the number one sport, more than football," Al-Assaf told World Taekwondo magazine.
"All the children in Jordan play it in school, and in clubs after school."
Jordan had been aiming to make a big mark at the 2022 Youth Olympics in Senegal, but that event has been postponed to 2026 amidst the disruptions of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, however, Amman has become the epicentre of home athletes' dreams after being chosen by World Taekwondo as the venue for the Asian Olympic qualification tournament after it had been moved from its original setting of Wuxi in China.
While the date for this event has yet to be set, it will loom large in the minds of Jordanian athletes, including Elsharabaty.
He will be hoping to maintain the momentum he achieved in the men’s under-80 kilograms category last year, before competition began to be held up, as he achieved his first Grand Prix title victory in Sofia.
The landmark win was concluded with a scoring kick in the final seconds which saw him defeat Egypt’s Seif Eissa 12-10.
Elsharabaty started in the sport aged seven, although he left it in his teenaged years before making a return in 2016.
"I used to be a bad boy, and my mother wanted me to be a good boy, so she sent me to a taekwondo centre," he told World Taekwondo.
"Now, I am not a bad boy!"
Al-Assaf recalled: "At the start, he did not listen to me, he was lazy! But not now! Now he has started to get good, and he is getting the medals."
Medals of increasing importance began arriving in 2018, when he took silver at the Asian Championships in Ho Chi Minh City and then reached the Moscow Grand Prix final, where he lost 29-11 to one of his weight’s big names, home fighter Maksim Khramtcov.
He followed that up by taking bronze at the Asian Games in Jakarta, losing 4-2 in his semi-final against Uzbekistan’s Nikita Rafalovich.
Shuyin Zheng: China's Olympic champion who shed tears in Manchester
The image of Shuyin Zheng collapsed in tears on the podium at the 2019 World Championships in Manchester remains one of the most enduring and controversial in the sport.
Despite being 20-10 up against home fighter and defending champion Bianca Walkden in the women's heavyweight final, China's Rio 2016 champion was disqualified for incurring ten fouls after her opponent had repeatedly pushed her off the mat.
The tactic employed by Walkden, who thus earned her third consecutive world title, was considered unsportsmanlike but was nevertheless within the rules, and the British athlete was quite satisfied with the outcome, declaring: "I wouldn't have it any other way."
Walkden's change of tactic had occurred after Zheng, who had already accrued seven penalty points, had become inactive after taking a ten-point lead. When the result was announced there was booing in the arena, and Zheng's coach gave the officials a thumbs-down sign.
But after the Chinese athlete had dropped to her knees on the podium, Britain's performance director Gary Hall took issue with her "disrespectful manner".
Walkden defended her tactics, saying: "I went out there needing to find a different way to win and a win is a win if you disqualify someone - it's not my fault."
Zheng, meanwhile, told Chinese media: "From the first day I picked up this sport, I understood that there was no such thing as absolute fairness in competition. I have been doing this sport for 16 years but this is the first time I have realised that a taekwondo match could be played like this.
"I wish the referee could have been fair in this competition."
A Chinese appeal, and demand that the Moroccan referee, Tarik Benradi, be banned for life, were unsuccessful.
Zheng, however, recovered from her trauma to beat Walkden in the final of the next two Grand Prix events in Chiba and Sofia -12-10 and 3-2 - before winning the Grand Prix Final in Moscow 7-4 against Serbia's Milica Mandic.
Her final action of the year, however, saw her beaten 2-0 by Walkden in the semi-final of the Wuxi Grand Slam event.
Zheng's career was starred from the off as she won world and Olympic gold at youth level in 2010. Two years later she won her first senior event at over-73 kilograms, the German Open, and in 2014 her first Grand Prix gold arrived in Suzhou.
In 2015 she won world silver in Chelyabinsk, losing 5-4 to South Korea's Oh Hye-Ri in the under-73kg category before beating Walkden, newly established as the over-73kg world champion, in the Manchester Open final.
The following year the two met in the Olympic semi-final of the heavyweight category, with Zheng going through 4-1 on superiority before she beat Mexico's Maria Espinoza 5-1 in the final.
At the following year's World Championships Zheng took bronze in the over-73kg class, and in 2018 she won the Grand Prix final at Fujairah.
Earlier in the 2018 season she beat Walkden 6-4 in the Manchester Grand Prix final - but the following year the same venue would provide her with her least pleasant memory in the sport…
Shuai Zhao – the "Great Wall of China" eyes another Olympic gold
China's Shuai Zhao, the Rio 2016 champion in the flyweight under-58 kilograms class, is looking a strong bet to follow up with another Olympic victory if the Tokyo Games are able to go ahead in 2021.
Zhao has a monumental CV, with world titles in 2017 and 2019 also accumulated in the under-63kg bantamweight class.
His efforts in the under-68kg class in his most recent competitions have maintained his reputation – even though this category contains several huge talents.
Two of these – Britain's Bradly Sinden and Dae-Hoon Lee of South Korea – got the better of Zhao in his last two major events before taekwondo was obliged to halt operations because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the 6ft 2in 24-year-old from Liaoning Province put together a superbly consistent series of results in 2019 that argues for his future Olympic chances.
After overwhelming Iran's Soroush Ahmadi 27-7 in Manchester to retain his world under-63kg title, Zhao switched back to under-68kg activity, reaching the final of the Rome Grand Prix where he lost 17-7 to Ahmadi's compatriot Mirhashem Hosseini.
Despite being beaten 2-1 in the last-16 at the Chiba Grand Prix, Zhao recovered his momentum in October when he advanced to the Sofia Grand Prix final to meet Lee.
This final presented a compelling contrast in styles. Three-times world champion Lee, an under-58kg silver medallist at the London 2012 Olympics and an under-68kg bronze medallist at the Rio 2016 Games, offered his usual dynamic attacking moves while the leggy Zhao employed all his defensive guile.
For Lee, the evening ended in frustration as he was beaten 17-7.
John Cullen, World Taekwondo's director, said of Zhao: "He kept Lee at the end of his long legs, he frustrated him and he has a great defensive style – the Great Wall of China!"
In the aftermath of his win in Sofia, Zhao told World Taekwondo: "My coach has a lot of experience, especially with Lee. We learned a lot from him and we know his strong points, Lee is a great fighter, so defence was more important than attack.
"When I defended, it was a good position to counter. Also, a good defence can make an opponent lose his confidence and lose his spirit."
Assessing himself as a player, Zhao cited his physical advantages – "I am tall" – and the resultant tactical advantage – "I am good at distance control, so I know where the opponent is and where to attack".
His favourite move is the high-scoring and crowd-pleasing spinning back kick – an ideal weapon for a defensive fighter.
But he does not always fight at long range. "For some opponents it is good to stay away, for some, it is better to stay in close," he said.
Zhao's confidence was high as he moved on to the Grand Prix final in Moscow, although he had to give best to Sinden, Britain's under-68kg world champion, in the semi-final, losing 15-11.
At the season-concluding World Taekwondo Grand Slam Champions Series, held for the third time in the Chinese city of Wuxi, Zhao revelled in home advantage to reach another final, although on this occasion he lost to South Korean rival Lee, who managed to earn the title with a 3-0 scoreline.
Amid all the current uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Zhao has a fixed point in the form of his girlfriend Shuyin Zheng, the winner of the Rio 2016 heavyweight gold .
Like Zheng's great rival – Britain's world champion Bianca Walkden, who works out with, and roars in-match tactical advice to her boyfriend, Moldova's Aaron Cook – Zhang's relationship with Zhao extends beyond the romantic to the professional.
"During training we always stick together," he told World Taekwondo. "During matches, she makes me more confident. She inspires me a lot."
What odds against another golden double in Tokyo?
Sim Jae-Young, the South Korean champion who keeps on kicking
Sim Jae-Young is going to have to wait at least another year to compete in her first Olympics. The 24-year-old double world champion in the 46 kilograms finweight category can wait. After all, she has all the talent in the world…
In May of last year, Sim overcame a spirited performance by Iran's Mahla Momenzadeh to win her second consecutive world taekwondo title in front of a packed crowd at the Manchester Arena.
Having established a five-point lead, the South Korean eschewed the idea of switching to defence, but went in search of further points.
"My style is to keep attacking," she told World Taekwondo in the wake of her 11-6 victory in the final. "Attacking is most important for me so I try and attack as much as I can and don't defend too much. In Korea, we are taught to continuously kick and that's what I tried to do."
Sim's first world title had arrived two years earlier on the home ground of Muju – and she admitted that having home advantage had been something of a mixed blessing.
"In Muju I was more nervous as it was my first try to win a World Championships," she said. "Many of the people in the crowd were from Korea and I knew some of them so that did make me feel more comfortable but I was still more nervous there.
"Here in Manchester, I felt some pressure as I didn't have the same support from the audience but I was very focused as I was trying to win to maximise qualification points for the Olympics.
"Obviously I would love to get gold at Tokyo 2020 but this is my first Olympics so really I just don't want to get nervous and to go out and do my best.
"I am working hard to improve my physical skills because I am not the biggest in my category. I am smaller than the other athletes and so I tried to step a lot as I'm not as tall as other players."
Sim had to make her talent work in the under-49kg category throughout the rest of the year.
In June, at the World Taekwondo Grand Prix staged at the Foro Italico in Rome, she claimed a silver medal after losing 8-4 in her final against Russia's Elizaveta Ryadninskaya.
At the World Taekwondo Grand Prix in Chiba, as world champion Panipak Wongpattanakit of Thailand overcame China's double Olympic champion Jingyu Wu in the under-49kg class, Sim earned a bronze medal along with Tijana Bogdanovic of Serbia.
She missed out on the podium by one place in December last year at the World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final in Moscow, where she lost her contest at the Dynamo Sports Palace for the sole bronze on offer to Turkey's Rukiye Yildrim.
In April 2018, Sim injured her knee and was out for two months and avoiding a repeat injury is at the forefront of her mind. When fighting she can't feel the injury but she can when she trains a lot, and so she has to manage her schedule to give her the best chance in Tokyo.
"My first goal is to participate in the next Olympic Games," she said to World Taekwondo in Manchester.
"I was focused on winning this final but I am also focused on avoiding getting injured. I got injured before and this was my first event this year and without injury I can keep performing."
Ruslan Zhaparov is a developing talent as Tokyo 2020 approaches
At the age of 23, Ruslan Zhaparov is developing into one of the finest heavyweight taekwondo exponents in the world.
But two of the proudest moments in his career thus far have involved the earning of acclaim rather than medals.
Zhaparov, born on May 27 in 1996, was just 20 when he was honoured by being named as Kazakhstan’s flag bearer during the Parade of Nations at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Three years on, in Rome’s Foro Italico arena, he caught the attention for an act of sportsmanship after earning his first appearance in a World Taekwondo Grand Prix final.
Zhaparov trailed Britain’s Mahama Cho in the second round of their semi-final but produced a grandstand finish in the third round to secure a narrow victory.
What caused the crowd to re-double its applause, however, was the way in which the two opponents embraced and congratulated each other after the bout was over.
"It is a sport; we are not enemies," Zhaparov told World Taekwondo. "Respect is very important. Taekwondo is a beautiful sport - we have to respect each other.
"Cho is seven years older than me. After the fight he [Cho] said to me I had grown up a lot since we last met. He said I had progressed well over the last two years. He is very good; I respect him."
Cho commented: "Zhaparov was much better than me on the day; technically and physically. He was absolutely clinical in every aspect."
Although he was beaten in the final by Russia’s Vladislav Larin, Zhaparov was satisfied by the highest achievement in his career up to that point, adding: "It feels really good. It is my first Grand Prix medal. I am very happy. I feel like my work has paid off. It was amazing fights. One by one. And really difficult fights. It is a big experience for me…"
That silver now sits alongside the two medals he won in 2018 - a silver at the Asian Championships and a bronze at the Asian Games.
Zhaparov’s achievement in June - at the first of the three Grand Prix series meetings preceding December’s final in Moscow - was all the greater for the fact that he had only recently returned to training a month earlier following a four-month absence with a broken hand.
"My coach says if you want to be the best you have to beat the best," he added. "It is a big experience for me and I will prepare for the next Grand Prix and aim to take the gold."
Lee Da-Bin the smiling heavyweight who tries to keep opponents guessing
After winning the opening World Taekwondo Grand Prix series meeting in Rome in June 2019, South Korea’s Lee Da-Bin told World Taekwondo: "When I get a gold medal: that feeling makes me very happy."
This 22-year-old operating at the top weight in women’s competition has been smiling a lot in recent years.
Two weeks before her 10-4 victory over Mexico’s Briseida Acosta in in the women’s over-63 kilograms final at the Foro Italica arena, Lee had earned world gold in the under-73kg category at the Manchester Arena.
Lee, who found competing in the under-73kg category easier as her opponents tended not to be as tall or powerful, said she was especially proud of her achievement in Rome given that she felt she had not had sufficient time to train since the World Championships in May.
She realises that operating in the heavyweight section of the women’s sport poses a unique challenge.
"At the next Grand Prix in Chiba there will be more powerful athletes who come so I want to do more weight training,” Lee said.
"I want to train more for the physical side."
Lee, who took up the sport when she was at middle-school at the instigation of a friend, added: "I train in the morning for two hours and in the afternoon for another two hours.
"When I practise taekwondo, I feel very happy.
"Once a week I self-train after dinner.
"When I am self-training it is just image training.”
A technique she dedicates a lot of time to in training is the head kick.
"My favourite kick is the higher kick.
"Especially when the body score is not so good like it was in Rome, I try more head kicks.
"I am very good on short distance.
"I am fast.
"I try to make opponents keep guessing as I move quickly."
Meanwhile, Tokyo 2020 is firmly in her sights.
"My first goal is to qualify," she said.
"If I get it, I want to get a gold at Tokyo Olympics."
Hossein "The Grasshopper" Lotfi hoping to reach new heights after World Championships gold
At the Qualification Tournament for the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games the country won six qualification quotas – the joint most of any nation – and after day three of the World Junior Championships they lead the over medal table with four gold medals and two bronze.
Hossein Lotfi is one of a new batch of exciting young Iranian taekwondo fighters with a bright future ahead of him. Nicknamed ‘The Grasshopper’ because of his long reach with his front leg, Hossein won gold in the male -45kg category at the World Junior Championships this week in impressive fashion.
“I was confident in myself,” he said speaking 48 hours after winning his media. “I came to perform to the best of my abilities.”
“I feel quite excellent. It is a reward for all the hard work that I have put into this,” he said.
But, he is not ready to rest on his laurels and is already focusing on improving and reaching new heights.
“All that is in my mind right now is just to train and work harder. In the long term it is a dream to join the senior team for 2020 Olympics. I know that I need to gain bodily strength and become stronger in order to properly compete at senior level.”
One of his heroes is two-time Olympic champion, Hadi Saei.
‘It is quite a challenge to pick one in Iran because we have a lot of taekwondo heroes in the country. However, personally I would have to say Hadi Saei. I know all of his fights by heart! I especially love the video in the 2004 Olympic final where he won gold with three seconds to spare.”
Hossein is on the right track and in Saei certainly has an inspirational athlete to look up to. If he can achieve half the success of his idol there is no doubt The Grasshopper will be jumping for joy.
Mengyu Zhang’s debut WT Grand Prix gold is just the beginning
ROME, Italy (June 3, 2018) – Most taekwondo athletes will look back on their first Grand Prix as nothing more than a learning curve and a great opportunity to face some of the world’s best Taekwondo stars. However, China’s Mengyu Zhang’s debut Grand Prix in Rome turned out to be so much more.
Zhang surprised everyone when she claimed gold in the Women’s -67kg category by knocking out several big names along the way, including Rio 2016 gold medal winner, Hyeri Oh, in the semi-final.
Following her victory, Zhang spoke about facing the star she has always looked up to:
“I love watching and learning from Hyeri Oh. She always shows strong resilience during her fights and never gives up. These are fighting attributes that I want to try and emulate myself.”
After knocking out her idol and advancing to the final, Zhang proved her composure and resilience by defending a slender lead to clinch her first Grand Prix title.
“In the last round, my opponent kicked my head to take her just two points behind me. I was very nervous but I knew what I had to do to win. I just remained focused on keeping my advantage.”
The technical ability and mental strength shown by Zhang in Rome proved that she is no longer a prospect for the future but a leading competitor, with eyes firmly set on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games.
“During the rest of year I just want to win more points to be in with a chance of qualifying for the Olympics. It’s not easy, but I like to set my aspirations high.”
If Zhang’s first Grand Prix performance is anything to go by, she will not just be making up the numbers in Tokyo. The sky really is the limit for this young and exciting star.
Stars of Tomorrow: South Korea's Jae-hee Mok
It was unquestionably the most exciting final of day one of the 2016 WTF World Taekwondo Junior Championships.
In the male under-48 kilogram category, Jae-hee Mok of South Korea stalked onto the mats to contest gold with Saran Tangchatkaew of Thailand. Some junior matches are genteel, low-scoring affairs. What was about to transpire, however, was a real fight.
Right after the opening bell, Mok attacked and scored to the body, going one point up and igniting cheers from his teammates. The Thai shot back with a fierce series of body shots. The tempo rose. Both lads were firing kicks with real venom. At ringside, even the most jaded "seen-it-all, done-it-all" taekwondo masters and pundits had jerked awake and were following the action, blow-by-blow.
The Korean went two up, then appeared to land a face kick - but no score. His coach challenged; it was rewarded. Tangchatkaew fell twice and the round ended 6-0 to Mok. Round two was equally fast and furious with ax kicks, spinning back kicks and punches being unleashed by both fighters, but with no score from either.
In the third, Mok went up to nine points after firing a masterly body punch-head kick combo. In defence, his constant movement - he did not stand in one place for more than a second - and constant stream of attacks was making it impossible for the Thai to lock on his target radar. With the round only half over, Mok landed a picture-perfect ax kick to Tangchatkaew's face, ending the match 12-0 and taking the gold on point difference.
It had been a bravura display of taekwondo: fast-moving, hard-hitting and deadly accurate, enabled by Mok's technical excellence and empowered by his physical conditioning.
When you meet him, however, the 17-year-old from Songnam, Gyeonggi-do - the province surrounding South Korea's capital Seoul - is almost the complete opposite of his fighting persona. Shy, quiet and self-effacing, he left his coach, Kyung-bae Lee, to do most of the talking.
"It was the first time for me to fight these athletes," Mok said. "Me and my coach studied them a lot in the preliminaries and semi-finals."
"The Thai guy was really good at the ax kick," added Lee. "We studied him, and the idea was to avoid his ax kick."
What really lit up many ringside observers was Mok's body punch-high kick combination attacks.
"It is my favorite technique," he said. Although the punch is the lowest-scoring attack in taekwondo - to the point where some competitors neglect it almost completely - it is a specialty of his school, Pungsaeng High School. "In our school, we use a lot of punches, we focus on exact punching skill," said Lee. "If the referees see it, they don't score it – but if they hear it, they score it."
Mok's technical excellence may be down to his long apprenticeship: he has been playing taekwondo since elementary school. As well as his punch-kick combination attacks, and a wide arsenal of kicks, he has superb lateral footwork.
He also has an ideal physique - fast and light - which explains his agility and stamina. As the icing on the cake, he has sound tactical sense, which has enabled him to take out a string of taller athletes.
"To fight a tall person, when they raise their opposite leg, you have to attack to beat them to the kick,”" Lee explained. "Taller athletes are slower."
In the future, Mok knows what he wants to do. "I want to major in taekwondo at university," he said. "Everybody [parents and coach] has agreed. And I want to be a coach after competing."
Still, his chosen vocation means a tough, ascetic existence that few teens would be willing to tolerate. Under Lee's tutelage, after school, he trains seven days a week. "The only time off is Sunday mornings," Lee said.
As a result Mok, unlike his contemporaries, has no time to hang out at the mall or hit the karaoke room.
"I don’t have any hobbies," he said. "In my spare time, I just like resting at home."
Stars of Tomorrow: Thailand’s Napaporn Charanawat
Napaporn “Mint” Charanawat started taekwondo at the age of eight because she was weak and sickly. Now, aged 17, the girl from Bangkok is world junior champion.
The path to gold in the female -46kg category was not easy. Her final fight against Rim Bayaa of Sweden was one of the most exhausting taekwondo battles this correspondent has witnessed – proof positive that the formerly sickly child has achieved an awesome level of athleticism and stamina.
Both girls erupted straight into action from the opening bell, with the Thai dominating center court and the Swede attempting to score from the perimeter. Both were firing a wide range of techniques – ax kicks, crescent kicks, rear-leg round kicks – but it was the Thai who drew first blood with a razor-sharp chopping kick to the head that pole-axed the Swede to her knees for a 3-0 lead. Charanawat’s coach requested a video replay for a round kick to the head; it was denied. After an exchange of ax kicks in the clinch, the round ended 3-1 to Charanawat.
As round two got underway, Charanawat landed another head kick, going up 7-1. Action continued with the Thai trying to drop the ax and the Swede responding with spinning back kicks. Charanawat extended her lead to 10-1. More action followed with an exchange of punches, then the Swede landed to Charanawat’s head, bringing the board to 4-10. In the third, Bayaa went onto the attack, fighting forward strongly. The Thai’s flexibility was impressive to behold as she raised her ax kick toward the ceiling again, again and again; the board when to 5-11. As the round counted down, Charanawat – finally – seemed to be tiring, relying more on counter punches more than head kicks.
With 30 seconds left and the Swede 5-11 down, Bayaa had her work cut out and launched into all-out attack. But rather than retreating tactically and waiting for the clock to deliver her medal, Charanawat gamely fought back. In the dying seconds, both fighters tumbled to the floor. After a marathon of a match, Charanwat took gold 7-11, leaving Bayaa with a well-deserved silver.
In person, Mint – her nickname is a word-play from her sister’s name – is upbeat and bubbly, sporting a boyish bob and flashing an ever-present grin.
Going back to her start in combat sports she decided not to pursue Thailand’s native martial art – the fearsome Muay Thai kickboxing – instead choosing taekwondo to upgrade her health: “Muay Thai is too rough,” she said. “Some girls do it, but not many.”
Taekwondo led her to well-being, and she discovered a natural talent. As an athlete, she considers herself “very technical and very flexible.” Her favorite technique will surprise nobody who watched her match against Bayaa: “The ax kick off both legs,” she said. “And I try to make points with the punch.” But the key to her victory was staying focused in the moment. “I really wanted to be champ, I was very excited, but I had to calm down.”
She is not happy with the current state of the game. “I don’t like this side kick, push kick, side kick,” she said, “I can’t do it, I am too small.” Her fighting inspiration is Jordan’s jump-kicking Olympic gold medalist Ahmad Abughaush. “He moves fast and has good strategy,” she said.
In the future, she plans to transition to the adult division – and to study. “I want to go to the seniors, and I want to go to Tamarsard University to study advertising,” she said. Her ambitions are to be world champion in the seniors, then go on to the Olympics. After that, she would like to run a gym.
In conclusion, she thanked the Thai association who gave her the chance to attend Burnaby, the friends that she trains with, and her family. Speaking of which: How did Mint’s parents react to her world championship win? “I don’t know.” she laughed. “I called them, but because of the time difference between Canada and Thailand, they did not pick up."
Sajjad Mardani: Handsome victory in Baku
It was the biggest shock of the 2016 Olympic taekwondo competition: the wipeout of the much-fancied Iranian men’s team. But just four months later, at the first Premier League taekwondo event to be held since Rio, one of that team’s top guns proved that the Iranians are back in business.
On day two of the World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final in Baku, Iran’s Sajjad Mardani took out Rio silver medalist Abdoul Issoufou of Niger in a fiercely fought semi-final battle, 7-6. That victory thrust him into the final against Russia’s Vladislav Larin.
Game on. Mardani, looking stylish and catlike from the outset, scored with a punch almost immediately. Next, he unleashed a flurry of ax kicks which Larin covered well as both lads fought to control the centre of the ring. Larin raised an ax; Mardani stuffed it by moving in and body checking. The feeling-out round ended 1-0 to the Iranian.
