Taekwondo Athlete Spotlight
Wu Jingyu: Chinese star hoping to kick her way to history
Chinese super-kicker Wu Jingyu dreamed big. Now, she is kick-starting the dreams of youth from her own country and from around the world.
Persistence is a dwindling quality among the young generation, but Wu, double Olympic gold medal winner at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, credits her success on the competition mats to this characteristic. "Everybody has dreams," she said. "But few perist in pursuing them!"
Wu made her global debut at the 2007 World Championships in Beijing, when at the age of only 20, she grabbed gold with a combination of exclusive technique and dynamic power that few could imitate. That win propelled her to the forefront of international taekwondo and led to predictions of Olympic medals. She fulfilled those expectations in the same city the following year.
Wu admits to harboring dreams - but is also prepared to fight to achieve them. Her 13 years of training defines her persistence. Now, she dreams of competing in three Olympiads in a row, like her compatriot, Chen Zhong, winner of Olympic gold at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 - and, more than that, to clinch three titles. As the taekwondo player to win consecutive Olympic titles, Chen was Wu's bench- mark.
"We were fighting together in the Beijing 2008 Olympics, which was her third successive Olympics," Wu said. "I learnt a lot from her, I felt her power of never giving up, and that is the power that pushes me to pursue my dreams."
Training is tough, but Wu, to coin a Chinese phrase, "eats bitterness" with laughter. "It's like practicing Buddhism: You have to stay calm, ignore all disturbances and taste the bitterness as sugar,"she said. "Then, when you are looking back, all the tough experiences will become great memories and will be definitely worth everything."
On August 8, 2012, in the ExCel London Arena, Wu set foot on the champions' podium in the women's under 49kg category for the second time. She remembers the great joy of the moment. "What is happiness?" she asked. "To me, happiness is that I can persist in whatever I like, and I can persist in pursuing my dreams. If one more kick will take me one step closer to my dreams, why should I stop? My body may feel exhausted, but my heart is delighted."
Today, Wu, an Olympic taekwondo heroine, is sharing her dream and inspiring the young generation in China, where she has been invited to schools and universities to share her story.
"Youngsters nowadays meet with few setbacks when they are growing up, so may not have courage and resolution when facing troubles," she mused. "I hope they can be stronger, not only physically but more mentally. I would like to share my experience with them so they can learn that there will be no success if you are only waiting, instead of fighting."
Wu, therefore, felt greatly honoured when she was asked to play a leading role in the preparations for the Summer Youth Olympic Games held in Nanjing in 2014. She felt a strong sense of calling to help youth from different cultures get together to communicate and interact with each other. Her mission began on the occasion of the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games Culture Festival and the unveiling of the event's official mascot.
Today, Wu is ensuring that she has the right skills to do what she feels compelled to do: In between kicking practice, she is enrolled in higher education.
"I'm now continuing my college education in Suzhou University and my major is English," she said. "Language is the most effective way to exchange your opinions with others. With proper communication, I can learn more from athletes and coaches from other coun- tries. This is a great opportunity to me, and I can help young people in China to be more independent, more confident and more inclusive in their way of pursuing dreams."
Wu won a bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon but her sights are set on bigger goals. Rio 2016 is getting closer and she can hear it calling.
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.
Lee Dae-hoon: Keeping the Flag Flying
As taekwondo becomes ever-more competitive globally, the sport’s home team is winning fewer medals than it used to. But don’t count Korea out just yet: Dae-hoon Lee is at the top of his game
One of the most notable trends in WTF taekwondo in recent years has been the rise and rise of new taekwondo superpowers. Iran, for example, boasts a fearsome array of champions and potential champions in the sport, while Russia, leveraging its long-standing tradition of athletic excellence, is storming forward in the rankings.
These challenges mean that the customary dominance of Korea - from whence taekwondo originates - is under extreme pressure. But don’t tell that to Lee Dae-hoon.
Garnering 30 votes out of 105 cast among his peers, the 22-year-old Seoul native was voted the WTF Male Player of the Year at the inaugural WTF Gala Awards Dinner in Queretaro, Mexico on December 5 last year. Why so?
“Because of my poor English, I don’t have many foreign friends and I did not even think I could be the recipient,” he said. “But my active, dynamic way of fighting - rather than a dull one - may have helped me win the honour.”
Fighting in one of the most competitive weight categories in the sport, Lee has a crowd-pleasing style: “One of my specialties is kicking to the head!” he said.
Given current rules that favor the front cut kick or push kick to the PSS, high kicks are high-risk. As a result, Lee is modifying his game: “Nowadays I practice to kick to the body as my opponents know my tactics,” he said. “I practice hard according to changed WTF Competition Rules.”
