Vika Marchuk - Paralympic gold a new target to aim for
The first appearance of Para-taekwondo at the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Paralympics offered Ukraine's Vika Marchuk a priceless opportunity - something else to win.
In addition to her six world titles, Marchuk - who was abandoned in an ill-equipped orphanage in Kiev after being born with Holt-Oram syndrome and only one arm - has won five European titles and many other international honours.
Ranked number one in the women's under-49 kilograms K43 division, Marchuk has not lost a fight since the introduction of the standings in 2016.
In 2019, she won all seven of her events, including adding a record-setting sixth world title and fifth European title.
She also set the record for most points scored and the biggest margin of victory, thanks to a 72-2 semi-final win at the 2019 European Championships.
Marchuk became the first athlete to receive the prestigious Merited Master of Sport in Para Taekwondo.
As a world champion, she was already a recipient of the Master of Sport designation, the system's second-highest award.
The Merited Master of Sport - the system's most prestigious award - is rarely bestowed and only on international champions that have also made valuable contributions to the sport.
Marchuk is the first athlete in any post-Soviet country to receive the prize in Para-taekwondo.
Such commendation is a far cry from the reaction of the Ukrainian authorities after she had won her first world title in Aruba after her coach, Yuliya Volkova, raised the money for her to take part just nine months after she had taken up the sport.
Two months before the Championships Marchuk, who had already required a heart operation, needed surgery on her shoulder.
But when she got to Aruba she was an unstoppable force, whispering to herself during the Opening Ceremony: "I must win, I must win…"
She did so. "I had never seen Vika looking joyful," Volkova said. "Now, at last, I did. Sport - in this case, taekwondo - truly has the power to realise dreams and to change lives."
But when they returned home they were told that it was "a random gold medal" and no financial support was offered by the Sports Ministry. In the meantime, Marchuk required more treatment for her shoulder.
Eight years on, Marchuk is in a far happier place.
News of her award was followed by a promise from her local City Government to provide her with her own apartment.
But for all her successes, victory in Tokyo is far from being guaranteed.
Marchuk will be seeded third at the Paralympic Games, where K43 and K44 athletes are competing in the same class.
To earn that career-topping gold she will need to get by Mongolia's K44 world champion Enkhtuya Khurelbaatar and Turkey's second-seeded Meryem Betul Cavdar.
Lisa Gjessing - the incredible story of Denmark's Paralympic hopeful
Lisa Kjær Gjessing is one of Denmark's big medal hopes for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, where Para-taekwondo will make its debut.
The 42-year-old is ranked world number one in the under-58 kilograms K44 category with four world titles and five European Championship gold medals to her name.
In March 2021, Danish broadcaster DR named Gjessing among seven athletes it tipped for a medal.
She has also been identified as "one to watch" by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).
"I am especially looking forward to feeling the atmosphere that the whole world unites around one thing, namely sports," said Gjessing, who was a member of Denmark's able-bodied taekwondo team and competed at the 2001 and 2003 World Championships, before being diagnosed in 2009 with chondrosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.
She underwent different treatments before her lower left arm was amputated in 2012.
At this crucial point in her life, Gjessing got in touch with her former coach Bjarne Johansen who spoke to her about Para-taekwondo.
She got back into training and was soon practicing alongside elite athletes at Johansen's training centre in preparation for the World Para Taekwondo Championships in Lausanne in 2013.
She duly took the title in the under-58kg category, setting off on a long unbeaten run which only ended in 2019.
Born in 1978, Gjessing is one of the older athletes on the circuit, but what she lacks in youth she more than makes up for in experience. Fully recovered from her cancer, Gjessing is now confident about her prospects at Tokyo 2020.
She retained her world title in 2014, 2015 and 2017. The latter achievement - in an event staged at London 2012 Olympic venue the Copper Box Arena - was watched by her two daughters.
"I saw them in the stand during my first match and I started crying but thought 'no, you can’t cry now!'" said Gjessing to the IPC.