In round two, Larin looked more aggressive, seizing a point with a check kick to the body that shook Mardani. Mardani shot back with a punch and crescent kick to the head, then a powerful round kick to the head and a serial attack that drove Larin backward. The Iranian fans started cheering, as Mardani grabbed another point to the body.
However, the point difference was minimal. In round three, the fight could still go either way. This tense dynamic was sensed by the audience: for the first time in the evening, the crowd started roaring.
Action resumed. Mardani tried punch-round kick combinations. Larin shot back. Mardani nodded in what looked like acknowledgment of his opponent’s attacks. In fact, he had worked out his opponent’s tempo and technique. "I knew than what I needed to do," he recalled. With one minute left on the clock, Mardani was 3-1 up. The Russian looked set to go into an all-out attack, but Mardani, unfazed, checked his offensive and picked up another point after Larin fell, raising his score to 4-1. Fifteen seconds remained as Mardani moved in close, leaving Larin no space to kick.
But there was still drama to be played out.
In the last three seconds Larin attacked, Mardani backpedaled out of the area and the Russian picked up a point to take the board up to 4-2. Just two seconds remained on the clock. An appeal by the Russian coach provided a break from the action. The Russian and Iranian supporters in the crowd roared. The appeal was rejected. The fighters replaced their mouth guards, buckled on their head protectors and stepped up to the mark. The last two seconds were in play.
Larin surged forward. Mardani counter-kicked and retreated. And that was that. The battle ended 4-3, with a gold medal for the man from Tehran.
After the Olympics, the Grand Prix Final medal earned by Mardani was not just a return to victorious form, but a potent injection of new confidence. "This proved that I could do my best and that my hard work had paid off," he said. "Now, I can hold my head high."
So what happened in Rio? The much-feared Iranian trio of Mardani and teammates Farzan Ashourzadeh Fallah and Mahdi Khodabakhshi had been taekwondo’s strongest, medal favorites. When the smoke cleared, all three were empty-handed.
Asked about the drubbing Iran’s men’s squad suffered - taekwondo pundits have been discussing ever since - Mardani went quiet. "It’s a tough one," he mused. "Let me think about it." After a while he composed himself. "For sure - 100 per cent. The athletes you expect to perform the best are the ones you study more and analyse," he said. "We were the favorites, so I believe people studied us."
The stress was particularly colossal for heavyweight Mardani who fought on the last day of the competition. "I was under a ton of pressure heading into my day as the two favourites [his two team mates] had been unsuccessful," he said. "That fact that I was unable to win as well was so painful. We were in disbelief."
Since then Mardani has been on an obsessive self-improvement drive. "You have to adjust and change and adapt - the person who remains the same is not successful in any sport," he said. "I have tried to focus on changing my game."
The Grand Prix Final gold suggests his efforts have borne fruit. "I have never seen Mardani look as good as he did in Baku," said an impressed Mike McKenzie, the WTF’s TV commentator.
Now 28, Mardani started taekwondo after seeing his mother and sister practice. "As soon as I saw taekwondo, I fell in love with it," he said. As a fighter, he reckons his strengths are his non-specialised approach to the game. "I believe I am well-rounded," he said. His favorite technique is the head attack, but he does not name any specific kick. "The leg goes from here to there," he said, gesturing from earth to sky.
Asked to name his favorite fighter, his response is telling. "I like Jade Jones," he said. "She believes in herself."
Unlike some of the Iranian athletes who live, eat and breathe taekwondo, taekwondo and only taekwondo, Mardani has a side job: fashion modeling.
That should surprise absolutely nobody. As well as boasting the height of the heavyweights and the toned physique of the pro athlete, Mardani is far and away the most wickedly handsome devil in the game. "I like modeling, I like being on billboards," he said. "I love it. One day I want to go out and be a full time model."
He thought for a second, then added: "And if I get the chance to be a model, it would be a great opportunity for taekwondo, too."
For now, his own goals focus on 2020 - though he is keeping his eyes on the near term. "Obviously, the goal is Tokyo, but I am focusing on day-by-day and only looking to the next competition," he said.
Mardani’s focus on constant improvement suggests that he might be better advised to ditch modeling and become a motivational speaker.
"My goal is to show anyone around me that hard work pays off," he said. "I want to influence the people who surround me to always believe in themselves: it does not matter how difficult life becomes, you always want to achieve more - day by day you get smarter and stronger."
Despite his relative youth, Mardani is already thinking about his heritage. "Sajjad Mardani is a human like everybody else, but I have been blessed by God with so many things," he said. "The main thing is to make an impression, and to inspire others."
Armed with this attitude, Team Iran’s Rio experience may even prove to be a long-term positive. "In sport, one person wins, one person loses. We did not perform as well as we wanted, but that’s life," Mardani said.
"We look forward to tomorrow."
South Korea's Oh Hye-ri: Tragedy, agony, indifference and Olympic gold
Taekwondo prioritises perseverance and indomitable spirit, but few athletes have had to nurture these qualities more than South Korea's Oh Hye-ri: she has overcome personal tragedy, agonising injury, relentless competition and public disinterest on her path to the pinnacle of taekwondo.
The tall, attractive 27-year-old, who hails from Gangneung on Korea’s East Coast, "followed her friends from school" to taekwondo classes at age eight. Personal tragedy struck at age 10, when her father passed away. Since then, Oh and her two sisters - Hye-ri is the middle sister - were raised by their mother.
Taekwondo, however, remained a constant. Along with the camaraderie she found in the dojang, she discovered a talent and began competing at age 14. She did not consider her skills mature enough for Beijing in 2008, but did set her sights on the next Olympics. However, in the run up to London 2012, tragedy struck again.
Given the number of players in Korea, the qualification process is a grueling one, and in pre-training, Oh suffered a deeply torn quad. "My thigh swelled up like a balloon," she recalled. Even so, she appeared on the mats two weeks after the injury - to no avail. "I had no strength, and I could not get the right angle for the kicks," she said "I wanted to go to London, but I couldn’t." A saying in Korean states that "an Olympic medal is like a gift from god" and that gift seemed a long way off in the summer of 2012 as she watched the competition on television.
Fast forward to 2015. The next Olympic cycle was in full swing when Oh, now injury-free, captured gold at the World Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia. That augured well for Rio 2016. And indeed, pacing onto the mats in Rio’s Carioca Arena, she was one step below the summit of the pinnacle of sports: Olympic gold. But to receive that "gift from god" Oh first had to defeat Team France’s formidable Haby "The Abigator" Niare.
In the women's under-67 kilogram category, Niare was the number one seed, Oh the number six; the Korean was also at a height disadvantage. In the first round, Niare - a fighter with tremendous flexibility - landed her trademark "scorpion kick", a heel hook kick fired from impossibly close range, to the back of Oh’s head, for a three-point lead. She extended it in the second, going 4-0 up. But Oh was undaunted, and returned fire with a spin back kick, taking the board to 4-3. Then, in a too-quick-to-follow flurry of kicks, the board flashed.
Oh went into the attack and started pressuring the taller French fighter backward. In the third, both fighters tried to feint each other out before Niare appeared to land another scorpion kick - it registered but was disallowed. A video replay appeal failure. An ax kick attack bought Niare’s score back up, before Oh added another single point - then the action mingled fast-and-furious, close-and-mess. Both athletes went for broke with the scoreboard flashing points like a pinball game, and the referee working as hard as the fighters. The final result could have gone either way, but it ended with a tight 13-12 victory for Oh.
She does not remember much about the whirlwind fight that delivered her dream. "I was losing in the first round, but I was not nervous - I was concentrating so much I did not realise the score was that high," she said. "I don’t remember too much about it."
In a development that is typical of Oh’s up-and-down fortunes, the euphoria of Olympic gold wore off back home. "Koreans did not like the way their athletes fought in Rio," she said - a reference to the tactical "new school" approach they have adopted over the more flamboyant "old school" style. "But from the athletes’ perspective, we are fighting to win, we can’t just fight to make the game exciting and lose - it does not make any sense."
The brilliance of her achievement was also over-shadowed by the high expectations Koreans have of their taekwondo fighters. "Koreans say, 'if you are Korean, you have to get gold as it is our national sport', but I wish they would look at us in a kinder way, with warm eyes and a warm heart," she said. "If we get gold, they say, 'well, you should have!’ If we don’t, they say, 'what’s wrong with you?’”
Moreover, the success of Oh and taekwondo team mate and fellow gold winner So-hui Kim were overshadowed by the achievement of Sang-young Park, who won Korean a gold in fencing. "He became so famous that none of the other athletes could keep up with his popularity," she said. "Nobody recognises me." Remarkably, she has been offered no commercial sponsorships.
The post-Rio 2016 disappointment may have been blunted by her latest competitive triumph: gold at the Grand Prix Finals in Baku, Azerbaijan, the last major event on taekwondo’s 2016 fighting calendar. Injury free, she fought a highly professional match against veteran Chinese Taipei player Chia Chia Chuang. Although she characterises her fighting style as "shut up and attack" she took on Chuang with economical motion and sound tactics.
The Korean dominated from the start, gliding smoothly in and out, feinting with her arms and taking an early lead. That was soon reversed with Chuang going up 3-1. As usual, Oh showed her quality and in the third, went onto the attack, landing two head shots to go 7-3 up. It ended 8-4 to Oh, indicating that - following her triumph at the 2015 Worlds, the 2016 Olympics and the Grand Prix Finals - that she truly is at the top of her game.
In person, Oh is more talkative, relaxed and outgoing than some of the other Korean fighters - she displays an easy-going, natural charm. Her nickname hardly suits her athletic prowess, but does match her cheerful personality - "Duck". The nickname is a play on her given name. Oh Hye-ri sounds similar to the Korean word for duck - "ori". Despite her charm, she has no boyfriend and says, vaguely, that she would like to marry and have children after retirement. In her everyday life, she escapes the stresses of taekwondo training, relaxing by reading and taking long, midnight walks along the banks of Seoul’s Han River.
She is also a beginner in the sport which, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies solitude and freedom: surfing. "Right now, I have to do it with other beginners," she said. "But when I get better, I want to do it in places where there are not too many people around."
When travelling to competitions overseas, Oh studies English on the flights, which enables her to communicate with international players - all of whom she is on excellent terms with. On the way to this interview, she was stopped in the venue by Sweden’s Elin Johansson, who Oh had beaten the previous day, to exchange selfies.
She cites Turkey’s Servet "The Cheetah" Tazegul and Korea’s Dae-hoon Lee as the most inspirational fighters on the circuit. But, in a comment that perhaps reflects her own struggles, Oh says the players she most admires are those from developing nations like Ivory Coast - those who have to suffer and endure hardships in training.
And while her first reason to take up taekwondo was friendship, the reason she keeps doing it is not for gold-medal glory, but for the joy of the sport. "It is rare for anyone to have a career that she likes, but I love taekwondo," she said. "I am lucky."
Stars of Tomorrow: Iran’s Mobina Nejad Katesari
Nobody could confirm whether or not it was a world record, but everybody in Burnaby was talking about it - the incredible run by Iran's Mobina Nejad Katesari on day one of the 2016 WTF World Taekwondo Junior Championships.
Over a day of fighting that ended with her being crowned world champion in the female under-42 kilograms category, she scythed her way through the opposition, scoring 73 points and conceding none.
Yes, you read that right: none. Not one of her five opponents throughout the day managed to score a single point on the 15-year-old from Gilan, Iran.
"I think that must be a record," said WTF Technical Committee chairman Jung Kook-hyun. "I don't think anyone else has done that before."
"I don’t know, I can't say," added Peter Bolz, curator of website www.taekwondodata.com. "But I think that is a record."
In person, Nejad Katesari does come across as an invincible fighting machine. Quietly spoken and with a shy but ready smile, she is small in stature and lacks the towering height of some current-generation competitors. But she moves with the obvious physical grace of the athlete and has the self-assurance of the chosen.
"Taekwondo is not about height, it is about techniques and about the mind," she said. "Strength and ability are important, but on top of that, it is about hard work and trying over and over again."
She started the game at the age of four, having seen bouts on TV. Already a third dan black belt, Nejad Katesari has added her first world junior title to her roster of wins, which include two cadet championship golds - at the worlds in Muju, Korea, and at the Asians in Taipei, Taiwan, both in 2015.
When it comes to offense, she is a master of the sliding ax kick and is fully ambidextrous. But what is her brilliant defence composed of? She puts it down to her ability with the push kick as a counter-attack weapon, but is unwilling to say any more. "It’s a secret," she said, mischievously.
Fatameh Safarpour, coach of the Iranian female junior team, is more forthcoming. "She is very smart and the key reason for her success in not giving any points away is that she can work with her knees very professionally - she brings up her knees - and she has a good push kick," Safarpour said. "She is very quick and her explosive movements and flexibility help her, so that the opponent cannot react to her - she is ahead of her opponents."
Her other weapon is her mind. "I have the power of making images of the game before I fight," she said. "This is what I learned from my coach."
She also has the intense discipline necessary to juggle schooling and the demands of elite taekwondo, for as a national team member, she has to attend the grueling three-month pre-competition training camps at Tehran's famous "Taekwondo House".
"When I am not in camp, I go to school, and in the evenings I go to taekwondo practice sessions," she said.
"When I am in the camps I focus on taekwondo, and when I get back home, I get personal tutors to help me catch up with other students."
She is not happy with the current rule-set. "Since the single touch with the sole of the foot has come in, most of the athletes use it and taekwondo does not have any beauty any more as they don't use the more technical moves," she said.
However, she is positive about recent developments with the PSS. "I believe that the electronic headgear is very helpful as you are sure that the foot has impacted the headgear," she said. "In the traditional way, sometimes the referee might press the key without an impact."
Given her recent string of victories, she is 100 per cent sure of what her life path should be. "I am going to major in taekwondo in university and take it as my occupation for life," she said. "I recently made that decision as, after I had achievements, I believed I could do this, it was motivating."
The decision to make taekwondo her life was completely her own, but her parents both encouraged and supported her, Nejad Katesari said. Naturally, they were "super happy" when she called them after her victory in Burnaby.
As for influences in the sport, she cites her coach back home in Gilan, Neda Rastad. "She was my coach from the age of four," Nejad Katasari said. "She gives me positive energy and high spirits." Another is her taekwondo senior Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin - who, in Rio, became the first Iranian female athlete ever to win an Olympic medal and has since won fame across Iran.
"I know her personally," she said. "She gave high motivation to all Iranian girls, so now they believe that if they try hard, they can have great achievements, like her."
In the future, destiny awaits. Nejad Katesari's ambitions are not lowly: she aims to be both an Olympic champion and a national team coach. "I am happy that as a Muslim girl my hijab did not create any limitations," she said. And of course, that destiny can build on the foundation of a very impressive recent record. "By winning 75 points in five games without losing any, I could make history," she said.
Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin: Kicking open the door for Iranian women
It was on Day two of the Olympic taekwondo competition at Carioca Arena 3 in Rio’s Barra Olympic Park that history was written.
The final buzzer rang on the bronze medal match in the women’s -57kg category and an 18-year-old athlete from Karaj, Iran, had done something that had never been done before: Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin was the first female Iranian athlete to win an Olympic medal - not just in taekwondo, but in any discipline.
Taking on Sweden’s Nikita Glasnovic, the Iranian asserted her dominance early and extended it with a head kick that drew roars from the crowd. The Swede, despite firing off countless kicks, was unable to find the range and Alizadeh Zenoorin - after a final- seconds countdown from the crowd - won with rare conviction. She ended it by falling forward and kissing the field of play, then embracing her coach and taking photos with the crowd.
“I am very pleased to get this first medal -v ery pleased! - and very pleased for the girls of Iran,” said Alizadeh Zenoorin, speaking one day after her fight. “I had tears in my eyes from joy, but I also had a little thought: ‘I would love this to have been gold.’”
Even so, the colour of her medal is overshadowed by the enormity of her achievement.
“When I came here I wanted to break this enclosure, open the door, help other female athletes and also create a kind of self-confidence for people to go out there and do it,” she said.
In that sense, Rio is definitely “mission accomplished.”
On the personal front Alizadeh Zenoorin’s bronze medal victory is going to be a life-changing event, for she embodies the sportive empowerment of Iranian women. “Obviously, now my life is going to change in that I have to be a role model,” she mused. “It will be hard for me and my social life will change but I hope to be a good representative and a good person in society for people to follow.”
Her country has fully recognised the significance of what has happened. Iranian media are full of her pictures; her photo portrait has been emblazoned across a giant poster decorating a central Tehran overpass; actors and celebrities are lining up to congratulate her when she lands; there are even clips up on social media of inspired Iranian grandmothers performing zany taekwondo moves.
“Surely all the public in Iran are very pleased and happy to see my achievement,” she said “There is no restriction for female activities in [Iranian] sport and I hope from now on there will be lots of medals to follow.”
Her coach, Mahroo Komrani Najaf Abadi, reckons her protégé has kicked down the last barrier for female sport in Iran. “I want everybody to know that in Iran we all love and enjoy sport the same way men do, it is the same for women and men,” she said. “The only difference between rest of world and Iran is the boys train with male instructors and the girls train with female instructors.”
Alizadeh Zenoorin’s unexpected triumph - she was the Olympic tenth seed and her world ranking is 21st in a tough category that includes such high-profile stars a Team GB’s Jade Jones, Spain’s Eva Calvo Gomez and Egypt’s Hedaya Wahba - may mitigate the disaster that befell the Iranian men. Iran is a taekwondo superpower and the team it fielded in Rio was best-of-breed. But from day one, it all fell apart.
Farzan “The Tsunami” Ashourzadeh Fallah, the number-one seed and the favorite to win the -58kg went out in his very first match. Mahdi “The Terminator” Khobabakhshi was the number-one seed and the favorite to win the -80kg: he went out in his second match. Sajjad Mardani, the number-two seed and a strong medal possibility in the men +80kg also went down in his second fight. The Rio results indicate that the rest of the world has finally worked out how to beat the Iranian powerhouses.
Those matches must have been hard for Alizadeh Zenoorin to watch. And her own preparation for Rio was agonising. “Obviously, it was hard to come here and I had a lot of stress,” she said. “I lost 10 kilos to be ready for this competition” (Given that Alizadeh Zenoorin fights in the -57kg category, the extreme nature of that weight loss may be appreciated). Still, the reward has been worthwhile. “I worked hard to get a medal. I thank God for this opportunity and I hope to be a good role model,” she said.
At home, she is a student who, between classes and taekwondo sessions, enjoys hiking and climbing. In the future, she plans to finish her university degree in physiotherapy, become a physio, and teach taekwondo.
But given that she is aged just 18, there is more immediate business awaiting her on competition mats worldwide.
“She is very clever, she has a lot of patience and she is also, in my opinion, one of the best players in the world in taekwondo,” said her coach, Mahroo Komrani Najaf Abadi. “Kimia has beaten [Rio gold medalist] Jade Jones twice. (Indeed, on the sidelines of the competition mats, one taekwondo pundit opined that it was fortunate for Great Britain that the team’s golden athlete was not drawn against Alizadeh Zenoorin in the preliminaries).
“I would love to have faced her in the finals, I have competed against her four times and beaten her twice,” Alizadeh Zenoorin added. “A lot of people in my weight I have competed against and beaten, I have beaten others before who are here - but unfortunately, I could not do it this time.”
She cites Iranian taekwondo legend Hadi Saei, Team Korea bronze medalist Dae-hoon Lee and Team China double Olympic gold medalist Jingyu Wu as her inspirations in the sport. With her height - she is a good head taller than Jones - and her weaponry - her round kick to the body is a consistent scoring technique - she has all the right physical qualities to win more medals.
“When I arrive in Iran, I want to rest to heal my injuries, then work hard to change the colour of the medal I have now,” she said.
So-hui Kim: From Poor Health to Olympic Triumph
The first gold medal of the Rio 2016 taekwondo competition was won by a young fighter who was far from being a natural athlete. In fact, So-hui Kim’s original aim in learning the sport was to upgrade her then-poor physique.
“I took taekwondo up when I was nine as I was very weak and ill - I took it up for my health,” said Kim. “My parents suggested starting it, and now I am all good.”
“All good” is an understatement: Kim has today cast off her weakling status and has transformed into an elite athlete competing and winning at the highest level of taekwondo. The 22-year old, who grew up in the countryside in Chuncheon before migrating to Seoul for high school, captured the ultimate medal in sport at the Carioca Arena 3 in Rio’s Barra Olympic Park, when she won gold in the women’s -49kg category.
But it was no easy match.
Kim, the seventh seed in the women’s -49kg category, would be fighting against eighth-seeded Tijana Bogdanovic who had the height (and probably strength) advantage. Earlier in the day, the Serbian had stunned the taekwondo world by comprehensively defeating arguably the most dominant fighter in the sport, China’s double Olympic gold medalist Jingyu Wu, 17-7; Wu had been gunning for what would have been a record third Olympic taekwondo gold. “I was not nervous to face Bogdanovic, I was worried about Wu,” said Kim. “I expected to fight with Wu at the final, I had prepared a lot for Wu.”
The fact that Bogdanovic had ejected Wu made very clear that Kim was facing a well-prepared, top-drawer opponent.
From the outset, the Serbian, with her height advantage, fought forward, forcing Kim to dance around the edge of the mats. But it was the Korean who was more accurate with her legs, winning the first round 2-1. The second continued the same way, with Kim displaying lively footwork to escape the Serbian’s attack. Bogdanovic, trying to land a punch, took a crescent kick to the head; the round ended 5-2. In the third, the score was 6-4 to the Korean but Bogdanovic put the pressure on, and Kim visited the mats repeatedly. In the last 11 seconds, Bogdanovic was chasing her target around the field of play but Kim held off the desperate last-minute attack, taking the match and gold medal, 7-6.
After the match she said she had “prayed to become a champion” and gave thanks to her family and nation for the support she had received.
Although it had been a close-run thing - Kim’s fall just as the final buzzer rang could have cost her the match - the fight had gone according to plan. “The Serbian girl is good at face kicks so I was concerned about that,” Kim said. “I thought that if I could beat her face kick, it would break her mentality. The back step and footwork was the plan.”
Oddly, the manner of her victory came in for a fair amount of online criticism in Korea, with some critiquing her style and strategy. In fact, Kim’s evasive, counter-attacking game plan showcased true mastery of lateral footwork and fighting off of the back leg - which causes one to question the technical knowledge of her armchair critics.
Olympic gold is just the latest in the fourth-dan’s list of accomplishments, which include gold at the 2015 Grand Prix tournament in Moscow, and gold in the -46kg category at the 2013 World Championships in Puebla, Mexico. As a taekwondo fighter she reels of her list of advantages. “Moving fast, I play a timing game and strike at the right time,” she said. “I like the back kick best of all - it is a special kick and I can fire it from both legs.”
Expect to see more of Kim in the future: Given her tender age, she has a long fighting career stretching ahead of her. “I always challenge the next one,” she said. “I want to go to Tokyo 2020 if possible.”
The people who got their formerly sickly daughter into the sport were at ringside for her triumph. “My parents were in Rio, and they were in tears, especially my mom,” she said.
But what about her own emotions? How did it feel to capture the ultimate prize?
“I’d always dreamt of being an Olympic gold medalist,” she said. “I realised the dream.”
Mahdi Khodabakhshi: Iranian Terminator
Ask any taekwondo pundit what the most dominant fighting machine in the sport is at present, and chances are good that the answer will be two words: “Mahdi Khodabakhshi.”
Although he was sidelined by injury and did not make the recent Mexico City Grand Prix Final, the Iranian has won his nation a spot in Rio 2016 with flying colors. He is the number-one ranked player in the men’s under 80kg division - arguably, the fiercest competitive category in the game. He is the current world champion, the 2014 Asian Games champion and holds three Grand Prix gold medals.
His nickname is “The Terminator” but his surname may be even more appropriate to his phenomenal talent: in Farsi, “Khodabakhshi” means “God Given.”