Lee’s competitive record is a glittering roster of wins and near misses.
He was the gold-medal winner in the under 63kg category at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China in 2010; gold medalist in the same category at the 2011 World Taekwondo Championships in Gyeongju, Korea. He took silver in the under 58kg category at the 2012 London Olympic Games; and won gold in the under 63kg category at the 2013 World Taekwondo Championships in Puebla, Mexico.
Although success eluded him in Queretaro, he is a two-time winner of five Grand Prix events - taking home gold in the -68 kg category in Suzhou, China and in Manchester, Britain.
Currently, Lee trains a sweat-generating seven hours per day except weekends, and benefits from highly professional preparation.
But preparation and training is no longer a guarantee of success, given that the competition from non-Korean fighters is stiffer than ever. “It is a fact that Korea wins less medals at taekwondo events nowadays than before,” he said. “But we manage to do well.”
And while that may not please die-hard Korean taekwondo fans, it is good for the sport overall, Lee reckons. “A certain country’s monopoly of medals is not desirable,” he mused. “I think we need more analysis of foreign players to produce good results.” Indeed, Lee’s favorite player in the sport right now is not a team-mate, but Spain’s Gomez Gonzalez.
Even so, being born Korean does confer some advantages. Lee kicked off this taekwondo career at a gym in Sinchon, Seoul at the tender age of four under the watchful eye of his coach - who also happens to be his father. Both he and his brother now wear fourth-dan black belts.
But taekwondo is ever-changing. Asked how the protector and scoring system (PSS) is affecting the sport, he was more diplomatic than some players, who complain that the gear is encouraging the use of less-spectacular front-foot kicks to the body, rather than turning or spinning kicks to the head.
“The use of PSS has made taekwondo competitions fairer and more transparent: both players are fighting under the same conditions,” Lee opined. “The adoption of PSS has inevitably resulted in the change in the fighting style of players. Players have become clever and more thoughtful.”
And he is hoping that his style will continue to win him fans among his peers. “I want to be selected as the WTF Male Player of the Year 2015,” he said.
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.”
Wu Jingyu: China's quiet joy
The WTF’s “2015 Female Player of the Year” is one of the most recognised and respected names in the taekwondo and Olympic movements. It was not ever thus for China’s Jingyu Wu, but her future fame may have been prefigured in of those curious coincidences that can only happen in real life - for if they occurred in literature, they would be unbelievable.
In 2003, Wu, then an unknown, provincial-level taekwondo player, was chosen to play a bit part in a movie. Named “Taekwondo” and starring well-known Chinese actress Tao Hong, the film told the story of a girl who becomes an Olympic champion in the sport.
Wu played the star as a youth in a role that gave her perhaps five minutes of screen time. “I was just a common athlete at the time,” Wu recalls. “Just a little girl.”
Fast forward five years to 2008 and the Beijing Olympics. When the dust had settled in the arena, the girl from the Jiangsu Province who had played a filmic taekwondo champion was wearing a real-life Olympic gold medal around her neck. Reality had mirrored fiction.
Wu repeated her gold medal heroics in London 2012, and, in the female under 49kg category the diminutive Chinese is the favourite for a third gold in Rio 2016. That would ensure her a place in the history books as the first taekwondo player ever to earn three Olympic golds.
She may be the most dominant female player in the sport. Her footwork is superlative and her timing almost supernatural, making her appear one step ahead of her opponents. She prefers the front-leg kick, but has extraordinary flexibility, and is able to score from any height and angle - a talent which has earned her the nickname “Superkicker.”
Taekwondo pundits are in awe at her mastery of the game.
“She shows everything - mental game, physical game, style, fighting pattern - that means, the template for the fight - and strategy,” said WTF director general Yang Jin-bang. “She tries to be spectacular, to show all the taekwondo skills,” added another taekwondo watcher. “In my opinion, she is on a level above all the other athletes.”
Yet on the mats, she does not express the passion of many athletes; in the eye of the storm, she maintains an icy composure. “I am very calm,” she admits. So is she stand-offish?
No. Despite her towering skill, Wu is tiny in stature. In person, she displays real charm, fiddling with the flowers on the table during the interview, frequently beaming with a shy, girlish grin. She has adopted the English name “Joy” - a direct translation of her Chinese name, Jingyu - and it is appropriate: She epitomises the quality, albeit in a quiet, understated manner.
Wu’s taekwondo story started at age 13. As a child she was raised by her grandmother in the town of Jingdezhen, famed as the porcelain capital of China, in Jiangxi Province. She was good at sports, and a particularly fast runner.