"When I went to the mat in the final I also felt like crying but told myself 'you can't be emotional now.'"
At the 2019 World Championships in Antalya, Turkey, she had to settle for bronze in an event where China's Yujie Li took gold and Serbia's Marija Micev silver, but she did break her arm in the quarter-finals.
In September 2019, Gjessing experienced a rare defeat in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic test event at Makuhari Messe Hall in Chiba Prefecture, although this was in the heavyweight class and not her own weight division.
She suffered a 27-10 loss to Britain's 2017 world champion Amy Truesdale, but she remained buoyant about her Tokyo capabilities.
"Taekwondo has become a very big gift to me," she told World Taekwondo. "It will be a great challenge for me to advance to the Tokyo Paralympics."
Gjessing's life has been marked by professional as well as sporting success. Her legal qualifications have earned her a position as a state prosecutor in Denmark.
Reflecting upon her illness, she told World Taekwondo in 2014: "It was a big shock."
Gjessing had given up taekwondo by then, partly due to family and educational commitments and partly due to failing to qualify for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
But while rehabilitating from her operation in 2012 she saw something that inspired her.
"I saw the Paralympics in London a few months after my amputation, and I thought, 'how can I feel sorry for myself, when they can do all this?' she recalled.
So she contacted Johansen. After an eight-year lay-off, Gjessing got back into training. "Johansen had an elite taekwondo centre and his guys were on a high level," she said. "But I found I could still kick."
Just a month-and-a-half later, she entered the able-bodied Danish National Championships and won in her class. "That felt really good," she admitted. She started intensive training for the 2013 World Para Taekwondo Championships in Lausanne.
She was off on a golden pathway towards a historic date in Tokyo…
Shoko Ota: The Paralympic medallist who swapped skis for taekwondo
Shoko Ota, three times a Winter Paralympian in skiing events, is now making tracks to become a Summer Paralympian as she targets appearing at the Tokyo 2020 Games, where taekwondo is due to make its Paralympic debut.
Ota, 31, who was born with a defect to her left hand, retired from Para-sking in April 2014, having been flagbearer for Japan at the Sochi Winter Games.
Four years earlier in Vancouver she had won silver in the 1 kilometre sprint classic standing event in women’s cross-country skiing, adding to the bronze she had won in the women’s 12.5km standing biathlon at the 2006 Winter Paralympics in Turin, where she had become the youngest Japanese Paralympian.
But Ota’s Paralympic journey was not over.
She first encountered Para-taekwondo at a promotion for Para sports, and then, at a taekwondo training event in 2015, she met Yoriko Okamoto, the Sydney 2000 Olympic bronze medallist.
That same year it was announced that Para-taekwondo would make its Paralympic debut in Tokyo at the Games scheduled for 2020 - and now due to take place this summer.
When she heard that there was no female Para-taekwondo player in Japan at that time, Ota decided to take up the sport, hoping to become a practice partner for new players aiming for the Tokyo Paralympics.
Though she participated in the Asian Para Taekwondo Championships in 2016 and won bronze her plan - to be a supporting player - did not change. In 2017, she did not compete.
But in January 2018 she had a change of heart and participated in the All-Japan Taekwondo Championships - winning gold.
In October that year Ota changed her job to one at SoftBank Corp, which allowed her to focus on her new sport.
Ota's hard training paid off when she won the Para title in the All-Japan Taekwondo Championships in February 2019.
This made her the only player designated as a national team member in women's Para-taekwondo.
At the 2019 World Para Taekwondo Championships in Antalya in Turkey, Ota won a bronze.
Now her eyes are set on Tokyo, and Para-taekwondo’s biggest-ever moment.
"I can finally play a game like taekwondo," she told World Taekwondo. "Will there be a medal?
"Now that I can practise well, I think it will follow if my strength improves… I think I should be able to get it."