If that talent was granted by God, it was incubated by his father. The 24-year-old started taekwondo under the tutelage of Khodabakhshi Sr. at the age of four - or, as he puts it himself, “since I grew arms and legs!” It was no easy regimen: “I did not like taekwondo, but my father forced me to do it,” he said. “My whole family practice; my sister is an instructor; my uncles are instructors.”
Now a fourth dan, he has been a staple on the formidable Iranian men’s team for four years and may well be its most valuable property.
The match which planted him firmly on the map was his battle against Aaron Cook in the Manchester Grand Prix Final in 2013. At the time Cook, then fighting for the Isle of Man, was both the number one in the category and a massive and perennial crowd favorite. “It was very interesting, my first time to fight Aaron,” Khodabakhshi recalled. “The whole audience was behind Aaron, and that made me even more motivated to win.”
The Iranian picked off points for an early lead. Cook, however, never says die, and in the third round he surged out like a typhoon, lunging across the mats in a barrage of no-holds-barred assaults, launching combination round kicks and spin kicks. The Iranian kept his cool and fought to keep Cook at distance. “I needed very single point I could get,” Khodabakhshi said. “It was one of the best fights ever.” The final score: 13-11 to the Iranian.
If there is a perfect physique for taekwondo, Khodabakhshi owns it. He is tall, lean and long-limbed.
Although he possesses a weapons-grade front leg, his favourite technique is the jump spinning round kick, unleashed against either body or face. Fighting from a wide, side-on stance, using his hands to feint and employing a dance-like torso movement, he looks confident, dangerous and stylish.
Naturally, he is a crowd pleaser. “I want my audience to enjoy my games,” he said, “But my movement is not intentional - when I watch myself I think, ‘What the hell was I doing?’ I have no idea!”
He credits rigorous training for the development of his killer front leg: “I believe my legs and my backside are my strengths,” he said. “Because of the new system, we have to work hard on front-leg kicks, and that has made my legs very strong.”
The modern game, however, requires more than just physical attributes. “I am very analytical,” he said. “Every person I am going to fight, I analyse.”
But nobody is indestructible - a lesson Khodabakhshi learned in October. A firm favorite for gold at the 2015 Manchester Grand Prix Series 3, he went onto the mats against Britain's Lutalo Muhammad in the quarter-finals. The audience, excited to see “The Terminator” take on the home-town boy, went quiet after Khodabakhshi lurched. Clearly, something bad had happened. The Iranian struggled - against obvious agony - to continue, before the fight was halted: He had suffered a severe angle sprain.
Recovery has been slow. In order to make the weight for the GP Series 2 in Samsun, Turkey and Series 3 in Manchester, UK, “I got weaker and lowered my immune system,” Khodabakhshi said. That explains his very conspicuous absence from the Grand Prix Final in Mexico City. However, he expects to be back to full fighting fitness by the year-end.
His success on the mats in the 2014 and 2015 seasons - not to mention his reputation as the man to beat - indicate that his conditioning, technique, tactics and training are best-of-breed. But in the months leading up to the Rio Olympics, he plans to radically overhaul his game. “I believe that I am being watched and analysed by other players, and I don’t want them to read my hand,” he said. “I am going to show you a different Mahdi there.”
The lithe moves and athletic physique that make him so dangerous on the fighting circuit, combined with his good looks, also make him dangerous with the ladies. Asked if he has a girl friend he joked, “About a thousand!” Then he quickly corrected himself. “I don’t break hearts!” he insisted. “If anyone likes me - send me a message!”
When not engaged in the gruelling training programme of the Iranian taekwondo athletes, he enjoys volleyball and travel. Taekwondo has provided a passport to the world. Spain has been his favorite destination thus far. He also likes cars. He drives a Hyundai, but hopes to own a Maserati. Is that feasible on his current salary as an athlete? “No!” he says - but it may be, “… in a few years, when I have managed to make money out of my titles.”
As a child, he hated taekwondo. Now as a man, he finds it compelling. “Although I was forced to start taekwondo from a young age, as I got older, I learned more about the art,” he said. “The more it became a profession for me, the more I found it interesting.”
Even so, “The Terminator” may hang up his dobok after the 2016 Games.
“I plan to get a gold in the Olympics – I will deliver my best-ever performance! - and then I am not sure if I want to carry on,” he said. “I am under a lot of pressure and stress which affects my personal life. I want to have some sort of calm.”
After what happened in Manchester, there will no more pressure from his taekwondo-centric family.
“My family is very proud and happy as I am successful, but they care about my well-being more than my achievements in taekwondo,” he said. “Since I got injured, they have given up on forcing me to do taekwondo after Rio.”
Masoud Hajizavarah: The joyful Iranian warrior
It was not difficult to conclude that Masoud Hajizavareh was a happy man.
At the award ceremony to collect his gold medal in the male under 74kg division at the 2015 World Taekwondo Championships in Chelyabinsk's Traktor Arena, he did not just step up onto the winner’s rostrum, he leapt onto it with a huge grin lighting up his face.
And that is not an unusual state of mind, for the 26-year-old enjoys what he does.
“The most important thing is I really enjoy competing,” he said, adding: “I kind of like to fight.”
Hajizavareh’s game is on the up.
The world-ranked number eight, he won bronze at the 2014 Grand Prix in Manchester, and a gold at the Asian Games in Incheon, the same year.
But to add a World Championship to his growing list of titles in the World Championships in Chelyabinsk he had to face, after cleaving his way through the preliminaries, hometown favorite Albert Gaun of Russia.
Their semi-final match opened with a war of nerves as both men sparred for distance at the center of the mat.
It was the Iranian who landed first, taking the round, 1-0, before Gaun came out stronger in the second, pulling the score up after an appeal by the Iranian coach was nixed.
The round ended 4-4, leaving everything to play for in the third with the crowd roaring for Gaun.
Late in the final round, the Iranian landed a punch, taking a one-point lead - then Gaun himself connected with his fist in the very last second.
That took the match to golden point and, as both athletes came out fighting. Gaun fired off a head kick, but the Iranian countered with an ax kick that landed on the body protector - taking both point and match.
“He was the most difficult opponent, and in the previous World Championships I had lost to Gaun, so I had planned and studied how to fight him,” he said.
“But though he was the most difficult opponent, in all my previous matches the athletes were the best - they were all difficult.”
In the finals, Hajizavareh faced world third-ranked Nikita Rafalovic of Uzbekistan.
From the start, neither man gave an inch, dueling in center court.
Hajizavareh caught the Uzbek by surprise with a high kick, winning three points, following up with a punch, for a 4-0 lead.
Trusting to his reflexes and distancing, Hajizavareh dropped down into low, open stances, taunting his opponent. Rafalovich was game, but the Iranian’s accuracy proved superior: another out-of-the-blue ax kick rattled Rafalovich.
Round two ended 2-8.
As the seconds counted down, the Uzbek went all out, but Hajizavareh kept his cool and took the title 9-7.
The key technique the Iranian uses is crowd-pleasing and point-winning: The Iranian is an ax man.
“The ax kick - this is my main skill,” he said.
"But what about that business of dropping back into low stances and taunting his opponent?
“When I compete I want to do everything to make people enjoy it more,” he said, adding: “Just a little!”
A native of Kermanshah, Hajizavareh is a full-time athlete.
Working out at the House of Taekwondo in Tehran, he undergoes two training sessions a day, one in the morning - conditioning - and one in the evening - techniques and tactics.
“I believe that the Iran National Team is enjoying the best coaches in the world ever,” he said.
“They are very up to date, and the athletes follow all the guidelines of the coaches.”
Iran’s taekwondo assets include not just state support but even a dedicated taekwondo TV channel.
To reach his current elite status on the national squad, he previously spent eight years in training camps, eating, drinking and breathing taekwondo, a skill has practiced for 20 years.
That conditioning has rubbed off.
The man is totally absorbed by the sport: During this interview, in the venue media center, his attention kept wandering up to the screen broadcasting the matches.
“I have no plans for life now, I am so focused on the Olympics!” he said.
“I have been married for five years, but no children yet.”
Asked if this kind of laser-like focus is necessary to be a champion, his response is immediate.
“Yes!” he said, adding: “To be successful, you have to dedicate your life to it.”
He has no hobbies beyond taekwondo, and, as for his post-competitive career, the answer is predictable: “I will continue as a coach.”
However, unlike team mate Farzan “The Tsunami” Ashour Zadeh Falleh he does not have a nickname. If he did, what might it be?
Hajizavareh thinks for a moment, before claiming: “If I had a nickname, it would be ‘warrior.’”
Farzan Ashour Zadeh Fallah: Iranian "Tsunami"
If you thought the word “mastery” implied age, wisdom and qualification as well as skill and talent - well, you should have been in Queretaro, Mexico for the World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final.
In the final bout of the men’s under 58kg category, in an event that is considered the pinnacle of elite taekwondo, the gold medal was won by an Iranian who can boast skill and talent in spades, but is a mere lad who is not only still at high school, but as a 4th poom, does not even hold a black belt.
Having cruised through to the semi-finals, Farzan Ashour Zadeh Fallah undertook what can only be described as a demolition of Korea’s Taemun Cha in the gold-medal showdown.
In the first round, the Iranian’s arcing high kick took the charging Cha by surprise. In the second round, he added to his score with sniper-like kick placemen. By the third, Cha, one of South Korea’s brightest taekwondo stars, was looking wild as the Iranian maintained his cool and extended his lead. The one-sided battle was only halted after Ashour Zadeh Fallah had racked up a colossal 12-point difference with a remarkable 49 seconds still remaining on the clock.
Watching the Iranian do his thing, one is reminded of a saying attributed to ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu: His attacks are like water: They flow through and around his opponent’s defense from unusual angles that are so craftily chosen that they often do not register on his peripheral vision.
Appropriately, Ashour Zadeh Fallah’s nickname, coined by an awed TV reporter, is “Tsunami,” for on the field of play, the youthful Iranian has the unstoppable force of a tidal wave.
Despite his soaring ambition and remarkable talent, off the mats “The Tsunami” is menacing neither to look at nor to listen to: The laid-back teenager is tall and gangly, softly spoken and polite. But regardless of his laid-back persona, he is very self-assured - very. For example, he had no doubt about the end result against Cha.
“This year I won most of my fights with a 12-point difference,” he said. “So I was sure I would go in and win.” In his post-fight analysis, he clinically dissected Cha’s weaknesses: “He was not very fast, and his body was open.”
He admits to having analysed Cha’s style in indepth video sessions with his coach in the run-up to Querataro, and there can be no doubt of his physical skills, but even these assets do not explain his ice-cold in-fight composure. So what is the secret to his head game: Mind training? Prayer? Meditation?
None of the above, apparently.
“For me, what is very important is the mental fight, not the body fight, I am always cool,” he said. “I have all the stress and difficult situations in the mind, but even when I go out in my free time, I focus - there is no special technique.”
A native of Mazandaran, Iran, the real secret to his success is not just personal talent, but his home nation.
Perhaps more than any other nation, Iran, with its league of 127 teams fielding 16,000 athletes, all served by a network of dedicated training facilities, is a champion factory churning out taekwondo athletes. That makes “The Tsunami” the latest precision-engineered product to roll off the assembly line.
“In Iran the training is very hard, all the teams are training hard,” he said. As regards personal training, he takes two rest days a week. His conditioning focuses on bodybuilding for strength (his tall, thin frame looks deceptively fragile); plyometrics for explosiveness; and of course running - long distance for overall endurance and sprint work in the run-up to competitions.
He got his start of taekwondo at the age of six and made it onto the junior national team at the age of 12. The year 2014 - Ashour Zadeh Fallah’s 18th year - has seen him reach maturity as both a man and an athlete. In addition to his Queretaro firstplace finish, he struck gold at both the Manchester Grand Prix and the Incheon 2014 Asian Games.
Asked about his future plans in the sport, he is not modest: He hopes to win more medals than any other taekwondo fighter has done, he said.
Is this the youthful dream of a teenager or a realistic hope?
“If he continues working, he can realise his ambition,” said Seyyed Mohammad Pouladgar, President of the Iranian Taekwondo Federation and a man who knows a thing or two about incubating brilliant fighters. “The short goal is the Olympic gold - after that, it is just the beginning!”
After graduating from high school, the 18-year-old plans to study physical education at university. In his down time, Ashour Zadeh Fallah likes to hang out with friends and travel with his family.
Beyond taekwondo, his only other hobby is swimming - an appropriate activity for a fighter who, for years to come, looks likely to surge across the taekwondo world with the force of the tidal wave for which he is nicknamed.
Ruth Gbagbi - the Ivorian with a full palette of taekwondo weaponry
Ruth Gbagbi has contributed fully to Ivory Coast's recent rich period in taekwondo, most notably with an Olympic bronze and a world title.
And as the 27-year-old from Abidjan sets her sights on the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Games - for which she has already qualified - she can reflect upon the storming form she showed in 2019 ahead of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Close observers of the sport marvelled at her victory over Britain's 20-year-old double European champion Lauren Williams in the final of the Sofia Grand Prix in October 2019.
At 5-0 down in round one to an opponent who has the reputation as being the fiercest fighter in the women's 67 kilograms class, Gbagbi gave extraordinary proof of the instinctive nature of her talent as she levelled the score with one extraordinary, and indeed unique, kick.
Forced back to the edge of the mat, the Ivorian fighter unleashed "a jump reverse turning kick".
Both feet were off the mat, and her kicking leg was higher than her head as her heel connected to Williams' head protector.
With the score at 5-5 Gbagbi was right back in it, and she made good of her advantage to earn a hard-won gold by a final score of 25-20.
"She is very powerful and very creative," Philippe Bouedo, a hugely experienced taekwondo fighter, coach and official who will be World Taekwondo's technical delegate at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, said. "She has a full palette of techniques."
Gbagbi, meanwhile, insisted: "It was instinctive. I did not have a plan about that.
"When the action came, I reacted in that way. I did not really practice it."
Gbagbi concluded the 2019 season with a resounding victory in the Moscow Grand Prix final, where she defeated Paige McPherson of the United States 7-4 in the semi-finals and went on to win gold against Croatia's Matea Jelić.
Having taken up the sport 16 years ago, following the lead of a cousin, Gbagbi has also earned victories at the 2017 Moscow Grand Prix and the 2017 Wuxi Grand Slam.
"I am a fighter," she said. "The more difficult it is, the more I like it."
Gbagbi's Olympic bronze in Rio came on the same evening that her team-mate Cheick Sallah Cissé earned the Olympic title in the men's 80 kilograms thanks to the same kind of inspiration she would produce in Chiba - a final second kick to the head in his final against Britain's Lutalo Muhummad.
Gbagbi's place on the women's Olympic 67kg rostrum was assured by her defeat of Azerbaijan's Farida Azizova.
The feisty fighter then contributed her own global gold to Africa in general and the Ivory Coast in particular as she won the world title the following year at Muju in South Korea, defeating Iran's Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin 19-9 in the final.
"She is the perfect aspect of taekwondo - we want to show people how exciting the game is," Bouedo added to World Taekwondo.
"In championships, some players minimise risk, but not Gbagbi. She has no limits."
Cheick Sallah Cissé: "I am like an ambassador of Africa"
It is not surprising to hear that Cheick Sallah Cissé’s motto is "never give up".
For all he may yet achieve in taekwondo, it is hard to imagine he will ever become better known for anything other than his astonishing gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics - not just a last-minute win, but a last-second win.
Britain’s Lutalo Muhammad was ahead for the entirety of the men’s under-80kg final - until that last second, when Cissé produced an inspired spinning heel kick that brushed his opponent’s face and dashed the gold from his grasp.
"I realised that, in one second, everything can change," he told World Taekwondo. "I was so happy, because I had achieved my dream."
Cissé had benefited in ideal fashion from his own huge effort in the 2015 World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final in Mexico City, when despite losing 16-10 in an all-action meeting with fellow battler Aaron Cook of Moldova, he did enough to earn the Ivory Coast a quota place for Rio.
It was one of the most dramatic moments not just in taekwondo Olympic history, but Olympic history.
Cissé returned home to the Ivory Coast a hero. As the recipient of the first Olympic gold medal ever won by an Ivoirian, he and team mate Ruth Gbagbi - who won bronze in Rio - were greeted by the President and toured the country.
Subsequently, the two upgraded their training environment, relocating from steamy West Africa to the dojang of Spanish master coach Juan Antonio Ramos on the idyllic Mediterranean island of Majorca.
Before the Rio Games, Cissé - who put his studies in electrical engineering on hold to prepare - had undergone a fearsomely busy 2015, and his ambition for 2016 was simple: "I am going to rest as I had to give a lot of fights this year - too many," he said.
His dream at the time? "Olympic gold."
Having achieved the sport’s highest honour, the temptation may have been there to take things easy once again.
"It is very difficult for Olympic champions to get motivated," said World Taekwondo Technical Committee vice -chairman Philippe Bouedo. "After the Olympics, you get media interest and sponsor interest, but then you have to come back to the venues, back to the training."
At the first major post-Rio event, the 2017 World Championships in Muju in South Korea, Cissé won nothing. In the first Grand Prix of the season in Russian capital Moscow, he managed bronze. Then he shifted gear and took three golds, the last of them after an epic battle in the World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final hosted in his native Abidjan, when he defeated Russia’s Maksim Khramtcov 33-28.
In oppressive evening heat, to the roar of the crowd, backed by local drummers, the 24-year-old from Bouake contributed to one of the sport’s greatest fights against his technically assured opponent.
It left the World Taekwondo President, Chungwon Choue, shaking his head in bemusement and exclaiming: "The most exciting game!"
Afterwards, the impulsive Cissé, national flag in hand, grabbed his first master and raced into the VIP stand to pay respects to the assembled World Taekwondo executives and local politicians.
"Before coming here I already had it in my mind to give homage to my master if I won," he admitted. "Lucien Christian Kragbe was my first master - and was not only my master, he helped me very much. He is like my father."
A sliver medal came in 2018 at the African Championships and the Grand Prix final in Fujairah, where he lost 9-6 to Norway’s Richard Ordemann.
The following year - the last in which he has been able to involve himself in top-class competition - Cissé won the African Games title with a 38-35 win over Achraf Mahboubi of Morocco.
Asked to describe himself, Cissé says, "I am a warrior! My physical style is strong, and I am a 360-degree fighter."
For all his bravado, Cissé has a thoughtful side. "I am now well known in my country and in Africa, and maybe the world," he mused. "I am like an ambassador of Africa, so I set an example."
This can be challenging, he confesses. "I am only 24, and I cannot do all the things that people of my age do… I have to try and think and act like a great personality."
Harking back to Rio, he added: "When you go to the Olympics, you don’t go for you, you go for your country, for your continent. I wanted Africa to be proud of me."
Seif Eissa's journey from Taipei to Tokyo
Egypt's Seif Eissa announced his taekwondo talents to the wider world in 2014 when he earned bronze at the Summer Youth Olympics in Taipei.
Six years on, aged 22, he has put himself in position to seek a senior Olympic medal at the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games.
Since taekwondo became a full Olympic discipline at Sydney 2000, Egypt has won two medals. Tamer Bayoumi secured bronze in the men's under-58 kilograms flyweight class at the Athens Games in 2004, and at the Rio 2016 Games, Hedaya Malak Wahba also took bronze in the featherweight under-57kg category that was won by Britain's Jade Jones.
In February of this year, Eissa earned the opportunity of adding to his country's collection of Olympic medals when he won one of the two Tokyo places on offer in the men's under-80kg class at the 2020 African Taekwondo Olympic Qualification Tournament in Rabat.
His opponent in the decisive contest, Firas Katousi, had edged a decision over him after a scoreless men’s under-74kg final at the African Games, held in the same Moroccan venue, and had also beaten him 9-8 at the 2019 World Championships in Manchester.
So, Eissa's 3-1 victory would have had a special personal resonance.
The Egyptian – who won his first African Games silver back in 2015 – had prepared himself for his Olympic trial with a highly successful 2019 season.
His African Games silver was preceded by winning a medal of the same colour at the Summer Universiade in Naples, where he lost 6-4 in the men's under-80kg final to South Korea's Minwoo Kang.
On the main tour his season had opened with victories at the Luxembourg and Australia Open events, and his post-Rabat momentum continued as he took a silver medal at the Sofia Grand Prix, losing 12-10 in the final to Saleh El Sharabaty of Jordan.
Another silver medal was his at his next competition, the Military World Games in Wuhan, where he lost 11-7 in the final to Maksim Khramtcov.
The Russian then beat him in the Grand Prix final semi-final in Moscow en-route to becoming a home gold medallist, with Eissa just missing out on bronze after losing the match-off against Uzbekistan’s Nikita Rafalovich.
That frustration would soon be followed by the satisfaction of earning an Olympic place and the challenge of adding to Egypt's proud record at the Games.
Hedaya Malak Wahba: Kicking like an Egyptian
At the Rio 2016 Games, Hedaya Malak Wahba became the first woman to win an Olympic taekwondo medal for Egypt as she took bronze in the featherweight under-57 kilograms category that was won by Britain's Jade Jones.
Wahba, then 23, became only the second taekwondo athlete to win an Olympic medal for her country following the groundbreaking success of Tamer Bayoumi, who also earned bronze in the men's under-58kg flyweight class at the Athens Games in 2004.
Five years earlier she had given a clear indication of her potential by winning the African Games title in the under-57kg class with a victory over Senegal's Bineta Diedhiou.
Ivory Coast's Ruth Gbagbi, who would also go on to win bronze at the Rio 2016 Games in the under-67kg category, won a medal of the same colour.
A year after that triumph, Wahba had her first experience of the Olympics where she was beaten beaten 8-6 in the London 2012 under-57kg class quarter-finals by France's Marlene Harnois.
At the following year's World Championships in Puebla, her first as a senior, she reached the quarter-finals in the under-62kg before losing 11-8 to South Korea's Hwi-Lang Kim.
Two years later at the World Championships in Chelyabinsk in 2015, she reached the same stage, going out to an even narrower result as she lost 14-13 to Edina Kotsis of Hungary.
She then picked up a bronze at the Moscow Grand Prix, losing 16-10 to Jones in the semi-final.
Wahba thus arrived at her second Olympics with a wealth of new experience behind her, and she earned 13-0 wins over Colombia's Doris Patino Moran and Mayu Hamada of Japan before falling excruciatingly short in her under-57kg semi-final, losing 1-0 on the golden point to eventual silver medallist Eva Calvo of Spain.
After a 14-0 win in the first round of the repechage, victory by the same means was enough to earn her bronze in her match against Belgium's Raheleh Asemani.
She then moved to the under-67kg category and had two relatively lean years before returning to something like her normal form in 2019 when she took bronze at the Rome Grand Prix and beat the Ivory Coast's Marie Ekpitini 20-0 in the African Games final.
In 2020 in Rabat she ensured her qualification for the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 30-4 win over Kenya's Everlyne Aluocheolod.
Pita Nikolas Taufatofua: Tonga’s gift to taekwondo vows to give back
He did not win a medal in Rio, but Tongan athlete Pita Nikolas Taufatofua may just be the most famous face - or rather, body - to emerge from the 2016 Olympic Games.
When he marched into the stadium as his nation’s standard bearer during the Olympic Opening ceremony, bare-breasted, muscular and glistening, women around the world swooned, men invested in gym memberships and body oil and the Internet went wild, making the Tongan taekwondo fighter the first (and arguably the biggest) viral hit of Rio 2016.
What does he make of his overnight success?
“It was not overnight!,” said the smiling 32-year-old who, though of Tongan birth, lives and works in Brisbane, Australia. “This was 20 years of taekwondo discipline to get me to this point! This point was just the tip of the iceberg!”
Even so, the constant stream of media attention has been a surprise.
“We thought, ‘Oh, it will settle down and I will have time to focus on training,’ but it just got bigger!,” he said during an interview with WTF Communications in the athlete warm-up area of Carioca Arena 3, in Rio’s Barra Olympic Park. “We have had media from all over the world: From Argentina, Brazil, Korea, China, Australia, America….”