One day, a taekwondo coach arrived at her school, scouting fresh talent. Someone suggested he take a look at Wu. The coach liked what he saw; Wu took up the sport; and after just two months training, she won the Jiangsu Provincial Championships. Not bad for a 13-year-old.
So was she a natural talent? “You could say that,” she said - but credits her success to bitterly hard training. For three years, from 15 to 18, she built a foundation by training a murderous 10 hours per day. “I used those three years,” she said. “Most people would need 10 years!”
Due to her stature, she had to work extra hard. “At the beginning, nobody cared about me because I was very tiny, nobody thought I would be world champion.” she said. “I had to get stronger and fight everyone in every competition.”
Even today, the double Olympic gold medalist still trains five hours daily.
Like many fighters, she is not completely happy with the current game. “The PSS is a little sensitive so you just need just a front-leg kick, but that is not the real taekwondo, nobody likes to watch it,” she said. “I like to use the front leg but I do a lot of different things with it.”
Although China boasts a universe of home-grown martial arts - ranging from hard systems patterned after animals such as tigers and eagles to the soft, philosophically influenced taijiquan – the country has enthusiastically embraced taekwondo. “There are almost 20,000 clubs across China,” she said. “A lot of children practice it, so it gets public recognition.”
The sport has been good to Wu. “Choosing to do taekwondo was the best decision in my life,” she said. Her husband of three years added ruefully, “She has two loves - taekwondo and me!” She has just one regret. When her grandmother - who had raised and taken care of the young Wu until she joined the Jiangxi Provincial Team - passed away, Wu was competing, so could not be there.
In addition to training, Wu teaches sport at Renmin University in Beijing and spends as much time as possible preaching to children and youth on the benefits of sport and Olympism. She also donates to, and supplies underprivileged children with sporting equipment. When presenting to youth, Wu tries to inspire them with her own life lessons. “First - train hard! Second - never give up!” she said. “A human being can do anything with self-belief.”
Her husband, Huo Kun, runs a company promoting Olympism, “Exceptional.” He possesses a large collection of Olympic memorabilia but admits that his most prized exhibits are Wu’s two gold medals, not to mention Wu herself.
The couple believes Wu’s Olympic destiny may have been set in the stars. “I was born on July 13, 1987,” she said. “That was a very important day for the Chinese Olympic movement, as we won the bid for the Beijing Olympics on July 13, 2001.” In London, she won gold on August 8, 2012; August 8, 2008, had been the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
The duo have been befriended by IOC President Thomas Bach, who wrote the foreword for their jointly authored book “Olympic Love.”
Her win as “the 2015 Female Player of the Year” at the National Theater in Mexico City was no surprise. Virtually all her peers are in awe of her mastery of the sport and say how likeable she is in person. Having won gold at the Mexico City 2015 Grand Prix Final in convincing style, Wu has comfortably earned her country a spot in Rio. She still finds “hard training no problem,” but now she is 28 - an “advanced” age for an elite athlete – she is boxing clever: “The most important thing is technique and scientific fighting,” she said, adding that she will sit down with Team China to analyze all the opposition.
However, she admits she does not have the hunger for gold in Rio that she had in Beijing and London. So why is she competing? “Because I love taekwondo!” she said. “After Rio, maybe I will retire, but competition is very, very precious to me, I want to enjoy every moment. After I retire, there will be no more.”
There is also the matter of children. “I would like to have a baby,” she said. “One? Two? Three? Four? Five? Maybe one will be enough!”
Beyond taekwondo, she enjoys hand arts, such as flower arranging, painting, “though I am not that good,” and cooking, her husband confirms that she is skilled in that area.
If she does retire, post-Rio, she will continue to teach sport, and would like to open a taekwondo school and coffee shop. “I want to relax after all the hard training,” she said. “So I will make the club near the coffee shop, and will be able to watch the taekwondo fighters!”
The name of the club she envisions reflects her name, her outlook and her life experience: “Joy Taekwondo.”
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.”
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.
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."
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."
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."
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: 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.
Cheick Sallah Cisse: "I am not afraid of anybody"
It promised to be an epic clash - perhaps the best match-up of the 2015 WTF World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final in Mexico City, Mexico on December 5 and 6.
In the men’s under 80kg category, Ivory Coast's Cheick Sallah Cisse is one of the most consistent fighters in the sport and the pride of African taekwondo. Moldova’s Aaron Cook is perhaps the sport’s most crowd-pleasing fighter, noted for his all-out attacks and his use of spectacular kicks.