Bopha Kong – the Paralympic hopeful who wants it all
At the start of 2018, Bopha Kong had already established himself as one of France's strongest medal contenders for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Aged 36, he had won three world titles in the under-61 kilograms K43 division, two European titles and an International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation World Games championship.
"My goal in 2018 is to win every tournament I compete in," he told World Taekwondo. "And I want to compete in them all."
This is exactly what he did – the highlight being a 29-22 victory over rising Japanese talent Kenta Awatari to claim the Pan American Championships title.
Forced to switch from boxing to Para-taekwondo after losing his hands in an accident with a home-made bomb at the age of 18, Kong turned to martial arts philosophy to help cope with the loss.
"Martial arts develops your self esteem," he said.
"It develops a respect for the world in you, a sense of community, and a feeling of empathy."
Having earned gold at the first Para Taekwondo World Championships, Kong is determined to win again as Para-taekwondo makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo.
"The one that wins is the best of the best," he said. "This achievement is my dream – to be the best in the world."
That towering ambition, of course, is now on hold to 2021 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kong was among a group of the world's leading Para-taekwondo athletes who demonstrated how they coped with the restrictive measures put in place due to cornoavirus.
The video was the first of World Taekwondo's online "Kicking It At Home" campaign and included footage of Kong – who was born in Vietnam but came to France aged three – at home.
Other notable Para-taekwondo athletes involved included Gamze Gurdal of Turkey, Peru's Angelica Espinoza, Lisa Gjessing of Denmark, Mexican Juan Diego Garcia Lopez, Veena Arora of India, Brazil's Nathan Torquato, Alejandro Vidal Alvarez of Spain and Italy's Antonio Bossolo.
When the lockdown halted competition, Kong could reflect on another highly successful season in 2019.
He made the podium at the one-day Tokyo 2020 test event in Chiba on September 28, fighting in the only men's competition, the K44 under-61kg category.
Bolorerdene Ganbat of Mongolia was the victor in the men's event, defeating Antonino Bossolo of Italy 16-12 in the final.
Kong completed the podium along with Mitsuya Tanaka of Japan, winning bronze.
On June 16, Kong won his 11th consecutive tournament in the men's under-61kg K43 class as he took another Pan Am Open title in Portland.
In his previous tournament, Kong had successfully defended his world title at the Championships held in Antalya, Turkey, in February – although he had been made to work hard in the final before beating Israel's Asaf Yasur 24-22.
Kong is a phenomenon – and Tokyo remains in his sights…
Sheila Radziewicz: "The Impossible Only Takes a Little Longer"
Diagnosed at birth with thrombocytopenia-absent radius, known as TAR syndrome, the Massachusetts-born Radziewicz learned from an early age that she had to be independent if she was going to have the quality of life she craved.
"I grew up with the phrase, 'The impossible only takes a little longer,'" she told her local newspaper, Salem News.
Appropriately, that was the title of the book she released in November 2014.
"'The Impossible Only Takes a Little Longer: One Women's Story of Determination', is more than just a book," said the publishers in a press release. "It is a message about ability. It is one example about how living with a disability can be amazing despite society's challenges. One must purchase this book and experience her undaunted way of achieving so much despite the odds and obstacles society has put before her."
Working as a local advocate coordinator for Healing Abuse Working for Change, a charity that helps victims of domestic abuse, Radziewicz never misses training at Bruce McCorry's Martial Arts school. "She is a very motivating person for myself," said the owner, while her instructor Sandra LaRosa added: "She never feels sorry for herself."
It just goes to show that anyone can be happy, successful and lead a fulfilling life. Good luck to Sheila Radziewicz. We salute you.
Sharon Akewi: A man who dreams of being as big as Lionel Messi
"To all my disabled friends all over the world, taekwondo is beautiful, taekwondo is sweet," said Sharon Akewi, 30." If you are a disabled person like me, don't sit in your room, don't lock the door, come into taekwondo, you will have a great opportunity."
Akewi lost two fingers of his right hand at the age of 25, but that did not keep him from the sport he has loved since the age of 12.