Indeed. During and after the Opening Ceremony, there were 45 million hits on Google asking “Where is Tonga?” and “What Sport Does Taufatofua Do?” He has since been featured in the Washington Post, TIME magazine, Entertainment Weekly, the Wall Street Journal and a host of other media that are virgin territory for taekwondo fighters. Some 100 million viewers tuned in during his appearance on “The Today Show,” and George Bush’s daughter was filmed oiling him up. (“Who’s the superpower now?,” he jokes) Finally, his (again, topless) appearance at the Olympic Closing Ceremony generated a second wave of hysteria.
In short, he has been given an opportunity - and it is one that he intends to take full advantage of. “It is important for me to get Tonga out to the world,” he said. “And to get taekwondo out to the world, as well.” In fact, his nickname is “The Real Tongan Ninja.” “There was an old movie called ‘The Tongan Ninja,’” he explained. “So people started to say, ‘We need to call him, The Real Tongan Ninja.’”
While he is understandably reluctant to discuss any of the commercial sponsorship opportunities that have suddenly become available, he knows that the money could be a game changer for his cash-strapped region. “We have been self-funded for years,” he said. “It has been tough, a very tough time for us.”
His Olympic baptism of fire was tough, too, as his +80kg fight pitted him against Iranian top gun Sajjad Mardani. It proved a one-sided war. While Taufatofua was game, and showcased a wide range of techniques, Mardani delivered a stern lesson, taking the match 16-1.
“I did not realise how quick his front leg was - I did not think it would reach me, my distance was off,” the Tongan mused, post-fight. “But we fought, we shook hands, we gave the crowd a show and the crowd was happy - at my expense!
“That is the taekwondo we have to take to the world!”
The experience gulf between Mardani, a frequent fixture on the international circuit and world ranked number three, and Taufatofua, world ranked number 157, was as wide as the geographical gulf between Iran and the Pacific Island nation: It was only the Tongan’s third fight in three years.
“I have not fought anyone on that level that I can remember, I don’t have world ranking points as I could not afford to go to the European Opens or the Grand Prix,” he said. “But I feel I have enough tools if I could grow them. And we have shown the world that Tonga is a small nation, but big-hearted.”
The commercial opportunities which his sudden fame have generated could help transform the underfunded state of Oceania taekwondo - which failed to win any medals in Rio. “We can really bring up the next generation of athletes and get funding for the Pacific, this is a big thing for us,” he said. “We are a small country, but now we have a big voice.”
And it is an educated voice - Taufatofua is no muscle head. Professionally, he is a counsellor for homeless youth, a job in which his strong Christian faith and his taekwondo training - training he has been engaged in since he was five years old - provide a powerful foundation. “I use the discipline of taekwondo to help people,” he said. “I work full time, I train full time and I study full time.”
Even so, as the new poster athlete for taekwondo as a form of physical conditioning, he has strong views on health and fitness, insisting that functional strength is more important than aesthetic looks.
His power workout consists of plyometric routines, kettlebell routines, functional weight training and cable/pulley exercises. For cardio, he does wind sprints on the incline treadmill: 10-15 second sprints, then 30 seconds break. And for flexibility, he stretches twice a day, both the front and rear lines of the body.
Where does taekwondo slot into the fitness matrix? “Martial arts is fundamental, it offers a couple of things which normal bodybuilding does not,” he said. “It changes your mind as well as your body; it makes you stronger mentally, then your body follows.”
The chief reason people fail to attain physical fitness, he believes, is their inability to persevere. “People give up way too easily, they look for the quick-and-easy method,” he opined. “The reality is that you have to go through the valley to reach the mountain.”
Another problem is the temptations of modern life. “I feel men give up a little bit too early,” he said. “They are at this point where it is too hard, it is easier to eat crap food and drink crap drinks.”
The results of “The Real Tongan Ninja’s” dedication are built into the physique he showcased to the world, drenched in baby oil. “Not baby oil,” he insisted. “Coconut oil!”
So what made him decide to go out bare-breasted, instead of in a conventional blazer and slacks?
Was it male pride? Or perhaps the egotism of the elite athlete?
He turns serious. “As opposed to the Western influence, the blazer, we wanted to go out wearing what our ancestors wore into battle 200 years ago,” he said.
Spoken like a warrior.
Haby Niaré - the scorpion kicker heads into retirement
Haby Niaré will be with her French team-mates in spirit from now on as the Rio 2016 silver medallist and 2013 world champion has decided to retire from taekwondo.
Niaré, who earned her Rio silver medal and world title in the women's under-67 kilograms division, decided that, at 27, pushing on to Tokyo 2020 was a step too far.
The French athlete has not competed at an elite event since the 2019 World Championships in Manchester, where she was knocked out in the round-of-16.
"As I stop striding and stepping on the octagonal area, I remain guided by my positive emotions and the urge to face new challenges," Niaré told World Taekwondo.
"After 10 years of good and loyal service in high-level sport, my devouring desire to live new tournaments has fallen deep into my body's wear."
Niaré was the top seed at Rio 2016 and suffered an agonising 13-12 defeat to South Korea's Oh Hye-ri in the final.
Three years earlier she had secured the world title in Puebla in Mexico.
Niaré is also a former European champion and four-time continental medallist.
"I am and will remain a champion of emotions," Niaré added in a message announcing her retirement.
"I'll be at the front row cheering on my sisters and brothers in arms for the rest of the Olympic adventure."
Tall, leggy and lithe, Niaré has always shown a charming and bubbly personality alongside her formidable fighting talents.
A native of Mates la Jolie - a suburb of Paris where she is widely recognised for her taekwondo achievements - Niaré stood out within the women's sport because of her unique technique with spin kicks and face kicks.
French coach Medhi Bensafi said: "She is special and spectacular, not a conventional style."
Niaré's most eye-catching technique was a heel hook kick that she unleashes - almost impossibly - from up close.
"I love the 'scorpion kick', in my team that is the name for this kick," she said.
"When we are in the clinch, when she thinks I can't do anything - then I fire that. But I need to do it fast and if you want to do this kick, you need to be very flexible."
She added: "Mental is most important for the fights, it's all in the spirit.
"The winner is not always the best, the winner is the one with the head game. I think it through round by round, I know what my work is and I don’t panic."
Now, she will be applying her formidable mental talents in a new and broader field of play.
Milica Mandić has an eternal place in Serbia's history books
Milica Mandić has a place in Olympic history as the first athlete from independent Serbia to win a gold medal in any sport - something she managed at the London 2012 Games as she won taekwondo's over-67 kilograms class.
Her momentous achievement came after a 5-4 win over Anne-Caroline Graffe of France in the final.
The following year, Mandić and her trainer Dragan Jović were included in the Taekwondo Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Las Vegas.
That was a peak for the Belgrade-born athlete who, eight years earlier, had made her competitive international debut in the cadet category at the European Championships in Palermo.
Her promise was confirmed in 2008 as she earned World Championship youth bronze in the under-68kg class.
Once in the senior ranks, she made a breakthrough in 2011, winning four Open events and taking bronze in the under-73kg class at the World Championships in Gyeongju.
Her London 2012 victory was preceded by European silver in the under-73kg division and was followed in 2013 by the earning of five titles, although no medal was secured at the World Championships in Puebla.
Another European silver followed in 2014, when she lost to Croatian rival Iva Radoš, but once again a medal evaded her at the 2015 World Championships in Chelyabinsk, where she lost in the quarter-finals of the under-73kg event to the eventual gold medallist, South Korea's Oh Hye-ri.
She followed up by earning silver at the first European Games, held in Baku, and in 2016 she took another European silver, beaten for the second successive final by Radoš, this time 1-0.
She defended her over-67kg title at the Rio Olympics, losing to Britain's Bianca Walkden in the quarter-finals.
But the following year the Serbian was triumphant once again at global level as she beat Oh 17-13 in the under-73kg final at the Muju World Championships.
At the end of 2019 she gave notice of her continuing threat to be the best in her division as she won silver in the over-67kg class at the Grand Prix final in Moscow, losing 7-4 to China's Olympic champion Zheng Shuyin.
The 28-year-old had two competitive forays in 2020 - both fruitful - as she took silver at the WT President's Cup- Europe at Helsingborg, and then won the US Open in Kissimmee.
Radik Isayev – Azerbaijan's adopted champion
Radik Isayev was born in the Russian republic of Dagestan, but over the last decade he has earned the highest honours in the colours of his adopted country, Azerbaijan, with men's heavyweight gold at the Rio 2016 Olympics the high point.
Isayev indicated his potential at the 2013 World Championships in the Mexican city of Puebla where, aged 23, he took the bronze medal in the middleweight under-87 kilograms class after losing 3-2 in his semi-final to China's Ma Zhaoyong.
The following year, Isayev picked up what would be the first of his three – so far – continental titles when he won the European Championships on his home ground of Baku, earning a commanding 12-2 win in the final against France's Mbar Ndiaye.
In 2015 he returned to the Azerbaijani capital to contest the first European Games – and did so as world champion, having won the middleweight title in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk thanks to two titanic victories.
In the semi-final he defeated Cuba's defending champion, Rafael Alba, 7-6, and he then beat Uzbekistan's Asian Games champion Jasur Baykuzigyev 5-4 for gold.
Expectations were sky-high for the home athlete in the taekwondo-mad host city, and he rose spectacularly to the occasion, delivering the heavyweight over-80kg European Games title with a 4-3 win over Russia's Vladislav Lorin in front of a vociferous crowd in the Crystal Hall.
It was the perfect preparation for his first Olympic competition – and in Rio the following year he hit the mark again as he took gold with a 6-2 win over Niger's Abdoul Issoufou at the Carioca Arena 3.
Having lost in the round-of-16 at the 2016 European Championships, he returned to the gold standard in that competition when it was held in the Russian city of Kazan in 2018, beating home fighter Roman Kuznetsov 10-7 in the final.
Isayev exited at the round-of-16 stage in last year's Manchester World Championships, but recovered his momentum with bronze medals at the Chiba Grand Prix and the Grand Prix final in Moscow.
He indicated that he was still going strong with victories early in 2020 at the Helsingborg and Dutch Open before the coronavirus lockdown halted operations.
Hatice Kübra İlgün: Last gasp heroics in Chiba
Hatice Kübra İlgün left it until the final second of her under-57 kilograms featherweight final to win the World Taekwondo Grand Prix in Chiba in September 2019.
A high, round kick to the head of Morocco's Nada Laraaj turned a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 winning margin for the 26-year-old Turkish fighter whose career was gathering huge momentum up to the point where competition had to be held up because of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
"One second," said the leggy, five foot, nine inch fighter in an interview the following day with World Taekwondo.
"I can't believe it, but at that moment I was hearing the signal and I was so happy."
Iİlgün started taekwondo 14-years-ago though a family contact.
"My advantages are that my legs are very long, and I am strong and slim," she said. "And I work hard."
Her promise in the sport was soon evident as she earned second place in the senior under-49kg event at the Dutch Open aged 16. The following year, she was under-57kg bronze medallist at the European Under-21 Championships in Chisinau and senior titles soon followed in the Turkish, Ukraine and Moldova Open events.
In 2017, she took another significant step-up as she won under-57kg silver at the World Championships in Muju, losing 7-5 to South Korea's Lee Ah-reum, who had beaten Britain's Olympic champion Jade Jones in the semi-final.
Before the year was over she had won gold at the Summer Universiade in Taipei, and she followed up by earning her first Grand Prix title in Rabat.
At the 2018 European Championships in Kazan she added another significant medal to her collection as she earned silver, losing to Jones in the final.
In 2019, she produced a series of results that bettered for consistency anything she had done before.
Her Chiba win was preceded by silver at the Rome Grand Prix, and followed by bronze at the Sofia Grand Prix and a silver in the Grand Prix Final in Moscow.
She continued into 2020 in the same dominant vein, winning the Fujairah Open and WT Presidents Cup - Europe in Helsingborg before taking bronze at the German Open.
Qualification for the next Olympics has been amply secured.
"I am really hard working," she told World Taekwondo. "And I really want to be there."
A medal at Tokyo would be a life-changing achievement. Turkey awards successful European, World or Olympic medal-winning athletes with monetary compensation and post-career coaching positions.
"That is good for building my future," she added. "But I will fight under the Turkish national flag. That is more important to me than money."
Christian McNeish - from kickboxing to taekwondo
While 20-year-old Bradly Sinden created history in Manchester last year in becoming Britain's first male taekwondo world champion, he cannot take for granted the under-68 kilograms place at the Tokyo Olympics given the bubbling form of his domestic rival in the featherweight category, Christian McNeish.
This 23-year-old from Plaistow in East London, who switched from kickboxing – his father’s sport – to taekwondo in 2013 – has shown ample talent and versatility since, and his performance in earning silver at the World Taekwondo (WT) Grand Prix in Chiba last October only confirmed his growing presence in the sport.
"I was from kickboxing, which is the same sort of thing [to taekwondo]," he told World Taekwondo.
"The transition from one combat sport to another was not a great challenge. My persona is I adapt well, I am good at learning."
Since working with Team GB's coaching and conditioning staff in Manchester, McNeish has established an estimable CV.
In 2014 he indicated his huge potential in his new discipline by winning bronze in the under-63kg category at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing.
The following year he won bronze in the under-68kg class at the Summer Universiade in Gwangju, South Korea.
He has since earned further success at senior level. His stand-out achievement from 2017 was a bronze medal in the Moscow Grand Prix, where he was narrowly beaten 17-16 in his semi-final by home athlete Alexey Denisenko.
In the next competition after that, the London Grand Prix, the rivalry between himself and Sinden was pointed-up as the younger man beat him 18-17.
The following year he became European champion in the Russian city of Kazan with a 28-21 win over home athlete Sarmat Tcakoev.
There was disappointment for McNeish last year as he lost his opening contest at the Manchester World Championships in May. But his form picked up dramatically with five medals, before competition was suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak.
He won the World Taekwondo President's Cup – Oceania, held in Carrara, Queensland, and then stepped briefly up to the under-74kg class in winning bronze at the Australian Open.
Moving on to the Grand Prix at Chiba, he produced one of his most impressive performances, although he had to settle eventually for silver after a hugely competitive final against Iran's Mirhashem Hosseini who won 36-20.
"I am happy with how the day went," he told World Taekwondo in the aftermath.
"I had some good fights, and I improved over my previous performance at GPs and at the Worlds.
"I am definitely happy with how it has gone and I hope to continue to improve on my performance."
In December, at the final Grand Prix of 2019 in Wuxi, McNeish also excelled, only missing out on bronze after losing 2-1 to home competitor Lin Wenye on golden point.
This year has offered him two further material rewards for his talent in the shape of a bronze medal from the WT President's Cup – Europe, held in Helsingborg, and gold in the Hamburg Open.
Asked to assess his own style, he said: "Obviously leg control – but my favourites are any things that are a bit more erratic and dynamic."
On the technique front, his favoured blows are all crowd-pleasers: back kicks, double kicks and – something that was very much on show during his Chiba final – high kicks delivered from within the clinch.
Clearly he is at home in both open play and the close-in ruck. "I try to be balanced," he said.
He has also prioritised stamina. "I push my fitness, so I can push the fight," he said, which explains the extraordinary work rate that was apparent in his Chiba bouts.
Above all, he is a self-believer. "I rate myself as a fighter and I don't over-rate other fighters," he said. "My dad calls me 'champion.'"
Magda Wiet Henin – France's star from a fighting family
How about this for consistency? Since the start of 2019, until competition was halted early in 2020 because of the coronavirus crisis, Magda Wiet Henin had won medals in all but two of her 15 competitions.
No wonder this 24-year-old from Nancy in France is heading towards the Tokyo Olympics – and indeed the Paris 2024 Games – with ever-increasing confidence.
At 5ft, 8in Wiet Henin is not particularly tall for her welterweight category. But she has on her side a natural agility and strong mental approach. And, also, the benefit of having two parents who were top class boxers.
"My parents were both world champions, though they are retired now," Wiet Henin told World Taekwondo in September 2019 after winning the under-67 kilograms gold at the Chiba Grand Prix.
"They never wanted me to do boxing – too rough! Taekwondo is more about strategy and spinning kicks; it is not as rough as boxing."
That Chiba win against her 6ft opponent, Matea Jelic of Croatia, offered evidence of all the strengths this determined competitor now carries having begun her taekwondo career at the age of six.
While her more powerful opponent dominated at the centre of the mat, Wiet Henin danced around the perimeter and, after going into the third round at 4-4, earned a 5-4 win with a single, powerful punch.
Her modest height for her category requires a clear strategy, and there was a detailed plan for her final against Jelic. "My coach said that, because she is bigger, I have to do no-risk actions, control the match and engage only when I was 100 per cent sure," she said.
"The fighters I have to fight are taller, so I have to control the fight with the front leg, and I have developed an explosive cut kick and follow up."
She has some advice for anyone taking on bigger opponents.
"Don't be scared!" she said. "Their size does not mean they will win, it means you have to use other weapons.
"Their weapon is size – we have a lot of different weapons."
In terms of her own strengths, Wiet Henin mentions speed, precision and conditioning.
"I can go three rounds and keep going, going and going," she said. But, when asked to reveal her endurance routine, she countered with: "That's a secret!"
She added: "We prepare for every match, so when I come, I know how to get ready in my head."
Wiet Henin uses mental focus and breathing exercises to suppress the pre-fight jitters. "I am not stressed – I know how to manage it," she said. "I know what I have to do in my matches."
Henin joined the French national team aged 15 and won gold at the 2012 World Junior Championships in Sharm El Sheikh. At 18 she left home in Nancy to train full-time in Paris.
Her victory in Chiba was the first in the series for France since 2015, and offered evidence of how her career is peaking. Earlier in 2019, she took bronze at the World Championships in Manchester.
The Chiba win was of particular delight for Wiet Henin's mother. "My mom is really happy, she was crying," Wiet Hennin told World Taekwondo. "She is normally at the Grand Prix, she knows the level of the fights, and she knows that my opponents are all taller and bigger than me."
Like every athlete, she knows the time window will only be open for a limited time. "This is my passion," she said. "I know this will not be my job in the future."
She is currently pursuing a Master's degree in human resource management in Paris.
"I have dreamed about the Olympics since I was six," she said.
And it is not just her own dream: her mother never got the chance to box in the Olympics.
"It was my mother's dream," Wiet Henin said. "Now, it is my dream."
Sneaking under the radar: Norway's Richard Andre Ordemann
Norway's Richard Andre Ordemann had a relatively quiet 2019 season after the peaks he reached in 2018.
But the 25-year-old from Nannestad remains a potent threat in the under-80 kilograms category as the world's best taekwondo exponents re-calibrate their sights to the postponed Tokyo Games.
After announcing himself to the taekwondo world with a bronze medal at the 2014 European Junior Championships, Ordemann indicated that he was already capable of making his mark in the senior ranks as he earned bronze later that season in the French Open.
Since then he has amassed 20 medals in senior Open events, including eight golds.
In 2017 he won bronze at the Summer Universiade in Taipei, losing 12-10 to Raul Martinez Garcia of Spain. Earlier that year Ordemann had reached the quarter-finals at the World Championships in Muju, South Korea, losing 8-6 to Russia's eventual silver medallist Anton Kotkov.
The following year was a memorable one for the young Norwegian, as he began with a silver medal at the Turkish Open followed by golds at the Dutch and German Opens.
At the European Championships in Kazan he shared bronze, having lost 17-14 in his semi-final against Aaron Cook, the Briton who represents Moldova.
Then he produced one of the best results of his career to beat the odds-on favourite, Maksim Khramtcov of Russia, 27-14, and claim men's under-80kg gold at the Fujairah Grand Prix Final in the United Arab Emirates.
A superb round kick to the face from Ordemann in the third round drew gasps from the crowd and looked like it stunned the Russian.
"Most of my head shots have a bit of power behind them," the Norwegian told World Taekwondo after the fight. "It puts them in a mental state that I quite like.
"It went according to plan – but my plans were quite simplistic; I don't go into detail. That limits myself."
He added: "I have been sneaking under the radar a bit. I have not had massive medals and I have not been really big on posting online, trying to get a big following."
At that point he was already looking ahead to the Tokyo 2020 Games, and putting emphasis on the importance of physical conditioning.
"Tokyo is very much on the horizon, and this medal puts me in a good spot for qualifying," he said.
"Injuries you can't really do much about: if it happens it happens.
"So I do a lot of 'prehab' - exercises to prevent injuries.
"This is the start of something good: I think you will be seeing a lot more of me on the podiums in the future.
"I am here to stay."
His season last year was relatively less successful – he took silver at the Turkish and Egyptian Opens, and gold at the Polish Open in Warsaw.
But he was tantalisingly close to the podium in the season-ending events of the Extra European Championships in Bari, where he lost 5-3 to Kotkov in the quarter-final, and the Grand Prix Final in Moscow, where he also reached the last eight.
As Ordemann looks ahead to the re-staged Tokyo Games, he knows he has real medal chances…
Simone Alessio's teenage kicks in Manchester
At the age of 19, Simone Alessio is already a history-maker having earned Italy's first gold medal at the World Taekwondo Championships. He is seeking to add further distinction at this year's Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Alessio's surprise landmark achievement took place in Manchester on May 18 in 2019 as he took on Jordan's Rio 2016 champion Ahmad Abughaush in the men's under-74 kilograms lightweight final.
While the Italian towered over his opponent at 6ft 4in, the Jordanian brought to bear a wealth of experience, having earned the honour of being his country's first Olympic champion.
But the young Italian, who had only turned 19 the previous month, found the way to earn an 18-11 victory.
It was the second major gold for his collection following his win in the under-73kg class at the 2017 European Junior Championships in Larnaca.
"I am so happy and proud of my achievements," he told World Taekwondo. "This has been my dream since I was a child, so it was really great to arrive in the best condition I have ever been in and win gold.
"I had to train really hard for this competition because I knew Abughaush was going to be very strong. When I won, I couldn't believe it, and I think this is only the start."
Alessio accepts that his height can offer some advantages, but points out that it can also work the other way at times.
"I guess I have a small advantage because of my height, but if my opponent is quick and smart, I find this difficult. It is not always easy," he says. "But my favourite action is kicking, which I am good at because of my long legs!"
This was evident in the Manchester final, where Alessio scored well with his kicks to Abughaush's head, but was vulnerable to swift body punches from his opponent.
In the wake of his gold medal performance, Alessio said: "Tokyo 2020 is a dream, but I am not looking that far ahead.
"I am living in the present and just trying to be the best I can be."
For the following World Taekwondo Grand Prix Series, Alessio moved up to the under-80kg welterweight class and the rest of 2019 became something of a learning curve as he competed at events in Rome, Chiba and Sofia without getting onto the podium – although he was only one round away in Japan.
But Alessio's season finished on a high note in November as he took bronze at the G4 Extra European Championships on his home ground of Bari, having suffered a narrow 15-13 defeat in his semi-final against Russia's eventual champion, Anton Kotkov.
"Tokyo 2020 is my objective of course," he said. "But I want to continue working hard and step by step I will manage to make the best results in all my future competitions."
Bradly Sinden – making history for the British men
Bradly Sinden created history in Manchester in 2019 as, at the age of 20, he became Britain's first male taekwondo world champion.
Britain's women have established a golden tradition at the Championships in the space of the last 20 years, with double Olympic champion Jade Jones claiming her first title in Manchester to complete her medal set in the under-57 kilograms category.
Sarah Stevenson was the first British woman to win a world title when she claimed the under-72kg gold in 2001, and she added the under-67kg title ten years later.
Bianca Walkden has also won the last three heavyweight over-73kg titles.
Sinden joined the golden crew thanks to a 24-19 win in the under-68kg final over the favourite, Spain's Javier Pérez Polo.
British men have reached the podium at the World Championships over a period of more than 40 years, with Lindsay Lawrence winning two silvers and a bronze between 1979 and 1983.