The two had done battle four times previously. Each had walked away with two victories. In Mexico City, at the season’s grand finale, the crowd anticipated an epic battle. They would not be disappointed.
Cook is a 100-per cent offensive fighter - so from the opening bell, Cisse preempted his opponent by charging forward into an attack of his own. Many taekwondo matches are tactical, stand-off contests with athletes foot-fencing at distance, with the result being decided by one or two points. This was the opposite.
The crowd gaped, open-mouthed: The two athletes were defying the city’s notorious, energy-sapping altitude. All-out combat raged, as the fighters met head-to-head, bringing to bear every weapon in the taekwondo arsenal.
It ended 16-10 to the Moldovan. The agony of defeat was evident as Cisse, exhausted and devastated, dropped face down onto the mats. Cook dropped down beside him, putting his arm around his shoulders in an effort to console him. It was a powerful moment: The brotherhood of athletes.
Cook went on to win silver at the championship; his team admitted that their entire strategy for the competition had been based upon defeating Cisse.
Cisse, despite having been eliminated in his opening match, earned a place for his National Olympic Committee to Rio 2016 on ranking points.
Later on the same day, he had recovered. Asked what it had felt like out there, he said simply, “I came for gold. I was disappointed.” In a fight post mortem, he admitted his offensive strategy had been undermined by Cook’s footwork. “I stated very strong but Aaron was cancelling me by moving around,” he said. “I should have changed my game.”
On the conditioning front, he had also been undone by the altitude, having had just three days of training. “I had not expected it,” he admitted. “It affected me a lot.”
Born in the town of Bouake, but now resident in Cote d’Ivoire’s capital of Abaijan, Cisse, 22, started martial arts with karate at the age of 5. When he moved to the capital at age 8, he switched styles to taekwondo. The rest is history.
He lists his three major competitive achievements as a gold medal at the Moscow Grand Prix Series 1, gold at the Brazzaville African Games 2015, and silver at the 2015 World Universiade in Gwangju, Korea. A consistent fighter, he has also won medals at the Samsun and Manchester Grand Prix events.
Asked to list his key strengths he puts spirit at top. “I am not afraid of anyone,” he said. As regards physical attributes, he said, “I have the prototypical physique of the new style: good flexibility and good height.”
Ivory Coast is one of Africa’s, and the world’s, strongest taekwondo nations. The country was, back in 1985, the number two nation for the sport after South Korea, something Cisse’s coach, Attada Tadjou, attributes to Patrice Remark, the country’s former technical director and current United States coach. It was this competitive success that made the sport so popular.
Yet despite the popularity of the sport in the African nation, Cisse admits that being a taekwondo athlete is a struggle.
“I receive a lot of media attention as I am doing well, but in terms of financial support, though I get support to go to competitions, it is tough financially.” He especially cites the support that the Cote d’Ivoire Taekwondo Federation President Bambacheick Daniel has personally extended to him. And he hopes for better things next year. “Now that I am qualified for the Olympics, I expect to get more support.”
An electrical engineering major, Cisse has currently suspended his studies to prepare for the Olympics. After Mexico City, his first step on the road to Rio is recuperation.
“I am going to rest as I had to give a lot of fights this year - too many,” he said. Indeed, many athletes comment on 2015’s grueling competitive schedule: After the May World Championships, the four-series Grand Prix took place in the year’s second half.
Cisse faced a particularly diabolical schedule in September. After winning the African Games title in Brazzaville, the Republic of the Congo, which ended on September 19, he jumped on a flight to Samsun, Turkey, to fight in the Grand Prix Series 2. He made it through to the final - also on September 19. There, he fought through to the finals, but after stalking on to the mats to face Iran’s Mahdi “The Terminator” he declared - to the astonishment of the crowd - “No mas.”
“What happened was, I was coming from African Games. I travelled and just weighed in and fought,” he recalled. “I was too tired and I had too many bruises to fight Khodabakhshi. I was in the final – but I stopped.”
After resting following a torrid 2015, the next step for Cisse is analysis. “We are going to analyze everything that happened, then make assessments, then plan, then go back to do some fighting,’” said Cisse’s coach, Attada Tadjou.
Cisse himself said he has no concerns. “I am not worried, I have a chance,” he said. “When I came here, my strategy did not work, but I have plenty of time to make some adjustments.”
As far as Cisse’s own analysis goes, he is respectful about his potential competitors in Rio. “Aaron Cook’s game is different to other people’s, he uses a dynamic style, not just in profile with the front leg,” he said. “I like his game – he did not change. He is a good fighter.”