Sinden, who comes from Doncaster, took under-63kg bronze at the 2017 World Championships in Muju, South Korea, before taking two steps up to the top of the podium in 2019.
"I went out there to see what I could do," he told World Taekwondo.
"Ultimately, I put the work in and that is what got me the gold medal.
"Being Britain's first male champion is also great and I am really lucky to be the first one from the team.
"The girls are so dominant in the sport, so the men need to step up our competition."
Sinden added that his "emotional" defeat in the previous year's World Taekwondo Grand Slam in Wuxi, China, where he was beaten in the final by home athlete Zhao Shuai, had caused him to review his training.
"I looked at what I needed to do better," he said.
"I implemented everything I needed to change in my next three events leading up to the World Championships and went to training camp."
Looking ahead to this summer's Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, he said: "I want to come home with the first British men's Olympic gold medal.
"I have had a lot to improve on, but I have a lot of drive."
Since then that drive has continued to take him to the heights of his event, although he has missed out on gold on two recent occasions.
Pérez Polo avenged his World Championship final loss by beating Sinden 19-11 in the G4 European Championships under-68kg final in November 2019, and a month later at the the Grand Prix Final in Moscow the Briton took silver after defeat by South Korea's Lee Dae-hoon.
Elizaveta Ryadninskaya: the Russian high-kicking, big-singing young talent
Russia, one of the world powers in taekwondo, will be looking confidently to 18-year-old Elizaveta Ryadninskaya to maintain success in the women’s 49 kilograms category in years to come.
Ryadninskaya announced herself as a world-class junior competitor in winning the 2017 European junior title in Larnaca and adding gold at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires.
But the demands of the first in last year’s World Taekwondo Grand Prix series in Rome were of a totally different order - and she rose superbly to the challenge.
The young Russian took an epic route to the final involving victories over the Rio 2016 Olympic champion Kim So-hui of South Korea, France’s highly-experienced Yasmina Aziez; and Japan’s Asian Games bronze medallist Miya Yamada.
Having already surpassed expectations, the young Russian, ranked 22nd in the world, then went on to take the gold medal against South Korea’s overwhelming favourite - double world champion Sim Jae-young.
It was no marginal success for the athlete just out of the junior ranks, as, with one minute and 20 seconds left, a rear leg round kick to the back of Sim’s head extended her lead to 7-0.
The world number four tried all she knew in the closing stages, but Ryadninskaya came through for gold by a score of 8-4.
"I am very happy about this, but I know that we cannot stop," she told World Taekwondo. "We need to work, correct mistakes, and move on."
The Moscow native, who also won a medal at last year year’s Belgian Open, started taekwondo in her second year at school "after my friend showed me a few kicks".
Now she has kicked on in a big way, and Tokyo 2020 is already in her thoughts. But so, also, is the possibility of extending her singing ambitions. "My dream in the future is to get on The Voice," she said….
Matea Jelić is still learning on path to success
Croatia’s 21-year-old rising star Matea Jelić has learned an important lesson this year.
At the first of the three World Taekwondo Grand Prix series meetings this year, in Rome, Jelić - who had not managed to score a single point in the first two rounds of her women’s 67 kilograms final against South Korea’s Kim Jan-Di - turned a silver medal into gold in the last 10 seconds as she landed a spinning back kick followed by a front kick to win 8-3.
"The fight is not over until it is done and the referee says so," Jelić said.
Two weeks earlier in the Manchester Arena, Jelić had lost by just one point to Brazil’s Milena Titoneli in the round of 16 at the World Taekwondo Championships.
Two weeks on, Jelić used that disappointment and frustration as motivation.
"You can lose everything in one second," added Jelić, who has moved from her family home to take up regular training in Split. "Never give up. Just keep trying. I feel amazing because two weeks ago I lost at the World Championships. So I can say I didn’t give up and now I look forward to future matches.
"I think what was missing at the World Championships was my self-belief. Here I trust myself and my coach and the people around me.
"I was in taekwondo since I was a kid. From the start it wasn’t so serious but later I wanted to do more and more. I was watching Grand Prix meetings on my laptop and was hoping to get here. Now I’m here I’m very grateful and happy.
"But I want to put dreams in front of me so I can try to reach them. So maybe my next dream is to go to an Olympic Games and win a medal."
Meanwhile, Jelić is building an impressive collection of other medals. Last year she won gold at the Mediterranean Games and the Moscow leg of the Grand Prix. And she followed up her success in Rome by taking silver in the second Grand Prix series meeting in Chiba...
Junior World Champion Jordyn Smith maintains balance on and off the mat
For most teenagers, keeping up with school work and exams can be difficult enough.
For Great Britain’s newly crowned junior world champion, Jordyn Smith, that is only half the challenge.
Two days at school in her hometown, Falkirk, Scotland and three days in Manchester, England where she trains with GB Taekwondo’s World Class Performance Programme make up Jordyn’s week.
However, she appears to be striking the perfect balance as she demonstrated this week at the World Taekwondo Junior Championships in Hammamet, Tunisia where she won gold in the -44kg weight category.
“I’m just doing it part time at the moment. Once my exams are finished in May I’ll be training five times a week,” she says. “All the staff at GB are really helpful and really supportive of the school. I always have meetings at the start of the week so I can slot in times when I can do my study as well as training.”
The training certainly seems to be paying off and it was clear just how much the gold medal at the World Championships meant to her. Having overcome Thailand’s Jongkolrattanawattana in the final she dropped to her knees with joy before running round the court with the Union flag flying behind her.
A day later and she had not really come to terms with what she had achieved. “It’s still not really sunk in yet,” she says. “It’s a bit of a shock. Everyone is asking me how I feel and I don’t know what to say.”
That is understandable. Jordyn has been practicing taekwondo since she was four so this title may still feel like a dream.
“I remember going into my first session and being scared of all the loud shouts and the kicks. I used to always run out and hide behind my Dad. But I remember a couple of weeks in, my Dad said this is the last time I’m taking you if you don’t like it. There must have been something in me that day because I said ‘no, I want to do it.’ I think as long as you enjoy the sport then definitely do it.”
“I can fight seniors this year and I’m hoping to fight some senior events and collect some ranking points. Next year that’s when I officially turn senior.”
“I watch them and their commitment to the sport is just amazing. Sometimes I watch them and I just think ‘wow’.”
“Ever since I was little Tokyo was my dream. It might be a bit of a big statement right now but it’s still possible.”
Inspirational Larin claims WT Grand Prix title despite injury scare
Vladislav Larin of Russia secured his second World Taekwondo Grand Prix title in Rome on June 1, despite fighting most of the final with a dislocated finger.
Larin landed awkwardly on his finger mid-way through the second round, meaning that he had to fight the remainder of the gold medal match with practically one hand. To make things worse, he was up against pre-tournament favorite, Kyo-Don In of Korea, proving just how impressive Larin’s eventual victory was.
Larin has always enjoyed entertaining in the ring, often pushing his body to its limits. Before his taekwondo career kicked off, Larin was a talented gymnast until a fracture to his hand when landing a stunt proved to be gymnastics loss and taekwondo’s gain.
Larin’s outgoing personality combined with this desire to entertain formed his captivating style of fighting, most notably his trademark spinning kicks to the head of his opponents.
However, experience has taught Larin that he must pick his moments to unleash these signature moves.
The final match proved to be a fight where Larin had to remain composed and show his adaptability.
“In the final there was no need to use my spinning moves. I felt like I was always in control. Also the dislocation of my finger meant that I didn’t want to take any risks.”
A dislocated finger would be enough for any athlete to lose their concentration, but Larin admirably fought on to claim gold in the men’s +80kg weight category. He hopes that his performances in Rome will encourage the next generation to take up taekwondo.
“I aim to inspire people. I hope that I show youngsters that if you work hard, never give up and always believe in your spirit then you can achieve anything you want. No matter what,” he said.
“I hope that young people will watch my performances and see me claim this world title, and maybe they will think that they can one day win a big competition too!”
Larin’s impressive resolve and never say die attitude, even in the face of adversity, means that he is yet another great role model in the world of Taekwondo.
Furthermore, his adaptable fighting style means that he is a worthy match for any taekwondo star and, if he can stay fit, he will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Vanja Stanković: Journey of Self Belief
Finish high school? Check. Prepare for university? Check. Win World Championships? Check.
It was a fitting end to Vanja Stanković’s school days: On June 26 in 2017, the 19-year-old Serbian won the gold medal in the female under 49 kilograms category in Muju. But it was not something she had anticipated before she flew out to South Korea. "I did not expect to get to finals I just wanted to show my best and believe in myself and see what will happen," she said in an interview the day following her victory.
That victory adds yet another honour to the increasingly crowded medal wall at her dojang, Belgrade’s famous Galeb - which means "Seagull" in English - Taekwondo Club. Under head coach Dragan Jovic, the club has produced two Olympic medals - London 2012 gold medallist Milica Mandic’s and Rio 2016 silver medallist Tijana Bogdanovic’s Rio silver - and now a World Championship title, Serbia’s first-ever.
"Galeb is really the most successful club in Europe," Stanković, already a gold medallist at the European Under-21 Championships in Bulgaria and the Belgian Open before Muju, said. "We have good coaches good system of training, we train so hard every day, twice a day."
Galeb is not just about training, Stanković claimed. It is also about camaraderie. "In our club we are like a big family, everybody loves and supports each other, and everybody wants to come to the club," she said.
If teamwork is one reason for Stanković’s success, another is her apprenticeship in the sport from an early. "I started when I was maybe eight-years-old, my friend started it and she liked it and asked me to go with her," she recalled. "It was a game and I liked it – and now, nine years later, I am here."
Another reason is self-belief. "We always believe in ourselves and in our club and in our country," Stanković said. "From the start, my coach Uroš Todorović was helping with my mental strength: He made me believe in myself.
"Before Milica’s gold in London, nobody knew taekwondo, they would say, ‘Is it fighting with sticks?' But after two Olympic medals – especially Milica’s in London – there was a boom for taekwondo in Serbia and now it is one of the most famous sports. Everyone knows Milica and Tijana and Dragan.”
Having finished school, Stanković now plans to study economics at university but will continue competing in taekwondo. "I want to see how high I can go," she said.
As a fighter, the Serb’s core assets are speed, power and aggression. "I am not very tall, you know, so I try to be the fastest I can be – I try to surprise my opponent with speed," Stanković said.
And speed generates power. "I am not going for the KO, but I practice strong and fact and explosive," she said. "I always try to do my best – best speed! Strongest! That is what you see in the fight!"
In technical terms, Stanković boasts clean and powerful technique; in fact, the high roundhouse kicks she unleashed in Muju could be taken from the pages of a taekwondo textbook.
With the new rules coming in, her preparations for the 2017 World Championships were strenuous, with heavy priority on conditioning. "It is physically harder now, you need to push each other," Stanković, who focussed on a long process of weight training and leg strengthening, said. "I think for me, the new rules are better; the new style is more aggressive - more fight! - and more interesting for the watchers."
Though Stanković insists that she still enjoys both the training and the fighting of the sport, her final in Muju presented a stern test: She found herself taking on the defending world champion and Rio 2016 bronze medalist, Thailand's Panipak Wongpattanakit. Besides her experience, Wongpattanakit also boasted a height and leg-length advantage.
"The plan was to attack and don’t give her the chance to make contact," Stanković said of her game plan. "The plan was to break her fight, break her position, to move her and when she raised her leg, I would kick.
"Before a fight I sit quietly and I visualise the match: I see myself fast and strong and kicking the opponent in the head and body and the match is mine. I try to imagine…"
In the final, first blood went to Stanković in convincing style. She landed a picture-perfect round kick to Wongpattanakit’s head for three points – before being forced off the mats by the Thai’s counter-charge for a one-point penalty. The first round ended 3-1 to Stanković.
In round two, Wongpattanakit stabbed forward with her long front leg, but not connecting. She dominated the centre of the mats and forced Stanković out of the area for another penalty point, 2-3, which is how the round ended.
In the third round, the reigning champion had to score, but as she attacked forward, she went down, taking the board to 4-2 in Stanković’s favour. Then, as the Serb lunged in for a punch attack, Wongpattanakit landed her hook kick to the head but fell, meaning her points were deducted for holding. The Thai coach appealed against the decision but was overruled, leaving Stanković 5-2 ahead.
The board now read 5-2 to the Serb. The Thai won back two points with a body kick, but Stanković landed another wicked roundhouse to the head that dropped Wongpattanakit. "I did not think about kicking," Stanković said. "I just did what comes."
The score was 9-4, then 9-5. With 30 seconds remaining, Wongpattanakit tried to score to the head only for her effort to backfire when she tumbled. The score was 10-5 – and that was it. Stanković was Serbia's first-ever world champion.
"I could not speak, I could not move, I just started yelling," said. "I could not see anything or hear anything, I just thought, 'I did it! I did it!’' Many, many times earlier I had tried to imagine that moment - how it would feel. It was the most amazing feeling, ever. “
A day later, when the dust had settled, Stanković was able to look back upon about her taekwondo journey so far. The key learning, she claimed, is self-belief.
Taekwondo markets itself as being about self-defence, self-confidence and self-belief but Stanković was never 100 per cent certain about the latter. She is now. "I always told myself that hard work pays off," she said. "I was not sure – but now, I am down with that: It does."
Raheleh Asemani: Impossible is possible
Every Olympic athlete's road is long and hard - but Raheleh Asemani's was longer and harder than most. In fact, for a time, it looked as if her Rio dreams would be shattered on the rocks of nationality.
The Iranian-born Asemani fled her native land for Belgium in 2012. The refugee arrived in Belgium on Christmas Day, 2012. It did not take long for the former Iranian international - Asemani had won a silver medal at the Asian Games in 2010, but did not make it to the London Olympics in 2012 – to find her way to the Belgium national taekwondo team, under coach Karim Dighou and performance director Laurence Rase, on December 28, 2012. With financial help from local federations, the refugee was able to re-start competing around Europe.
But like every athlete, her highest dream was the Olympics and Asemani, an asylum seeker, was stateless. A ray of hope shone when International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced the formation of a refugee team for Rio. That gave Asemani - then working as a postwoman in Belgium, while training part time - a last-chance opportunity to fight in Rio. "I was really happy as taekwondo is my life, and this was the one chance," she said. "After 17 years in taekwondo, it had been really difficult."
On April 13, she was granted Belgian citizenship - but it was not clear if she would be able to represent Belgium in Rio. At the European Qualification Tournament, Asemani - still fighting under the WTF flag - found herself facing off against Belgian athlete, de facto teammate and close friend Indra Craen. "It was a really emotional game," Asemani said. She emerged victorious in that match, and ended the European Qualification Tournament with a first place win in her weight class after defeating Finland's Suvi Mikkonen. The question now was whether she would fight for Belgium, or for the IOC's Refugee Team.
Her paperwork passed muster, and she was cleared to fight in Rio under the Belgian flag. "I got big help from the IOC and the WTF," she said. Asemani was ecstatic. "What can be more beautiful than to have a country at the Olympic Games?" she told AFP in an interview.
Her new passport meant an additional level of emotional support from her new nation. "I had lived four years in Belgium and been training with the Belgian team," she said. "The people of the country supported me and did everything for me and I got support from Karim and everyone. It was really good."
She fully bonded with the team. "It was really good, I had really good friends, we have grown together," she said. "It is not only sport, it is friendship and everything." Her special training partner in the lead up to the Olympics was none other than Craen.
There were significant differences in the training she went through in Iran and in Belgium. "In Iran, in the national team, we trained with girls," she said. "So, when I started in Belgium, it was really difficult to train with Karim and the boys." The famously tough training for Iran made her "strong", Asemani said, but in Belgium she found more leg control and more science in the programme.
Rio would prove to be a trial by fire. Asemani won her first two matches, then found herself facing 2012 London champion and eventual 2016 Rio gold medalist, Jade Jones of Team GB. The fiery Jones won the match, 7-2. Still, Asemani was through to repechage, where she narrowly missed out on a bronze medal against Egypt’s elastic-legged Hedaya Wahba, in golden point.
Asemani has mixed feelings about her Olympic result. "First, I had hoped to be in Rio; second, I wanted to do my best, and I think I did it," she said. But she admits that when she came home "it was too difficult for me, mentally". For four months, she stopped taekwondo.
"After Rio I could not accept that I had lost in golden point," she said. "Then I started my job in the post office - and I have really good friends in the post office - and they supported me and they said 'you must go one more time; you can do it; you are the best!' and that was really positive energy for me."
She returned to training and is now back on Team Belgium - this time, as a full-time athlete, training both mornings and afternoons. Currently, her sights are set on the World Championships in Muju, in June. "I want to be in the Worlds and I want to win and do my best as I did not fight in 2013 or 2015," she said. "It will be my first time on the Belgian Team."
How about Tokyo 2020? "I cannot speak about Tokyo, I think I will be too old, I want to see how my body is," said the 27-year-old. "I want to do taekwondo in my best condition and get the best result."
As for the future, post-Muju, she is mulling a return to study and a possible career in the Belgian police force.
As for the past, she has a lot of gratitude. "I want to say 'thank you' to everyone who helped me, I am really happy that I have met so many good people, and have good people around me," she said. "Especially Karim and Laurence and my boss at work - they were all really good for me."
How about a message for those refugees, displaced persons and asylum seekers worldwide who may consider following in her footsteps? "There are many people with hard life stories, but I think anybody can make their dreams," she said. "I want to say: 'try, always! Impossible is possible."
Jade Jones: The chosen one?
It was the evening of day two of the taekwondo competition of the 2016 Olympic Games, and in Rio's Carioca Arena 3, the fight that the crowd wanted to see was about to get underway.
In the women under-57 kilograms category, the number-one seed and London 2012 gold medalist Jade "The Headhunter" Jones of Team GB faced off against number-two seed and arch rival Eva Calvo Gomez of Spain. Since London, the two have been engaged in a seesaw, back-and-forth rivalry. Now, Briton faced Spaniard under the Olympic spotlight for gold. Game on.
Combat commenced with the two battling for the centre of the mat, Jones looking more aggressive and stabbing at the taller Spaniard with her side kick. Then Jones' radar-guided front foot flashed up. The Headhunter drew first blood with a high kick. Seconds later, she did it again, doubling her lead. Disaster loomed for Calvo Gomez. The Spanish coach demanded a video replay but Jones' points stood, 6-0.
In the second, Calvo Gomez charged out, fighting at a furious pace and grabbing two points with body kicks. The British girl returned fire, taking her lead to 7-2, but the Spaniard rocked Jones with her own head kick. The board was now 7-6, with Jones - just - ahead. Given the one point differential, there was everything to play for in the third.
Both athletes came out fighting, but Jones' head kick was doing its wicked work, extending the Briton’s lead to 15-7. Despite a moment of drama- Jones' coach, Paul Green, appealed a head kick; it was denied - Jones kept her cool and extended her lead.
It ended 16-7 - a convincing win, a brilliant performance and a second Olympic gold for the "Welsh Wonder".
Jones - beyond exultant - ran off the mats and dragged Green up onto the field of play. She then ran a lap of honour around the Arena, streaming the British and Welsh flags, to the delight of the roaring crowd - which included 10 of her family members who had flown in from Flint, Wales.
"I know I am the best, but in taekwondo, anything can happen," Jones said, post-match, referring to the upsets in the previous day’s competition, when stars had fallen left, right and centre. Looking back on Rio, she is understandably proud.
"After London, I did not want to be a one-hit wonder," she said, referring to 2012, when, as an unheralded 19-year-old, she had come from nowhere.
"The run up to Rio was a different ball game, I had been undefeated all year, so there was so much pressure, so much expectation." Victory, she mused, had been almost a relief. "It was still joy," she said. "But more like, 'thank God'. Anything else would have been a fail."
Great Britain - the originator of football, rugby, cricket and boxing - has a powerful sporting tradition. Jones' latest gold - together with the silver won by teammate Lutalo Muhammad and the bronze won by teammate (and roommate) Bianca Walken - has planted taekwondo firmly on the British sporting map. "It is going from strength to strength, the team is getting stronger and stronger, we are becoming a force," she said. "Taekwondo is one of the main sports we are excelling in; I am proud to come from taekwondo in Britain."
With the country having won hosting rights for the 2019 World Championships, two Grand Prix events and the next Para Taekwondo Championships, Jones will be fighting in front of her home crowd once more.
"I will try to be an ambassador and for me it is an amazing opportunity for friends and family to come and watch as usually, taekwondo is in faraway countries, so my family does not have the chance to come," she said. "Also, when it is in the UK, people say it is the best atmosphere."
However, 2017 marks a new ruleset coming into taekwondo - and one of those rules is that coaches will no longer be able to appeal head kicks, something Jones and Green have been tremendously successful at. She is unfazed. "I reckon a true champion can change and adapt," she said. "I still have back kicks and body shots and the rules will not stop me from going to the head."
As for inspiration, she cites Green and her grandfather. "My granddad took me to taekwondo at age eight, and he literally travelled the world and used his savings to get to the competitions," she said. "I still ask his advice."
She describes herself as "family oriented" and says she likes to "laugh, joke and be a bit silly".
But that is not her taekwondo personality. On the field of play, Jones is aggressive, dangerous, venomous. "I am a bit rough-and-tumble the way I have been brought up, I am not scared to go toe-to-toe," she said. "A lot of girls shy away from that; it is not natural to fight."
And she is a hard-core trainer. An acquaintance noted - with awe - that Jones and Green sometimes finish grueling all-day national team training sessions, then head out to private dojangs in Manchester for extra evening training. "I have quite an obsessive personality," Jones confessed, admitting to being "a bit bonkers". "Anything I do, I don’t do half-heartedly."
This explains her ambition. "The goal is to get three Olympic golds," she said. "The biggest legends, - Team China’s Jingyu Wu and Team USA’s Steve Lopez - have not been able to do it, so that shows how much of an ask it is".
She claims to fear nobody on the circuit, but knows that up-and-coming fighters will be gunning for her over the next four years. Still, her age is to her advantage. "Being only 23, I don’t think, 'what else can I do?,'" she said. "I feel like I can get better."
So, London and Rio - and a historic third gold in Tokyo? "Could I be the chosen one?" she wondered aloud. Then her self-belief kicked in. "I believe I can do it," she finished.
Charlie Maddock: Team GB’s 'Pocket Rocket' strikes gold in Baku
When the smoke cleared at the 2016 World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final in Baku, Azerbaijan, the national team standing at the top of the medal rankings was Great Britain.
That result was thanks to the efforts of three woman warriors: gold medal winners Jade "The Headhunter" Jones, Bianca "Queen Bee" Walkden and Charlie Maddock.
Charlie Maddock? Yes, Charlie Maddock. Her name is not as well-known as double Olympic gold medalist Jones or world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Walkden, but her lack of recognition and experience did not stop the up-and-comer from beating the 2016 Rio Olympic champion in the female under-49 kilogram category, Korea’s So-hui Kim.
The Kim-Maddock battle on day one of the Grand Prix proved to be a clash not just of fighters, but also of fighting styles. Kim is a master counter-kicker, with a wily tactical game and excellent footwork. Maddock, on the other hand, is an aggressive fighter, with a never-step-back, take-no-prisoners style.
As the buzzer sounded for the first round, Maddock - totally unintimidated by Kim’s pedigree - surged out, fighting strongly and immediately pressuring her opponent. The Korean fought back gamely; she appeared to have decided that she would not let Maddock play her customary steamroller game. It was a lively round - but ended without a score. The second round kicked off with Maddock continuing to apply forward pressure. Kim reverted to her normal, evasive style, leaving Maddock to expend energy firing multiple kicks. But it was Kim, fighting more economically, who looked the more dangerous player: she failed to score by a whisker with two head shots. Round two ended scoreless.
Round three continued in the same vein with plenty of kicking, but no contact and no points. Surely, at this stage, Kim’s superior experience and ring craft would pay off?
Not necessarily. With just 12 seconds on the clock and the board empty, Maddock riposted a Kim attack with a reverse spinning turning kick to the head - then-swung her leg back into a round kick to the head, without putting her foot down. It was an extraordinary display of leg control, brilliant timing and spectacular technique. The scoreboard lit up, and the British girl was ahead 4-0.
In the final seconds Kim, a cagey, tactical fighter, was powerless to respond: her arsenal did not include the high-scoring techniques necessary to turn things round. The match ended with a well-deserved 4-0 win for the British girl who is clearly charmed in Azerbaijan - her previous big win had been a gold medal at the European Games in Baku in 2015.
Speaking the day after her win at the Grand Prix Final, the 21-year-old from the English town of Stoke-on-Trent proved pretty and petite, but fizzing with life. Her nickname is "pocket rocket" - a reference to small size and high energy.
Combative energy is in Maddock’s DNA. She got her start in combat sports at the tender age of five at home. Her parents had met through martial arts, and her father was a kickboxing instructor. "I kind of fell in love with it," she said. Years later, sensing his daughter’s potential, her father put her name forward for "Fighting Chance" - GB Taekwondo’s talent scouting program.
"Fighting Chance" plucks combat sports athletes from fields including taekwondo and kickboxing to see if they have what it takes to join the grueling, elite training program at Great Britain’s medal factory - the National Taekwondo Centre in Manchester.
That application was three years ago: Maddock was invited to join the elite and has not looked back since. Naturally, her parents were delighted to hear the news of her victory in Baku. "Dad and Mum were buzzing, they were over the moon," Maddock said. "Mum was screaming down the phone – it was a nice Christmas present."
Maddock’s favorite techniques are her "check kick" - a stabbing side kick - and her punch. "Coming from kickboxing, I like to punch," she said. She also favours head shots, but the game-winning blow she deployed against Kim in Baku is a relatively new weapon in her arsenal. "The reverse turning kick is a funny one," she said. "I have been working on it for ages, so it was nice to get it in the last seconds."
As a player, she considers aggression as one of her strongest qualities. "I like to press the match down and wear the opponent down to the point where she thinks she has no other option." she said. "I am really strong and I am quite fast as well. Put the two together and they work really well."
However, she recognises that now, in premium-level competition, aggression is not enough. She has to add a layer of sophistication to her game. "I am working on being manipulative, on controlling distance and being calm and composed," she said. "Being aggressive is good - but not all the time."
Perhaps surprisingly, there is no boyfriend in her life - training does not leave much time for romantic distractions - and she lists her non-taekwondo hobbies only as "shopping". Regarding future plans, her main aim is Tokyo 2020. In the shorter term, she hopes to qualify for the World Taekwondo Championships in Muju 2017. On the way to Muju, she will be taking part in some smaller tournaments in the run up to the summer.
She thanks her sponsor, Phil Wettem Say Scaffolding - "without his sponsorship, some things would not have been achievable" - and the staff at Manchester, as well as her parents for bringing her up in combat sports. She also pays tribute to the golden girls of British taekwondo.
"To be honest, I never knew what the sport entailed at first, but when I came to the first phase of "Fighting Chance" then I saw that these girls are pretty good," she said. "I wanted to achieve what Jade and Bianca have achieved."
Having joined GB Taekwondo’s two national heroines on the podium in Baku, she may be on her way to doing exactly that.
Tijana 'Tica' Bogdanovic: Serbian Schoolgirl Wins Silver Medal
Serbian heroine Tijana Bogdanovic returned home to Belgrade with her Olympic medal around her neck - but had only a limited time to enjoy the celebrations before she was summoned away for her next important engagement.
"Everybody is extremely happy, they cannot wait for me to come," she said following Rio 2016. "But I will have only about 10 days’ summer break - then I start school on September 1."
Yes, you read that right. The Serbian who captured Olympic silver in a tight, hard-fought bout against Team Korea’s So-hui Kim in Rio de Janeiro is not a pro athlete, working out full-time, day in and day out: she is still a high-school student.
Which explains why she wants to extend her thanks not just to her coaching team, but also to her school buddies. "I had great support from my friends and my teachers, they helped me a lot during my period of absence," she said.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the upbeat 18-year-old wunderkind started taekwondo at a very tender age.
"When I was four, my parents took me to a taekwondo club and I fell in love with it at first sight – it is very attractive," Bogdanovic said. "In taekwondo, you have a lot of adrenaline as [the match] only takes six minutes - you have to withstand the pressure in a short period, you have to show yourself."
She did exactly that in Carioca Arena 3 on the first day of the four-day taekwondo competition. Fighting her way through the preliminaries, the number-eight seed shocked the punditry by ejecting the athlete who was widely considered the most dominant fighter in the sport: China’s previously unbeatable Jingyu Wu, a double Olympic medalist and the top seed in the women under-49kg category.
By the evening, Bogdanovic - whose previous biggest wins had been gold at the European Championships and bronze at the World Championships - had battled her way through to the finals. There, she would face off against Team Korea’s So-hui Kim, the seventh seed.
From the outset, the Serbian teenager, with her height advantage, fought forward, forcing the Korean to dance around the edge of the mats. But it was the more experienced Kim who was more accurate with her legs, winning the first round 2-1. The second continued the same way, with Kim displaying lively footwork to escape the Serbian’s attack. Bogdanovic, trying to land a punch, took a crescent kick to the head; the round ended 5-2.
In the third, the score was 4-6 to the Korean but Bogdanovic applied maximum pressure, and Kim visited the mats repeatedly. In the last 11 seconds, Bogdanovic was virtually chasing her target around the field of play. Kim held off this last-minute charge, taking the match and the gold medal, 7-6 – despite going down in what looked like the final second.
Some observers thought that Kim, who had racked up almost the maximum number of penalties for falling, should have been disqualified for her last-second fall - but not her opponent.
"I feel a bit sorry that everybody is talking about that last second, as I think that all people are allowed to make mistakes - even if you are a judge," said Bogdanovic. "It is not something that we should bother about too much."
Just being at the Olympic Games was an awesome experience for a schoolgirl - though at first she was underwhelmed.
"Since this is my first Olympic Games, I was not really impressed by the Olympic Village and everything, but as time went by, I was really overwhelmed by the atmosphere in the Serbian team, exchanging good, positive vibes between the athletes on the team," she said. "I enjoyed all that experience"
Of course, the highlight was winning the medal.
"It was a great experience in terms of my development because it is not only the day of competition, but all I had gone through before the competition, all the preparation," she said. "The day of competition is like the top of the cake - when you go to an exam you show what you were working for, so of course, I am happy and proud."
She rates her strengths as a fighter as flexibility and technical skill: her favored technique is that classic of taekwondo, the round kick to the head. In terms of her athletic personality, she is still a little unsure. "In this period of my life, since I am still 18, I am still developing and would describe myself only as ‘well disciplined,’” she said. "I just listen to my coach and try to be the best student."
Like many teens, her future plans are unclear. She has no boyfriend, but is "very interested and motivated to work with kids." She plans to go to university, but has not yet chosen a major.
Naturally, the sport she has been practicing for 14 years will remain central in her life.
"The best place to find me is our taekwondo club as I really feel great when I am in training - I feel myself there, I feel I belong there," she said. "Also, when I have time, I am always with friends from the club."
Jaouad Achab: A thriving Belgian refugee
Jamilla Chellat must be a proud woman. As a youngster in Morocco, she had seen taekwondo being practiced, but had been too poor to take it up herself. Embittered, she vowed that, after she married, her children would be given the opportunity that she had never had: to excel in the sport.
Fast forward over two decades and two continents and so it has proven - and then some.
Her son, Jaouad Achab, made it to world number one in the ultra-competitive men’s under 68kg category and narrowly missed a bronze medal for his adopted country of Belgium at Rio in 2016.
The junior Achab’s taekwondo journey started at the tender - very tender - age of three. As per her earlier vow, his mother had put his older brother and sister into taekwondo classes. When they came home, their tiny brother would insist on kicking and sparring with them.
Seeing his unusual attachment to the sport, his mother took him along to the club. The coach said he was too little to begin, but his mother pleaded with him to let this child with the “unnatural talent” give it a go. The coach finally relented, but said it would be for just one session. That session dragged into two, then three.
“People saw something special in me,” he said, looking back.
By the age of six, Achab was fighting in and winning competitions - first for his club, then for his city and then on the Moroccan national circuit. At the age of 13, he won the national cadet championship. However, for what he calls “political reasons” of the local Federation, he did not make it onto the national squad.
In 2009, Achab’s family decided to emigrate to Belgium for a better future for them all - and for more taekwondo opportunities for their wunderkind son. He started fighting immediately upon arrival on both the Belgian and European circuits. “I had some wins, some losses, as I had not had any international experience,“ he recalls. “But little by little, I understood international-level competition.”
He fought in the 2013 World Championships, winning two matches. In 2014, he became European champion. “That was my first dream to achieve,” he said. “After that another door opened: After the Europeans, I became a professional athlete with BLOSO, the Flemish Governmental sport organisation, which supported me a lot. From then on, I have got a lot of results.”
At the 2015 World Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, he found himself facing off against Mexico’s Joel Gonzalez, a two-time world champ, in the final. “I had to have full concentration, if I lost it for one second he could go very fast to my head,” Achab recalls. “I controlled the fight for first round, and the second round, I worked harder and it was 2-0 to me, then in the third he went to the head but at that moment I seized the advantage and scored to his head! It was 5-2 and I had to control the fight to the end - every second was important. I controlled it to the finish.”
The result was a World Championship title. “It was the most important competition of my life and the biggest day of my life,” he said, classing that - along with the European Championships and the World Universiade, which he also won in 2015 - as his top competitive achievements.
To overcome this, he suggests removing the sensor from the sole of the foot-sock, and toning down the power required to score points on the Protector Scoring System. “Then, you would see beautiful kicks - people would kick with more spinning and double kicks,” he said.
Outside the dojang, he likes to swim, play snooker and shop for clothes. He also reads a lot; the book he is currently working through is on achieving one’s goals and appreciating whatever one has. Looking beyond his competitive career, he expects to be a physiotherapist and coach taekwondo.
Although firmly in the Belgian camp following his award of citizenship, he is gratified when he hears that many sports fans in Morocco are wondering why he did not make ttheir national squad years previously, and are now urging his return.
Having made a personal and family odyssey from Morocco to Belgium in order to achieve success in taekwondo; having learned three new languages - French, Dutch and English - in the process. Achab now looks set to scale the pinnacle of the sport. His mother’s ambition was one contributing factor in his success. His “unnatural” precocious talent was another. To what other factors does this young man attribute his success so far?
“I am someone who always thinks positively,” he said. “Physically, people say I am small for the under 68kg category, but mentally, my mum says I have the heart and mind of a heavyweight.”
Nafia Kus: ‘The Amazon’ Strikes Gold
Every sport needs a pipeline of up-and-coming fighters and in this sense, taekwondo is well served.
Case in point? Turkey’s 20-year-old Nafia Kus.
The first thing that strikes you about Kus is her weapons-grade physical presence. Tall, lithe, leggy and athletic, Kus is nicknamed “The Amazon” and it is easy to see why. With her pale features bookmarked by long, black tresses, with her chiseled bone structure and her dark, hawk-like eyes, she showcases the fierce beauty of the mythical female warriors of the Black Sea.
If she were not stalking opponents on the competition mats, she could be turning heads on the runways of Paris and Milan, and indeed, when she came into the media room at the 2015 Moscow Grand Prix Series 1 for the photo session to accompany this article, male media professionals were lining up to have their photo taken alongside her.
It was her physique that even at age 10, led her to taekwondo, or rather, that led taekwondo to her. A coach at a dojang in her home town of Adana spotted her. “He saw that I looked tall and strong so he invited me to his club,” she said. “That was the beginning.”
At the time, Kus was a keen volleyball player, but found that she had a special talent for taekwondo. In the last six years, her competitive career has blossomed. She won silver at the 2009 European Cadet Championships, another silver at the 2010 World Juniors, bronzes at the 2011 and 2012 European Juniors, a gold at the 2013 European Under-21s, a bronze at the 2015 World Championships and a gold at the 2015 Europeans.
Her favored technique is the front-leg turning kick which, she reckons, is well catered for by the current rules and PSS. In terms of her strengths, she mused: “I know my physical advantage and my power: I am tall and I have long legs.”
At Moscow’s Dinamo Krylatskoye Gymnasium in the female over 67kg division – a division that includes such daunting fighters as Serbia’s Milica Mandic, France’s Gwladys Epangue, Russia’s Olga Ivanova and Mexico’s Maria Espinoza, Kus, the world-ranked number 18, found herself facing off against current world champion Bianca Walkden in the semis.
Yet “The Amazon” was in no way awed by the world’s number two.
“All my opponents, whoever I fight, is only an opponent,” Kus said. “I cannot see the nation, I cannot see the face, I only fight to win: That is all my focus.” Fighting with poise and confidence throughout the match, she dispatched Walkden in golden point. That victory put her through to the finals against China’s Li Donghua, the world-ranked number 12.
Action got underway as soon as the bell went, with Kus drawing first blood with a front-leg turning kick to the body. Li returned fire with an arcing ax kick to the head of Kus, then, in a flurry, Li went down with Kus falling on top of her. A medic was called as Li, clearly in pain, appearing to have suffered a twisted ankle. However, after some swift manipulation, she got back on her feet.
But now “The Amazon” was looking to take swift advantage. Both athletes showed a high work rate as they fought to control the center of the ring, with Kus piling on the pressure. By the final round, there was just a one-point difference - but Kus had now found her distance. She mercilessly extended her lead and Li’s game started to disintegrate. The match ended with a convincing 12-5 victory for the Turk.
A clearly delighted Kus was looking to the future, particularly to the September Grand Prix which will be held on the home ground of this Black Sea warrior. “Inshallah, I will win in Samsun!” she said in the post-match TV interview.
Like every athlete fighting in the 2015 Grand Prix Series, Kus’ longer-term sights are set on Rio. “My major target is the Olympics and I want to get golds in Samsun and Manchester to get into the top eight to qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Mexico and try to make the Olympics,” she said.
Professionally, she is well positioned to get there. The Turkish Taekwondo Federation covers all her training camp, travel and accommodation expenses; it also pays a cash bonus for medals. In her down time, Kus continues to play volleyball and is a keen salsa dancer.
She is currently a student in the Sports Department of the University of Cukurov, and in her post-competitive career plans to teach sports. However, given that she is just started her life as a senior, that career could be a long one: “The Amazon” reckons her cut-off date for Olympic competition is 2024.
Aaron Cook: Moldovan favourite aiming for historic gold
Aaron Cook is perhaps the most admired athlete in taekwondo, but his journey through the sport has been a stormy one. Now, having secured citizenship and generous sponsorship from Moldova, the ex-GB athlete is hoping to present his adopted country with its first-ever Olympic medal
For some, it was dreams of Olympic glory that first lured them to taekwondo. For others, it was the security of learning self-defense that drew them into the dojang. For Moldova’s Aaron Cook, the inspiration was provided by masked superheroes defending humanity from fearsome monsters.
“When I was five, the ‘Power Rangers’ were on TV and I liked the look of the kicks and all the stuff they were doing,” he said. “When I was seven, my parents took me and [elder brother] Luke to a taekwondo school and it was love at first sight.”
Today, the kid who wanted to be a real-life power ranger is one of the most admired players in taekwondo, frequently cited by his fellow athletes as their favorite fighter due to his constant use of the sport’s most spectacular techniques. A fourth-Dan black belt, he is the number-two ranked player in the - fiercely competitive - male under 80kg category.
However, the ups and downs he has endured in his taekwondo career have been more than enough to test the courage and perseverance of the doughtiest alien-fighting superhero.
Born and raised in Dorchester in Britain, his early interest in taekwondo blossomed into talent and was soon delivering competitive success. He won a clutch of junior championships, then moved into the senior division, and was soon bringing home the medals. Among his standout competitive moments were knocking out five-time world champion and taekwondo legend Steve Lopez, and competing, and narrowly missing out on the medals, for Britain at the 2008 Beijing Olympics at the tender age of 17.
In advance of London 2012, as a member of Team GB, Cook - boasting the perfect combination of good looks, winning personality and a mastery of taekwondo’s most crowd-pleasing techniques - seemed to have it all. Sponsors flocked to back the golden boy: Alliance, British Airways, Mars, Sky Sports, and Visa. But when he was not chosen to represent his country at the 2012 London Olympics, national team selectors chose, instead Lutalo Muhammed - Cook’s world disintegrated.
“I was devastated, I could not believe it, I was certain I would go, I was the world number one, I was the reigning European champion,” he said.
Cook and his brother, and coach, Luke staked everything they had on a legal battle. “We tried to challenge it: Every penny I had from those sponsors - that was meant to be our life’s savings! - went into overturning the decision,” he said. But advised that they had only a 50-50 chance of winning, the brothers decided to pull back from the brink and not mortgage their house. “It was a very, very hard period,” Cook said.
An early option was provided by the Isle of Man, who invited Cook to fight for the island in European and World Championships. He did that, but to realize his Olympic dreams, Cook needed another flag to fight under. That flag would belong to a small state in Eastern Europe looking to upgrade its taekwondo game: The Republic of Moldova.
Cook was put in touch with Moldovan taekwondo authorities during the European Championships in Baku in 2014. Soon, the brothers were introduced to the ambitious and dynamic president of the Moldovan Taekwondo Federation, Igor Iuzefovici. “We met in London and discussed the possibilities and kind of left them to it, and behind the scenes they were trying to make it possible,” he said. “It all kind of happened overnight, and just before the World Championships in May, we got the green light!”
Today, Cook armed with dual nationality, is delighted at the prospects his adopted home offers him.
“I am completely free to do whatever I want, I can have my brother as a coach and they take care of all expenses, so I don’t have to worry about mum and dad paying for anything,” he said. “We are in a better place than we ever have been, things are looking up and we look forward to the future and hopefully winning the first ever gold for Moldova at the Olympics.”
The two now spend as much time as possible in their adopted home country, although Cook also benefits from training in Britain, under ex-Manchester United Conditioning Coach Mick Clegg - whose former clients include a certain David Beckham. And on his visits back home, he also gets to spend time with his long-term girlfriend - Team GB’s Bianca Walkden, the current world champion.
Meanwhile, Moldova, a late-comer to taekwondo, has not just secured the services of one of the sport’s star athletes. In a bid to become a training hub for the sport in Eastern Europe, it has pledged to open a WTF-designated regional taekwondo training center. And to incubate a strong pipeline of talent, the country has announced that it will start offering taekwondo classes in elementary schools nationwide.
But will Cook, with his high-altitude, high-risk style, be able to quench Moldova’s Olympic thirst in 2016?
That is a question much discussed by the taekwondo punditry.
Cook’s trademark techniques are the most crowd-pleasing weapons in taekwondo’s arsenal. He is a prolific firer of running serial turning kicks, spinning heel kicks, spinning back kicks and jump spinning round kicks. “I always liked the spin to body and to the face it is worth four points, so it is worth the extra risk,” he said. “I come from the older generation of taekwondo from before the PSS (protector and scoring system), when it was more old-school power, speed and double spins.”
However, since London 2012, the employment of PSS has pushed the sport toward a cagier, more tactical, front-leg game. “At the moment, it is more about height advantage and reach and flex,” he said. “I have had to adjust my game dramatically over the last three years; I keep elements of my old style, but it does not always work on the electronics.”
So Cook knows what he has to do - but he also knows his own game. “I like to have a scrap, I like it to be a proper fight, not too tactical,” he said. “I like it when we look into each other’s eyes and go hell for leather - ‘Rocky’ style!”
Just as the power rangers always defeat the aliens and monsters, it seems certain that Cook will continue to win the applause of the crowds and the admiration of his peers. What is less certain, however, is whether Cook’s spectacular style is what is needed when it comes to qualifying for, then winning medals in Rio.
Elin Johansson: Conquering nerves and opponents
When she awoke on the morning of December 3 last year, Elin Johansson was so sick with nerves she had to lie back down. When she lay down in bed the same night, she was over the moon.
The 24-year-old Swede was competing in the female under 67kg category at the 2014 Queretaro World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final - a key gateway to qualification for Rio 2016. Even for an athlete with 13 years of experience in taekwondo, the day ahead, a walk through fire against three world-class opponents, as a daunting prospect.
“I was so nervous in the morning - I am never that nervous! - that I had to lie down before the first fight,” she said.
That fight was against long-time rival Nur Tatar of Turkey. “We are good friends and have been for a long time so it is hard to fight her in that way,” Johannson mused. “And she is a very, very strong fighter.”
From the starter bell, things did not go according to plan. The Swede fell behind in the scoring. But her mind was still in the game. “In the first and second rounds I was under, so [in the third] I had to pressure her and keep my focus,” she said. “I did a random turning kick to the body then snapped it to the face and got her in the last round with video replay.
"Since the electronic hogu, it has been much more frontleg kicks and if you want to win, you need to do that, but I also like to double, to spin, to go high - I am a headhunter’"
That secured Johansson her first victory of the day and engaged all her gears. “After that, I felt so much better,” she said. “I usually need one fight to get in the mood.”
Her next opponent was Taiwan's Chia Chia Chuang, who Johansson had beaten 9-2 in the Manchester Grand Prix. “I knew I could beat her but I knew she wanted to beat me,” she said. “I went into the fight with the attitude that this is all in!”
Johansson’s second match would prove to be even more of a nail-biter than her first.
The Swede took and held a lead in the first two rounds then, in the dying seconds of the third, Chuang caught her in the head, evening the score. Johansson, momentarily discomfited, held her fire as the match resumed. “I was just thinking it was better to go to the golden point because my focus was somewhere else,” she said.
The drama implicit in the golden point system is something that taekwondo fans may relish, but is a devilishly nervy business for fighters. One mistake and it is all over. It speaks volumes for Johansson’s mental preparation that she consciously decided to settle matters via sudden death.
In golden point mode, the bout lasted a minute, then Johansson saw an opening and “took the shot,” slamming Chua in the body, earning a point and a place in the finals. “A very, very tight fight,” was Johanasson’s judgment. The battle for gold would be against another long-time rival, France’s Haby Niare - the world-ranked number one.
“I was nervous but in a good way, I was thrilled to be in top eight and then to be in the Grand Prix final,” Johansson said.
Niare is one of the trickiest female fighters in the sport. She has an arsenal of unusual kicks and a bag full of surprises . “But this time, she did not surprise me,” Johansson said. “Maybe the main reason is I was not as tired as her, and I could control the fight.”
Johansson looked stronger than the French girl from the get-go and proved tactically superior, controlling both distance and tempo. Ironically, this fight - Johansson’s last of the day - proved the easiest. She took the lead from the start, and took the match 4-2. “I was in the lead and kept her away,” she said.
After stepping down from the gold medal podium, she was visibly elated.
“I had three very tough fights against three very tough opponents, so I could not be happier - this is one of the happiest days of my life,” she said in the post-medal ceremony interview. “I was very tired at the end, but I kept control of the fight, I did my style.” Her style might be dubbed “orthodox taekwondo”, but with a wide technical range.
“I have a lot of weapons,” she said. “Since the electronic hogu, it has been much more front-leg kicks and if you want to win, you need to do that, but I also like to double, to spin, to go high - I am a headhunter.”
In the analysis of Team Sweden Coach Niklas Anderson, Johansson had put almost all the the parts in place: technical, tactical and physical.
“She is one of the most technical fighters; she does the ‘new style’ with the front-leg cut kicks, but she can also do all these turning kicks,” he said. “Tactically, she is very smart, with a good understanding of the sport, and physically she is very explosive, very strong. The only problem was the mental part.”
Johansson agrees. “When I am happy, I am happy; when I am not happy, I am very angry!” she said. “It is both a blessing and a curse to feel things so deeply.”
Recently, she has learned to settle her soaring- plunging emotions. ”I have a secret - I have a mental coach!” she said. “He makes me see it from a whole other perspective, it has been a lot of self-belief; confidence has been my problem.“
Anderson reckons the mental coaching has slotted the final piece into Johansson’s puzzle.