Regarding Iran’s Mahdi Khodabashkhi, he said, “He is very good: I have never fought him...[but] he is not dangerous to me.”
As for Russia’s Albert Gaun, he said, “I beat him by 12 points in the Moscow Grand Prix, but he is good as well - he has his flavour.”
And what of Cisse himself? “He loves training – anytime, anywhere – and he has a winning spirit,” said Tadjou. “Sometimes he wants to do his own thing, but is very coachable - he is a dream for a coach.”
His student’s dream is simple: “Olympic gold.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Haby Niare: France’s Queen of the Scorpion Kick
The Haby Niare - Elin Johansson face-off for gold in the female -67 kg category at the 2014 World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final in Queretaro, Mexico was as much a clash of styles as a clash of fighters.
France’s Niare, ranked number one in the slot in the world, is one of the least conventional fighters on the circuit, surprising the crowd and her opponents with kicks unleashed from impossible angles. Sweden’s Johansson, on the other hand, is a textbook taekwondo technician, firing from a textbook arsenal.
On the night, it proved to be a victory for convention over flamboyance: In a masterly tactical display, Johansson controlled pace and the distance, taking the match (and the gold) 4-2. Still, Niare - nicknamed “The Abigator” (a play on her name and the carnivorous reptile) by her friends - accepted defeat gracefully, accepting her silver medal with a grin that rarely leaves her face.
“I know I can win, I know I am better, but I was tired,” Niare, 21, said, conceding,”[Johansson} is a good fighter, and yes, she controlled the fight.
“Tall, leggy and lithe as a leopard, Niare works for French railroad company, SNCF. In person, she proves as charming and bubbly a personality as she is formidable a fighter.
A native of Mates la Jolie - a suburb of Paris where she is widely recognised for her taekwondo achievements - Niare boasts a 2013 World Championships and a 2010 European Championships as well as her GP Number One ranking. She holds a 1st dan black belt in taekwondo, an art she has been practicing for a decade.
“Physically she has very special technique, with spin kicks and face kicks,” said French coach, Medhi Bensafi. “She is special and spectacular - not a conventional style.”
Haby Niare: Queen of the Scorpion Kick
The Haby Niare versus Elin Johansson face-off for gold in the female under-67 kg category at the 2014 World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final in Queretaro, Mexico was as much a clash of styles as a clash of fighters.
France’s Niare, ranked number one in the slot in the world, is one of the least conventional fighters on the circuit, surprising the crowd and her opponents with kicks unleashed from impossible angles. Sweden’s Johansson, on the other hand, is a textbook taekwondo technician, firing from a textbook arsenal
On the night, it proved to be a victory for convention over flamboyance: In a masterly tactical display, Johansson controlled pace and the distance, taking the match, and the gold, 4-2. Still, Niare - nicknamed “The Abigator”, a play on her name and the carnivorous reptile, by her friends - accepted defeat gracefully, accepting her silver medal with a grin that rarely leaves her face.
“I know I can win, I know I am better, but I was tired,” Niare, 21, said, conceding,”[Johansson} is a good fighter, and yes, she controlled the fight."
Tall, leggy and lithe as a leopard, Niare has worked for French railroad company, SNCF. In person, she proves as charming and bubbly a personality as she is formidable a fighter.
A native of Mates la Jolie - a suburb of Paris where she is widely recognised for her taekwondo achievements - Niare boasts a 2013 World Championships and a 2010 European Championships as well as her Grand Prix Number One ranking. She holds a 1st dan black belt in taekwondo, an art she has been practicing for a decade.
At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games this summer, she won a silver medal.
“Physically she has very special technique, with spin kicks and face kicks,” said French coach, Medhi Bensafi. “She is special and spectacular, not a conventional style.”
Indeed, Niare’s most eye-catching technique is the kind of move seen in kung fu movie fantasies rather than in real-life sporting competition: 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 is certainly that, but insists that she is not naturally supple, claiming “I am always stretching, I work hard!” Her hobby, outside taekwondo is hip hop dancing which, she says, helps with fighting rhythm.
In the run-up to the Querataro competition, she trained heavily in endurance, in preparation for the city’s altitude. Technical preparation focused heavily on sparring with the team, as well as video analysis of the competition.
“Mental is most important for the fights, it’s all in the spirit,” she said. “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.”
That self-analysis is backed up by her coach. “Haby is a player with big determination,” said Bensafi. “She has only one thing in her head: to be the best.”
Niare is full of praise for the WTF Grand Prix Series. “It is very good for us athletes, as now we can fight more and we are more active,” she said “And we want to do the best."
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.”
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.
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."