“She had been very up and down, but now she is much more balanced; even if she is behind on points she does not panic,” he said. “This has been the last step for her to take. She has been in five Grand Prix and in four finals, and that shows player stability.”
Even so, Johansson’s newly acquired head game could not stop the rising elation she felt after conquering the nerves prior to her first match. “I fight with joy because I love it, I don’t earn much money,” she said. “I feel joyful and aggressive and on fire.”
A full-time taekwondo athlete – she subsists on a Swedish Olympic scholarship and a salary from her club - based in the northern Swedish town of Skelleftea, located “up in the woods”.
Johansson is, like most of her rivals, firmly focused on Rio 2016 qualification. “I think that is when I will be on top of my career, I will be 26 at the time,” she said. “If I get there, I just want to do the best fights of my life.”
“After the Olympics, we will see. maybe I will go for four more years, or have a family and have babies - I love babies!” she said. “If I can continue working in taekwondo, that would be a dream too; I love coaching my friends and my team.”
Servet Tazegül: The Legend Continues
They said he did “old-style taekwondo”; they said the sport had moved on; they said that, plagued by injuries, the European, Olympic and world champion was past his prime.
Well, talk is cheap.
On May 15 in Cheylabinsk’s Traktor Arena, the most famed fighter in the sport delivered a bravura performance, electrified the taekwondo community and proved to the world that Servet Tazegül is most definitely back.
In the finals of the 2015 World Taekwondo Championships - a tournament in which conservative, tactical fighters wielding front-leg cut kicks and push kicks have dominated - Tazegül delivered a live technical seminar on taekwondo’s most spectacular techniques.
The 26-year-old Turk, who teaches at the Leopard Taekwondo Club in Nuremberg is nicknamed “The Cheetah” and it is easy to see why: He is as fast, as stylish and as fearless as the killer cat.
Facing Korea’s Dong-yun Shin in the first semifinal of the men’s -68kg final match, Tazegül stamped his personality on the match from the opening bell.
Most fighters start slow, probing their opponent with jabbing kicks. Not Tazegül.
The Turk lit up the scoreboard with three points courtesy of his bespoke jump spinning back kick - fired from impossibly close range - and letting rip with a war cry. Fighting from the clinch, he grabbed another point with a turning kick.
The Korean scored, then the Turk unleashed a scorching spinning heel kick to Shin’s head - drawing a cheer from the crowd - that did not register on the protector and scoring system (PSS). Another spinning head kick was unleashed from the edge of the mats.
Firing yet another jump spin kick, he was countered by the Korean in mid-flight and visited the mats. After a firefight of kick-kick-kick, the Turk scored to the midsection. By the end of Round two, it was 9-4 to Tazegül.
Round three continued in fast ‘n furious style, with kickathons, clinch work and Shin responding to the challenge, attempting to drop the ax on the shorter Turk. Tazegul raised the points to 13-7, then yet another jump spin back kick - fired yet again from crazy-close range - took the board to 7-16.
With five seconds left, it was 11-16. The fight went right down to the bell, ending 13-16 to The Cheetah. This was the taekwondo that the crowd had come to see; the Turk received an ovation as loud as that accorded to any of the Russian fighters.
The final pitted "The Cheetah" against an opponent worthy of his skills. World-ranked number one Alexey Denisenko of Russia, bronze medalist in London 2012 and victor at the Grand Prix Final in Queretaro, Mexico in 2014, is another fearless, high-scoring fighter, noted for flamboyant high kicks and aerial attacks.
Denisenko strode on to the battlefield to thunderous applause, followed by Tazegül, who raised his head protector in salute.
Both fighters looked tense, perhaps sensing that there was more at stake than simply a World Championship: The crowd was anticipating a classic match - a Hector versus Achilles, an Ali versus Frazier, a clash of titans.
They were not disappointed.
At the opening bell, Tazegül leapt into the attack, driving his opponent off the mat with serial jump spinning kicks, then opening the scoring with a one-point lead.
After this initial explosion, things slowed down, but only briefly; then Tazegül unleashed his patented spin back kick, earning three points. Denisenko returned fire, connecting with a head kick from the clinch.
Three points flashed up on the board - but were deducted: The hit had been on the break, taking the score back to 4-0 in the Turk’s favor. Both athletes recommenced, kicking with killer intent and Denisenko connected to the head. The scoreboard was flashing like a pinball machine: Round one ended 5-4 to Tazegül
Early in Round two Denisenko leveled it to 5-5. The crowd was in lunatic mode, as the two perfectly matched fighters unloaded taekwondo’s full arsenal on one another.
The Turk fired a spin kick, the Russian shot back with a head kick, the Turk ducked under it. In blink-and-you-miss-it action, the board flashed to 6-6, then 7-7. In Round three Tazegül punched and Denisenko responded with a left-right kick barrage. Tazegul’s wicked spinning back kick struck again, taking his score to 10 points. Denisenko tried to drop the ax, but slipped. In the dying seconds, the Russian appeared to land a head kick but to no avail: the round ended; the smoke cleared; and The Cheetah was world champion with a score of 10-7.
It was not just a convincing performance, but a relief, for the Turkish legend has been impacted by a series of events that have cracked his focus, damaged his body and kept him off the mats.
Just before the 2012 Olympics, his mother - to whom he was very close - passed away. After winning gold in London, he suffered a series of injuries: Torn foot muscles, knee problems, a broken hand, a broken toe. More happily, he has also bought a house, got married and has a child on the way.
“There have been a lot of things, I have not been in the arenas,” he said. “But real champions are the ones who go down, then climb up to the top again. That motivates me a lot - I want to show that I am a real champion.”
He had not expected to take gold in Chelyabinsk. “Coming here I was targeting medals, any medals, not the gold,” he said. “I did not know myself how I was going to make it: Each round, the first preliminary, the second preliminary, each fight motivated me more and more, and in the semi-finals, I told myself, ‘Don’t think about my opponent - they have to think about me!’”
And there was a deeper motivation for the day of the finals was a very personal one for Tazegül. “As soon as I saw the timetable, I knew that was her birthday,” he said. “I wanted to get that medal for my mum.”
Speaking the day after his victory, Tazegül was critical of the current generation.
Calling the dominant front-leg, tactical game uninteresting to watch, he said: “The reason I started taekwondo was because of of Jackie Chan movies with spinning kicks. [In the current style] you have to make a strong front leg, but in my style you have to be really strong on both legs, to be in really good conditions. This is real taekwondo - the taekwondo that I love!”
Remarkably Tazegül says his clash against Denisenko was not his optimum game. “It was not really my old form,” he said. “There were many targets I aimed for but could not make. The old Servet would have hit those targets.”
But his kind of high-impact, high-level taekwondo is also high risk: While he scores a lot of points, Tazegül's offensive style also makes him easier to score against than cagier fighters. “They call me crazy, nobody can guess what I am going to do,” he said. “But win or lose, I am happy. I see all taekwondo as a big family and if, among this family, someone gets the prize instead of me, that is okay.”
Everybody in Chelyabinsk - athletes, coaches, fans, officials - has been talking about his match; his return to competition is great news for the sport.
“We saw tactics and strategy, but we also saw the kind of dynamic action we want in taekwondo competition,” said Mike McKenzie, the WTF’s TV commentator of the Tazegul-Denisenko epic. “This is what makes taekwondo exciting.”
For the next 15 months, Tazegul will be competing in every competition available to earn ranking points for the Olympics. But watch him while you can. After Rio, “The Cheetah” expects to retire from the mats.
Si Mohammed Ketbi: The schoolboy silver medallist
Belgian Si Mohammed “Simo” Ketbi grabbed a silver medal at the 2015 World Taekwondo Championships in Chelyabinsk after doing battle with one of the most dominant fighters in taekwondo.
That is not bad going for a 17-year-old.
Having battled through the preliminaries in the under 58kg division, where he was competing as an independent athlete after the Belgian National Taekwondo Union was suspended by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) in January. his semi-final fight went according to plan.
Facing off against China’s Shuai Zhao - one of the lankiest fighters in the division, with the stature of a basketball player - action started off at a fast pace.
The towering Zhao drew first blood, but the boy from Brussels settled down and started to dominate from the center of the ring, using active footwork and racking up points with lead-leg kicks.
Round three started with a kickathon from both fighters, but Ketbi stayed ahead, and after pulling a head shot out of the bag in the closing seconds, ended the match comfortably ahead at 14-7.
“He was not as motivated as I am, I took it with the head shot,” Ketbi told the WTF afterwards.
“Me and him were both tired, but I could win.”
That tactical victory earned Ketbi a place in the finals - and a trial-by-fire, for Ketbi’s opponent was perhaps the dominant athlete fighting in taekwondo today: The “Iranian Tsunami” Farzan Ashour Zadeh Fallah.
The Iranian had undergone a punishing fight in the semis against Russia’s Ruslan Poiseev, but by the time he came out to face Ketbi, he had recovered his composure.
In fact, there was no sign of nerves from either player: As the two finalists waited in the holding area, both flashed big smiles at the cameras.
Then orchestral music played; the athletes entered the ring; faced off - and battle commenced.
Both fighters have similar physiques, and showcased similar styles, with most play taking place off the front leg, aimed at the chest protector.
Ketbi raised the pace, but it was Ashour Zadeh Fallah who landed first.
Action extended to more ambidextrous kicking from both players, before the round finished 3-0 to the Iranian.
Round two continued in a similar fashion, with Ketbi firing off punches which failed to score; at the end of the round, he was 5-1 down.
In Round three, “The Tsunami” was holding center court with the score at 7-2, and with 30 seconds left on the clock, Ketbi went over to the offensive but his tactics were too conservative to rack up the necessary points.
In the last second of the match, he unleashed a head kick - but too late; final score: 8-3 to the Iranian.
“It was the third time I have fought him, I thought I could beat him but he got the advantage at the beginning,” said Ketbi.
“In the third round I could see his opening, but there was no more time.
“I think I lost the fight because of concentration; also my legs were very tired.”
Even so, coach Leonardo Gambluch was delighted with his student’s performance.
“I am more than satisfied!” he said, adding: “We are disappointed he did not get the gold, but his career will be long.”
Indeed, “Simo” still has a year of high school ahead of him before he graduates.
Then it will be university, where he hopes to study engineering.
No girlfriend yet? “No, I have to concentrate on what I am doing,” he said.
Ketbi expects some media coverage and “a lot of Facebook hits” when he returns home:
His family were delighted when he called and told them of his achievement in Chelyabinsk.
“They were very, very happy - they were crazy! - they did not know I would get a silver,” he said.
“I want to say thanks to God, then my father, my family and my coaches and my friends.”
However, like many Western European athletes, he is dissatisfied with the profile of taekwondo in his country.
“I am not happy with that in Belgium, it is not so popular, it has to be more like football,” he said.
“For now, there is no commercial sponsorship.”
Currently, he receives support from Adeps, the Francophone sport association, and Be Gold, the Belgian Olympic sport organization; he also has access to the Physical Training University in Brussels.
The WTF’s ninth ranked player, Ketbi was the first place winner at the 2015 Swiss Open in Montreux, Switzerland and came in second at the 2015 Lotto Dutch Open Taekwondo Championships in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.
His aims are set high: He hopes to be European, World and Olympic champion.
Is this feasible?
His coach reckons so. “He is young, and his future will be better,” Gambluch said.
“His career is long: It will be an adventure!”
But there is one obstacle standing in the way: A certain Farzan Ashour Zadeh Fallah.
Off the mats, the two competitors get along.
“I like to fight with him,” Ketbi said, adding: “It is very fair play, he is a good person.”
But can “The Tsunami” be defeated?
“Every person can be beaten, they are humans with two arms and two legs,” he insisted.
“It is possible to beat him and I hope to train to beat him one time.”
Given their ages, the Iranian and the Belgian will be clashing on the taekwondo circuit for a very long time to come.
Ketbi thinks for a moment, then replies.
“Until we die!” he said.
Sarah Stevenson: Britain's taekwondo pioneer
Sarah Stevenson's story is one of heroism and heartache in equal measure.
The Yorkshire athlete battled on-the-mat adversity to become Great Britain's first-ever Olympic taekwondo medallist in 2008, and personal tragedy to claim her second world crown three years later.
In a discipline stacked with emerging young stars, it is testament to Stevenson's extraordinary will to win that she remained at the peak of her sport for almost 15 years.
Her proudest achievement came in 2011 when, with both her parents back home suffering from terminal illnesses, she won the world title in Gyeongju, South Korea.
"I was so close to not coming because I didn't want to leave my parents alone," said Stevenson after her victory. "But my family came together to help and I went out there to win it for them."
Stevenson had been tipped for stardom when she was still a teenager, winning the world junior title at the age of 15 and entering the senior ranks at a time when taekwondo was just being accepted into the Olympic programme.
She made her Olympic debut at Sydney in 2000, at the age of only 17, where she lost a bronze-medal match, and the following year she went to Jeju in South Korea, where she beat Chinese world number one Chen Zhong to add a senior world crown to her collection.
Although Stevenson was disappointed by a first-round defeat in her second Olympics at Athens in 2004, when the Beijing 2008 came around she was strongly favoured for gold, with only home hopeful and old foe Zhong seemingly standing in her way
The pair met in the quarter-finals, with Zhong apparently progressing with a tight 1-0 win, although video replays clearly showed Stevenson connecting with a two-point head-kick five seconds from the end.
After a furious team protest, the judges reversed the result in Stevenson's favour, but the Briton, ill prepared and roundly booed by the home crowd, was beaten in her next bout by Mexico's Maria Espinoza and had to settle for bronze.
It is a mark of Stevenson's incredible drive and ambition that while those around her celebrated her piece of sporting history, she headed home from Beijing in the firm belief that the gold medal had been hers for the taking.
Restarting her training programme back home in Manchester with renewed vigour, it seemed that nothing could get in the way of her path towards Gyeongju and onwards to home Olympic glory at London 2012, until she was given the devastating news about her parents.
In the months that followed her world title win, both Stevenson's parents passed away. In training, she was struck down by a cruciate ligament injury. Yet still she battled on. She had the honour of being selected to read the Olympic Oath on behalf of the athletes at the Opening Ceremony.
But, her injury-truncated build up to the Games led to an early elimination.
In 2013, Stevenson announced her retirement from competition, and her intention to take up a coaching role in the Great Britain team. Shortly afterwards, World Taekwondo President Chungwon Choue announced that she been appointed to the world governing body's Executive Council.
Skylar Park: Canadian star of the future will be a year wiser for Olympic debut
When the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed last year it came as a huge relief to 21-year-old Skylar Park. Although this prodigiously talented former world junior champion had already qualified to compete at the Games for Canada, that option had already been removed through her country’s unilateral decision not to send a team because of concerns over the growing coronavirus pandemic.
"Canada was the first country that said it would not send a team," Park told World Taekwondo. "I thought I would have to watch it from home, it was heartbreaking - I’d just never imagined."
Her father and coach, Jae Park, added: "The gut-wrenching part was that Canada would not participate, it that felt like somebody had kicked me in the stomach. I tried to put on a good face, but I have never felt those emotions before."
Skylar reflected: "It was a change in mindset - from a few months to a year. After speaking with my dad and coach, we were able to see it as an opportunity."
That chance to re-trench was especially welcome for a fighter who has been on a whirlwind journey since winning at the World Junior Championships on home turf in Burnaby, Canada, in 2016.
She has since won medals at three Grand Prix events, two President Cups and multiple Opens, but admits: "It’s been a crazy whirlwind since Burnaby - crazy! The competitions, pre-COVID, were non-stop.
"So it is nice to have such a long period of time to focus on the things I had to. Being a younger athlete I have lots of room to grow, so the chance to work on my weaknesses has been really, really good."
While lockdowns have confined athletes across the world, Park has been fortunate to have a full, en-suite training system outside her bedroom door. Not only does she live with dad-coach, but the Parks maintain a fully equipped basement dojang at home.
She even has two sparring partners in the form of her brothers.
"For the whole of corona, I have been training with dad and my two brothers," she said. "I was able to kick them around when they were younger but they have gotten stronger - now I am being kicked around!"
But while Park has thrived within the lockdown, the pandemic has been a huge strain for her father.
COVID-19 has been calamitous for gym owners around the world, and teaching taekwondo is the Park family’s business and income source.
"It has been quite tough," Jae said. "When corona started in mid-February, we were shut down for three months; summer was better, but now we are in lockdown again."
Early in the crisis, the school pivoted swiftly to online classes and retained its student base, "but nobody was signing on."
The fact that the Parks have been able to keep their heads above water is due to the solid heritage of their Winnipeg-based dojang.
The Tae Ryong Park Taekwondo and Hapkido Academy was established in 1993 by Jae and his father, Grand Master Deuk H. Park; the two have almost 100 years of experience in the martial arts.
The dojang has been widely featured in media and even appeared in a martial arts documentary hosted by Hollywood heroes Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris.
"We are lucky, we do have a very established business," Jae said. "This is hurting us financially, but we are not in any danger of closing; I think all the hard work we put in for years and years and years has been really important to get through these times."
Today is #RedMittenDay !!❤️🇨🇦✨— Skylar Park (@skylarpark99) November 22, 2020
Get your red mittens today from @hudsonsbay & give back with the purchase of each pair! Part of the proceeds from each pair of Hudson’s Bay red mittens go towards the Canadian Olympic foundation to support @TeamCanada athletes like me!🇨🇦 #AD pic.twitter.com/XqjKH93unC
Meanwhile Skylar’s technical approach has undergone changes as she has taken on the highly technical, point-scoring kicks, tactics and tricks of the Olympic-level elite.
"Over the past four years I have been adapting to the kicks, and to using the knees in different ways," Skylar said.
"The mental game has been really big in the last few years. The tactical aspect - the mental toughness of the game."
Speaking in the aftermath of her world junior win, Skylar’s father reflected for World Taekwondo on her mental strengths.
"Her mental game is weaker than more than 50 percent of the athletes - and that is part of the plan! Athletes that have a strong mental game at the beginning do not emphasise the physical so much, as they get away with using strategy," he said.
"In my opinion, strategy can come later on, but if you don’t develop a physical base it is too late - the body only gives you a certain amount of time to develop; the mind can always develop."
Now, however, his daughter has had unexpected time to attend to both the mental and physical aspects - and that can surely only help her prospects at the Games that are now scheduled to start on July 23…
Paige McPherson excited to see fruits of focused training during the pandemic
With qualification for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics safely achieved, Paige McPherson has approached the coronavirus-impacted preparation period with the most positive of mindsets.
The 30-year-old from Abilene in Texas, who competes in the under-67 kilograms category, has reconfigured her training programme in accordance with shift of the Games to next summer.
"My coach created a new training plan that is more suited for the longer time-frame at hand rather than what was once only three months' worth of work," she told World Taekwondo.
"Now, we have the time to truly go backwards - to fine-tune the basics and build on to our overall foundation in technique and fighting tactics.
"We have the time to rest and recover from the injuries inquired from the past several years of competition and the non-stop lifestyle of a professional taekwondo athlete.
"This is the first time where we have the opportunity to solely train without any interruptions, therefore, I am very excited in the next several months ahead."
McPherson, who now lives in Miami-Dade County in Florida, has been able to continue training with her room mate.
"We had been traveling together before the pandemic and now take the precautions of only seeing each other and no one else."
She added: "I want to remind people that we are resilient.
"For our entire athletic careers we have faced times of hardship and uncertainty.
"This time is no different as we have felt fear, anxiety, and the unknown before, yet still we were able to find a way amidst it."
McPherson made her name by winning an unexpected bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics, having won Pan American Games silver the previous year.
But there was disappointment for her at the Rio 2016 Olympics, where she lost in her first-round match.
McPherson resumed her normal level of activity the following year as she won silver at the World Championships in Muju, and in 2018 she won the Pan American Championships and Pan American Open.
In 2019 she retained her Pan American Open title and then won silver at the Pan American Games in Lima, losing 9-8 to Brazil’s Milena Titoneli Guimaraes.
She rounded off the season by reaching the Moscow Grand Prix final, where she was beaten 7-4 by the Ivory Coast’s Rio 2016 bronze medallist Ruth Gbagbi.
In the COVID-impacted year of 2020, she has managed to add another gold to her collection, having beaten Petra Stolbova of the Czech Republic in the final of the German Open.
Katherine Rodriguez earns a second bite of the Olympic cherry in Tokyo
A decade after the teenage success that established her name in international taekwondo circles, the Dominican Republic's Katherine Rodriguez Peguero is preparing for a second Olympic experience at the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games.
Rodriguez, who will turn 30 in December, announced her talent as a 19-year-old when she earned a silver medal at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Mayaguez in the under-67 kilograms class. The following year she earned bronze in the same category at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara.
A silver medal at the 2012 Pan American Championships at Sucre followed, this time in the over-67kg category, and she repeated that effort at the 2014 version of the Championships.
For Rodriguez, 2016 was a big year as she won the Pan America Olympic Games qualification tournament in Aguascalientes.
Her Rio 2016 preparations went very well. She won silver at the German Open followed by gold at the Pan American Championships in Queretano, and bronze in the Pan Am Open at the same venue.
She had high hopes in Rio as she entered the over-67kg heavyweight competition as the eighth seed - but was beaten 5-1 in the preliminary round by Morocco's ninth seed Wiam Dislam.
In 2018 she upgraded her Pan Am Open bronze to silver in Spokane, before returning to Rio with more success as she took bronze in the Military World Championships.
The following season was relatively muted for her as she was beaten in the second round at the World Championships in Manchester, but 2020 has been a story of success - albeit truncated by the coronavirus pandemic.
After opening by winning the Mexican Open title, Rodriguez followed up with a bronze medal at the German Open in Hamburg before moving on to the Pan America Olympic qualifier in Heredia.
Victory there has set her up for an Olympic challenge that she will be hoping expunges some of the disappointment of her showing in Rio four years ago.
Maicon de Andrade Siqueira has a spot in Brazil's sporting history
Maicon de Andrade Siqueira has a historic place in the sporting history of his nation, having been the only home athlete to earn a taekwondo medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics and also the first male Brazilian in the sport to medal at any Games.
The 23-year-old from Justinopolis, making his Olympic debut, took bronze in the over-80 kilograms heavyweight category.
He was only the second Brazilian to win an Olympic taekwondo medal following the bronze earned by Natalia Falavigna in the women's over-67kg heavyweight category at the Beijing 2008 Games.
Siqueria beat the United States' 2011 Pan American bronze medallist Stephen Lambdin in the preliminary round before losing his quarter-final 6-1 to eventual silver medallist Abdoul Issoufou of Nigeria.
But he recovered his impetus in the repechage, earning a 5-2 win over France's M’bar N-diaye and then winning his bronze medal match against Britain's Mahama Cho 5-4.
The previous year, Siqueria had warmed up for his big Olympic moment by winning the Rio Open and taking bronze in the heavyweight class at the Summer Universiade in Gwangju, South Korea.
In 2017 he added a silver Universiade medal to his collection but in the World Championships that year he hit the barrier of Issoufou once again in the quarter-finals, with the Nigerian going on to take the heavyweight title.
Further significant medals came his way in 2018 as he won bronze at the Pan American Championships in Spokane and the Military World Championships in Rio.
In 2019 he regained his place on a global podium as he took over-87kg bronze at the World Championships in Manchester, beating home athlete Cho 15-12 in the quarter-final before losing 17-13 in the semi-final to eventual winner Rafael Alba of Cuba.
Shortly afterwards he added a bronze from the Pan American Games in Lima in the over-80kg category before winning the Sofia Grand Prix.
His only major competition before lockdown arrived in 2020 also saw him in the medals as he came second at the US Open in Kissimmee, Florida, losing to Mexico's world silver medallist Carlos Sansores.
Rafael Alba – Cuba's two-weight world champion
Six years after hitting the heights as a 19-year-old, Rafael Alba regained them last year with a second world title.
First time round, in Puebla, the Cuban earned gold in the men's under-87 kilograms middleweight class. By the time he got to the 2019 World Championships in Manchester, Alba was contesting the heavyweight over-87kg category – and he dominated it.
To earn his first world gold in 2013, he beat China's Ma Zhaoyong 4-2. Six-years-later he reached the middle step of the podium with a 9-5 win over Mexico's Carlos Sansores.
In his semi-final, Alba disposed of Brazil's Rio 2016 bronze medallist Maicon Andrade. Alba's own progress at those Olympics was halted in the quarter-finals when he met Uzbekistan's 2015 world champion Dmitriy Shokin, who progressed on superiority after the score had been tied at 1-1.
Those 2015 world finals at Chelyabinsk in Russia had seen Alba's defence of his middleweight title earn him another medal – bronze this time after he had been beaten 7-6 in the semi-final by eventual gold medallist Radik Isayev of Azerbaijan.
Later that year, Alba had taken the Pan American Games title, beating Columbia's Carlos Rivas 11-4 in the final.
But at the season's concluding Grand Prix final in Manchester he was frustrated in the final as he lost 2-1 to the man who would beat him at the following year's Olympics – Shokin.
The 2017 World Championships in Muju saw Alba beaten in the round-of-32, and it was not until last year that he got back into full competitive mode.
After regaining the world title he earned silver at the Pan American Games in Lima, losing 13-6 in the final to Jonathan Healy of the United States.
And before coronavirus lockdown halted competition, he secured his place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games by winning the Pan American Olympic qualifier in Heredia, Costa Rica, beating Healy 30-6 in the final.
Briseida Acosta reaches Tokyo 2020 the hard way
No athlete has faced a tougher route to qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games than Mexico's Briseida Acosta, who had to defeat her compatriot and Olympic legend Maria Espinoza before she could reach the actual qualifying competition.
Such was the depth of quality for Mexico in the over-67 kilograms heavyweight women's class that the national federation arranged a best-of-three play-off between the 32-year-old Espinoza – gold medallist at the Beijing 2008 Games, bronze medallist at London 2012 and silver medallist at Rio 2016 – against rising 26-year-old talent Acosta.
With the fighters seventh and eighth in the world rankings, respectively, the Mexican Taekwondo Federation had struggled to choose between them and organised the competition to decide in February this year.
Espinoza won the first bout but Acosta – the Pan American Games gold medallist and world bronze medallist in 2019 – then defeated her in the next two.
Having won that momentous contest, the following month's Pan American Taekwondo Olympic Qualification Tournament in Costa Rica proved a more straightforward exercise for Acosta as she secured her place in Tokyo with a 9-4 win over Cuba's Yamitsi Carbonell, followed by a 15-5 victory over Keyla Avila Ramirez of Honduras.
Acosta can now look forward to challenging for a senior Olympic medal to add to the one she won at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore, where she took silver after the narrowest of defeats in the final, going down 2-1 to China's Shuyin Zheng – who would go on to win the Rio 2016 title.
Acosta's senior career got underway the following year, and she marked it with victory in the Trelleborg Open before contesting her first World Championships at Gyeongju.
Two years later, aged 19, she returned to the World Championships arena in her home city of Puebla and delighted spectators by taking an exceptional silver medal in the heavyweight class, losing 8-3 in her final against Russia's Olga Ivanova.
She followed up in 2014 by winning another medal on home soil as she took the Pan American Championships title in Agualascientes, beating Katherine Rodriguez Peguero 4-2 in the final.
But her hopes at the 2015 World Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, were halted at the quarter-final stage.
And, after Espinoza had taken the Mexican qualifying place for Rio 2016, Acosta was frustrated once again in global competition as she made another quarter-final exit at the 2017 World Championships in Muju, South Korea.
Two years further on, however, at the 2019 World Championships staged in Manchester, she returned to the global podium, taking bronze after being defeated in her semi-final by the eventual home-town winner, Bianca Walkden.
Acosta maintained her momentum at the Pan American Games in Lima later that summer, where she won gold after defeating Colombia's Gloria Mosquera 10-5.
Aliyah Shipman is flying the flag for Haiti
At the age of 17, Aliyah Shipman carries a unique responsibility: she is currently Haiti's team for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The United States-based welterweight fighter, who lives in Plantation, Florida, competed for the US during her earlier career.
This year, she became eligible to compete for Haiti, and an outstanding performance at the Pan American Olympic qualification tournament at Heredia in Costa Rica in March saw her claim a place at the Tokyo Games.
Victories over Colombia's Katherine Dumar Portacio and Madelyn Rodriguez of the Dominican Republic earned her one of the two available spots for the under-67 kilograms along with the Brazilian favourite, Milena Titoneli, the 2019 world bronze medallist.
Although Haiti first entered the Olympics in 1900, the number of athletes representing the country at the Games has generally not reached double figures.
That mark was attained at the Rio 2016 Games, where there were 10 representatives in seven sports – although only one in taekwondo, 17-year-old Aniya Louissant.
For the Tokyo Games, however, Haiti is so far sending just one athlete in one sport – and that is Shipman.
The qualifier was only Shipman's third experience in senior competition after she took bronze at the US Open at Kissimmee, Florida as part of her preparation – before doubling up to win the youth final 20-0.
At the start of 2020 she earned bronze at the Turkish Open.
"I am a senior in high school, and have been accepted to the University of Miami to study medicine," she told mundotaekwondo.com after the Costa Rica qualifier.
"I started taekwondo when I was nine-years-old, and I started training with my current coach Mohamed Ali Melghagh in 2017.
"I train six days a week.
"I joined team Haiti in 2019, after I earned my spot by fighting in nationals which took place in Cap-Haitien Haiti."
Brandon Plaza Hernandéz – youth and talent on his side
Mexico's hugely talented 23-year-old flyweight performer Brandon Plaza Hernandéz took a huge step forward in 2019 – only to suffer the frustration of failing to win through in this year's Pan American Olympic qualifier held in Costa Rica.
The young man from Comonfort ended 2019 with two prestigious silver medals added to his collection in the under-58 kilograms flyweight category – one from the World Championships in Manchester and another from the Pan American Games in Lima.
But he was unable to carry that wave of success forwards at the Olympic qualifiers held in March this year in Heredia, where he was beaten 32-26 in the semi-final by Colombia's Jefferson Fernandez Ochoa, who claimed one of the two flyweight spots for Tokyo along with Lucas Guzman of Argentina.
Plaza's emergence as a world class force in the sport has come as no surprise given his bronze-medal winning performance in the under-45kg class at the 2012 World Junior Championships in Sharm El Sheikh.
He was beaten in the semi-final by Russia's Boris Krasnov, who went on to take the gold and five years later won the title at the Summer Universiade.
Plaza's senior career took a dramatic upturn in 2018 when he won the Pan American Championships title in Spokane, Washington – having beaten Ochoa 19-12 in his opening bout.
Having opened 2019 with consecutive gold medals in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Mexican Open events, Plaza had an inspired run in the World Championships, going all the way to the final before losing 25-9 to South Korea's Jun Jang.
He reached another major international final soon afterwards at the Pan American Games in Lima, losing 19-17 in the final to Guzman.
Another Mexican Open title in Jalisco this year set him up for the Olympic qualifiers, but that experience was to end in frustration.
Plaza has youth, and talent, on his side as he now seeks to re-establish himself at the highest level in his category.
Natural entertainer, Anastasija Zolotic, kicked her way to gold in the World Taekwondo Junior Championships
Natural entertainer, Anastasija Zolotic, kicked her way to gold in the World Taekwondo Junior Championships
HAMMAMET, Tunisia (April 13, 2018) – A large, screaming crowd can be intimidating for even the most courageous of athletes.
However, it acted as a source of motivation for USA’s newly crowned Junior World Champion, Anastasija Zolotic.
Anastasija’s coach, Dennis White, explained that the crowd at the World Taekwondo Junior Championships energized the American athlete and pushed her to claim the gold medal in the junior women’s -52kg.
“Even though the large crowd was a completely new experience for her, she felt completely uplifted by the roar and support of those shouting her name.”
Anastasija landed multiple kicks to the head of her opponent in what was probably the most exciting final of the tournament so far. The high scoring head shots come naturally to this impressive and incredibly strong-minded athlete:
“Aiming for the head isn’t something I usually practice in training, but it’s something that I and one of my teammates are really good at. It just comes naturally. It’s just a reflex I guess.”
Anastasija had to fight hard for her junior world title; she was taken to a nerve-racking golden point round, which has not proved prosperous in the past.
“I usually never win in golden point round. It was a stressful situation! But in the back of my mind I was confident. I knew that I was going to win. It felt like it was my gold medal. I worked so hard for it! It was an instinct to lift my leg up and land the winning point.”
And so, inevitably, Anastasija claimed her world title with an emphatic kick to the head.
It is clear that her fighting style attracts the support of Taekwondo fans, even if she doesn’t realize it herself.
“I like to just do my best and fight my game. I’m not really about trying to impress anybody. I try to fight how I fight. I guess if that fight (the final) amused many people then that’s great!”
Admirably, Anastasija hopes that her performances will inspire others to achieve their life goals:
“I hope to show people that you can come back from losing and always push to achieve your goals. A fighting spirit is all you need. As long as you have that you can practically achieve whatever you want!”
At such a young age, the charismatic Anastasija will be a role model and a source of true entertainment for taekwondo fans for years to come.
Stars of tomorrow: Canada’s Skylar Park
Every tournament organiser secretly hopes that a hometown player will win: it adds that extra oomph to a competition and is sure to ignite not just the crowd, but the local community, too.
On day four of the WTF World Taekwondo Junior Championships in Burnaby, Canada, Winnipeg native Skylar Park delivered exactly that.
The final of the female under-59kg category pitted Park against the smaller Yen Hsin Yeh of Chinese Taipei. Almost at the opening bell, the hometown girl went one up with a body kick, prompting a fierce firefight as Yeh fought back.
But it was Park who extended her lead to 2-0, then 3-0 - the last with a thwacking round kick to the body that drew gasps and cheers. Some messy clinchwork followed before regular action resumed. Both girls then exchanged a series of head shots. The round ended 3-0 to Park.
In the second, Park again wasted no time, scoring with a fast head kick - then another – before tumbling to the mats after Yeh connected with a head kick of her own. The board surged to 12-3, but the lass from Chinese Taipei was still in the fight.
She counterattacked with determination - but it was the Canadian fighter who landed yet another head kick. By now, she was looking very, very dominant. A break in the torrid action was called, with the bout at 15-4, as Park’s torso armour was re-secured.
Park landed a picture-perfect side kick that did not register on the PSS, then was forced out of the ring. Both girls clinched and fired head kicks, the two fighters’ techniques almost cancelling each other out. But Park’s technical mastery and excellence of technique were becoming evident - she scored with a side kick from the extreme close range. The round ended 16-5.
As the bell rang on round three, Yeh had everything to fight for. Both girls were now fighting using the entire ring to manoeuver - with Park again unleashing a textbook side kick. Then Yeh landed an out-of-nowhere head kick, raising her score to 8-16. There was a brief slowdown - the prior tempo had been too fast - then Park’s cut kick scored again for 17-8.
Yeh was looking desperate. She hopped across the floor, flicking our leading leg on the high line, hunting Park’s head; the Canadian did well to evade. Then - suddenly - it was all over: the Canadian impacted with a head kick that gave her the victory on a 20-8 point difference. It had been a fine performance of clean and stylish taekwondo that delighted both the crowd and her team mates.
Park bowed to the crowd, dashed to the stands, grabbed a national flag and stormed back onto the stage - where a duo of beaming Mounties, in full dress uniform, joined her for an impromptu (and unscheduled) victory celebration. And if the ringside hug between Park and her coach looked particularly tight, it was - they are also daughter and father.
Park’s seizure of a World Championship title was, perhaps, predestined: she has not two, but three generations of taekwondo blood running through her veins. The daughter of Master Jae Park (her coach) she is the granddaughter of Master Deuk-hwa Park, who migrated from Korea to Canada in 1977; out of his 10 grandchildren, nine hold black belts. The family runs a successful dojang in Winnipeg.
With this pedigree, it is not surprising that Park, 17, has been doing taekwondo "since I could walk." Her father recognised that she had the strong mind that the sport demands as early as age three. Today, she wears a third-dan black belt.
The gold-medal match went according to plan. "It was just to go there and fight with confidence, to fight how I know I can," she said. "The plan was to go in strong from the beginning."
She plans to transition up to seniors, and has already gone toe-to-toe with world-class senior competition at the Dutch and Belgian Opens in 2015. In the Dutch competition, she faced off against 2016 Olympic silver medalist Eva Calvo-Gomez, losing just 6-3. For a junior to lose by such a small margin to one of the top players in the game suggests stratospheric potential.
With junior ranking points now being transferable to the seniors, she expects to be competing in the elite Grand Prix series next year.
"In the Olympic division at under-57kg, she will be in the top 15," her father said, confidently. As for her ambitions in the sport she is - naturally - looking over the eastern horizon toward the Tokyo in 2020.
But life will not just be taekwondo. She also hopes to go to university next year, though she is not yet clear on what her major will be. "Something sport related," she said. She also enjoys soccer and golf, but despite her good looks and weapons-grade physique, has no boyfriend.
In terms of techniques, she said: "I like my side kick as a base - but I like to do fancier kicks when I can." In terms of physique, her father reckons his daughter is perfectly engineered for the sport. "Her body is made for taekwondo: she is long and lean, she has fast-twitch muscles - she has all the attributes to succeed in taekwondo," he said. "And she can do all her techniques on both sides."
How about her mind game? Her father comes back with a surprising answer.
"Her mental game is weaker than more than 50 percent of the athletes - and that is part of the plan!," Park Sr confided. "Athletes that have a strong mental game at the beginning do not emphasise the physical so much, as they get away with using strategy. In my opinion, strategy can come later on, but if you don’t develop a physical base it is too late - the body only gives you a certain amount of time to develop; the mind can always develop."
Adalis Munoz: Dreaming of an Olympic Poomsae routine
Poomsae taekwondo has grown dramatically in recent years and for athletes like 20-year-old American Adalis Munoz the hope is that one day the discipline might - just might - join kyorugi in the world’s ultimate sporting arena: The Olympic Games.
"I’m excited to see how poomsae is growing," Munoz said. "There has definitely been a rise in competition over the past two years. I hope that poomsae will be included in the Olympics."
While there are, as yet, no indications that poomsae will get the Olympic nod, the growth was very clear to see at the 10th WTF World Taekwondo Poomsae Championships, in Lima, Peru, which boasted a record number of athletes and teams.
Munoz took gold in the individual freestyle – defending the gold medal she had won two years earlier. Having now won gold at two consecutive World Championships and many national titles, Munoz is now a well-established name in freestyle poomsae.
She trains six hours a day and is always pushing herself to improve. "I worked hard on jumping higher," she said. "I wanted to showcase getting comfortable in the air and not being afraid of going higher."
Munoz choreographs her own routines with her mother. Only then does she share them with her coach, Barbara Brand, to check what looks good and what does not - the end result is 80 per cent of her final programme comes from herself. This allows her to focus her routine on what she believes are winning elements such as soaring jumps and cartwheels - while making sure the routine is "practica" and not too "crazy".
Munoz believes it’s important there are effective fighting applications in her routine: "That’s part of tradition." But it is the freedom freestyle offers her that really attracts her to the sport. "Freedom to express yourself, with your music choice," she advised. "If you want the audience to feel something, you put in emotion."
At just 20, Munoz continues to hope that one day she will have the chance to express herself and light up the audience on the Olympic stage.
Maria Espinoza: Mexico’s Fist of Fury
Any architects in the audience might have suffered a heart attack when Maria Espinoza stalked onto the mats for the gold medal match in the female over 67kg category in the 2014 World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final in Queretaro, Mexico. The crowd threated to blast the roof off the venue with roars of “Ma-ri-a! Ma-ri-a! Ma-ri-a!”
Her opponent on the day was The Netherlands’ Reshmie Oogink.
“I knew that Oogink was going to be a very complicated fight, I had never fought with her before,” Espinoza said. “But I wanted a lot to fight with her, I like to fight with the best!”
As the match got underway, Oogink proved herself unintimidated by Espinoza’s thunderous support and seized an early lead. Espinoza shot back with her patented overhand counterpunch, a technique that is rare in kick-heavy taekwondo, but which Espinoza has made her own.
But by the third round, the Dutch fighter was still ahead on the scoreboard. With the seconds ticking away, Espinoza launched an all-out attack, firing off a series of spinning back kicks in an effort to claw back points with the high-scoring, but risky technique.
It was in vain. She was unable to connect and the match ended 4-2, with Oogink taking the gold and Espinoza the silver.
“I got a little disconcerted by the two points in the first round and physically I did not feel too good to overcome that obstacle,” the Mexican said in her post-match analysis.
Even so, winning silver at this elite level of competition is hardly anything to be ashamed of. “I am very happy with the result,” she said before conceding, “But I wanted gold.”
The 27-year-old is a national heroine in Mexico, with an Olympic gold from Beijing 2008, an Olympic bronze from London 2012 and the gold medal at the 2007 World Championships under her 2nd dan black belt.
Obviously competitive, Espinoza is a formidable presence. Striking looking - with wide, olive-skinned cheekbones and dark, fierce-looking eyes - she seems intensely focused, speaks emphatically and moves with grace and power.
In terms of physique, she admits that she is not as tall and leggy as many of her competitors, and her physique provides a clue to her fighting style: Espinoza is a power hitter.
So where does her famed counterpunch come from?
“I used to box when I was very young,” she said. That is where the technique comes from - she continues to hone it on the dummy - but she says she does not know where she got the timing to land it. It may be something to do with where she comes from: She hails from the same state as Julio Cesar Chavez, Mexico’s most famous boxer (a sport Espinoza no longer practices, but likes to watch).
Yet Espinoza is not a one-technique fighter. She also likes to use spinning back-kicks, and a chain of left-right-left-right turning kicks to the body - “bap-bap-bap-barrap!” in her own words. Asked to describe her personal style of taekwondo, she thinks for a moment before responding: “I am aggressive but I take care of points at the same time, I don’t lose control. I am very dangerous!”
Her year-round training includes circuit training and special physical training to strengthen legwork, such as kicking against an elastic restraint. Espinoza’s training encompasses both traditional and games-style taekwondo.
In the run-up to a competition, she downgrades the strength training and works more on speed and kicking “to feel light, relaxed and elastic”, while wearing the specific PSS to be used.
But her powerful style of taekwondo is not best suited to the current format, which favors light, touch contact off the front leg, she fretted.
“I have a little problem with the new [electronic scoring] systems compared to the old style; with any touch, the sensor makes points,” she said. “I am a strong kicker but normally the PSS system is not that strong; if you hit it too hard, it does not register.” However, she has seen how other competitors have adjusted to the changing sensitivities of the scoring system. “Other competitors have overcome that, they try to fix their problems to be acquainted with the system.”
Although she said she does not like appearing on TV and in newspapers, she is clearly a public figure.
During the photo shoot for this article, it proved difficult to get her out of the venue due to the dozens of Mexicans squealing “Maria!” and begging for signatures and photographs. She is sometimes recognised on the streets and in restaurants, and this high profile has won her corporate attention: Her sponsors include Coca Cola and athletic wear maker Under Armor.
And Espinoza is not just a warrior in taekwondo competition, she is the real deal: She is a private soldier with two-and-a-half years service in the Mexican Army, which provides full-time sport training for elite competitors, “as long as I am winning!”
As for the future, she hopes to possibly run a business or operate a string of taekwondo academies. The latter ambition seems feasible, given the sport’s popularity in Mexico.
Is there any particular reason why taekwondo is so popular in the country?
“The Mexican character is like saying,’ No Stop,’” she said.
“In boxing, there are many champions in Mexico and all the people want to be champions, all want to fight better. Taekwondo is the same.”
Charlie Chong: Poomsae master who is poetry in motion
World poomsae champion Charlie Chong is marching to the beat of his own drum as he leads taekwondo's innovative new competitive format into the future.
It was late in the day at the 7th WTF World Taekwondo Team Championships in Tunja, Colombia, but the packed stadium was humming with repressed excitement. Word had spread. Audience members already present were staying on, while, despite the late hour, more seats were filling with additional spectators who had heard about the first performance of the young man who now stood at center court, waiting quietly for his 90 seconds to begin.
Chong's performance in the qualifying round had overcome all competitors. The Canadian's final performance was now just moments away. In the eye of the storm, he waited quietly for his cue to take position. The clock ticked.
The signal came. He bowed and paced to the centre of the competition area. The music began. As Chong exploded into his choreography of kicks, leaps and spins, the entire audience roared its excitement.
In just a minute-and-a-half, it was over. Chong, panting, waited as the scores were collated. Minutes later, the decision was declared: The Canadian was crowned the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF)'s first-ever world freestyle poomsae champion.
Freestyle poomsae is the newest addition to the repertoire of competition formats at the world championship level. It incorporates the traditional forms of poomsae with music, acrobatic skills, and artistic interpretation. The new format has grown in popularity in many WTF Member National Associations and was adopted as the newest competition discipline at the 2012 World Championships in Colombia after debuting as a demonstration event the previous year in Vladivostok, Russia.
Chong had been excited to learn about the addition of a freestyle division to poomsae competition.
"I have always been fascinated by that precision and power in the moves of poomsae, so to now be able to take that to the next level was really exciting for me," he said. "When my master and I heard of the news, we got to work trying things out and seeing what we could put together."
It was no easy task. The master-student duo agonised so much over Chong's routine that they were tweaking it on the eve of the World Championships.
"When we started training sessions and we saw the level of competition that I would face, we knew everyone had come prepared," Chong recalled. "My master and I decided we needed to up my level of difficulty, so three days before the compe- tition, we revamped my routine." That revamping went down to the line.
"Obviously the changes were worth it in the end, but it did mean a lot of late night training back at the hotel!" Chong said. "The night before competition I was training until after midnight."
The WTF's first ever world freestyle poomsae champion is not your typical youngster. He is a focused and determined individual who speaks deliberately, with careful consideration of the words he chooses. The discipline visible in his daily routine portrays a champion in training - not only in his sport but in his wider life as well. He is up at around 9am. and at the dojang by 2 pm where he prepares for his own training, as well as teaching the young kids that inspire him to forge ahead with his own dreams. In fact, his training often takes a backseat to his teaching, which he does not complete until around 10pm.
When asked about coaching he said, "The kids are really a driving force for me in my training," said Chong, who retained his world title in Bali in 2013. "They remind me of me when I was their age, so full of dreams of being a champion and so eager to train. Actually, I guess I am still that way, but the young students really keep me that way."
Is there pressure to be a role model for the students at his own dojang? "I don't know if the kids look at me that way; maybe they do," he replied with his characteristic quiet modesty. "I mean, they do know that I went to the World Championships, but I don't know if they give any meaning as to what it could mean. But there already is a kind of pressure to just be a good teacher. I hope I can have a positive influence in my life the way that my father did when I was growing up and that he and my coach have had in recent years."
Chong had two dreams when he was younger: being an Olympian and joining S.W.A.T, the elite police squad. He has clearly made his mark in the poomsae world and also competes locally in kyorugi. Meanwhile, alongside his training in taekwondo, he is working towards a career in law enforcement, having finished a two-year course in Police Foundations at Seneca College King Campus in King City, Ontario.
As fast as his kicks and spins may be, Chong chooses his words slowly and carefully before delivering them in a soft voice that is un- like that of many young men. He is a deliberate individual who is still planning his future.
He began taekwondo at the age of four when he was introduced to the sport by his father, a taekwondo master who helped to spread the sport at the grassroots level in Canada. When he was 13, his father moved the whole family to Toronto from Cambridge, Ontario, so that Charlie could have better training and his father could further develop his business. The decision to move paid off when he won that gold medal in Colombia.
So who is Charlie Chong? He is the standard that all others in the future of freestyle poomsae now have to live up to - himself included.