"My master came to visit me in the hospital and motivated me to never give up, to keep practicing." After one year of rehabilitation, he did exactly that. "If you love it, no predicament is going to make you stop what you love to do," he added.
Now a taekwondo coach himself, Akewi has been helping friend John Bodu, 25. Bodu lost his right arm in an accident at age 14, but took up disabled football and cycling before being introduced to taekwondo by Akewi. The two attended their first Para-taekwondo Championships in Moscow 2014 and hope it will be the start of something special.
"I know the sky will not be the limit," said Bodu, who has medaled for Ghana in other Para-sports. "I want to do the same for taekwondo, I want to be the world's best!"
They have their sights high, which they hope to win not just for Ghana, but for "Africa as a whole." They also have aspirational sporting benchmarks, which they hope will elevate their chosen game into the big leagues.
"Just like you have world-class players - [Lionel] Messi or [Cristiano] Ronaldo in football, Ghanaian Athlete Urges Disabled: [Manny] Pacquiao or [Floyd] Mayweather in boxing - we hope taekwondo is going to be lifted up to that level," said Akewi. "When you hear about world champions, you will hear about Sharon Akewi and John Bodu. You make the name, you make the fame, you make the money."
Even so, however hard they fight on the mats, the two know they face another struggle back home - the struggle against prejudice. "In Ghana, it is not easy to have this hand and say you want to train someone," said Akewi.
And they both note a lack of financial support - they are "financially disabled" as Akewi puts it - and suffer from a dearth of training equipment, such as uniforms and protective gear. Both made pleas for philanthropists to step in an assist the sport in their country and across the African continent. "Disabled sports is like able-bodied sports," said Bodu.
Lydia Masole Pitso and Phoofolo Mokhethi: Enthusiastic newcomers from Lesotho
This is the challenge facing Lydia Masole Pitso, 18, and Phoofolo Mokhethi, 16, who both hail from the southern African country of Lesotho, when they took part in the 5th WTF World Para-Taekwondo Championships in Moscow in 2014.
The two teenagers both suffer from dual upper limb disabilities, and both attend the country's Saint Angelo's School. It is there that they were scouted by coach John Moorasama Nkesi, who told them about what taekwondo means.
"I told them they should not be ashamed of themselves, that they are training to defend themselves, and that they should have a high standard of discipline," he said. "If you are equipped with this skill, you can beat all the challenges in the world."
The two were won over. "I was so happy to be involved in taekwondo, I did not think that one day I would be among it," said Mokhethi.
The athletes, whose air tickets to Moscow were sponsored by the World Taekwondo Federation, were on their first trip abroad.
In the future, Mokhethi hopes to become a taekwondo coach, while Pitso harbours ambitions of being a soldier. But first, they face a trial by fire:
Yadav Kunwar: No mountain is too high for the man from Nepal
"I injured my hand, I lost two fingers in an industrial accident," said Yadav Kunwar, 41, from Nepal, recalling the incident that changed his life while working in South Korea. "When I had that accident, I felt like I lost my life."
Kunwar, a 25-year taekwondo veteran who competed in the 5th WTF World Para-Taekwondo Championships in Moscow in 2014, recalls how devastating the blow was: For two years, nursing his mutilated hand, he did not practice.
Then - hope.
"I heard about Para-taekwondo," said the trim, tatooed athlete. "When I heard about it, I hoped for a new life in taekwondo."
Indeed, the kick-centric sport is particularly suited for those suffering from upper limb injuries. he said. "Taekwondo plays with the foot, and uses the hand to protect," he said. "I feel like I am not 100 per cent, but that is no problem."
His motivation reborn, Kunwar dived back into his beloved sport and grabbed a bronze in the sparring category at the 4th WTF World Para-Taekwondo Championships held in Lausanne in 2013. That result made him one of Nepal's highest profile sporting heroes.
Back home in Nepal, taekwondo is well developed. It is the nation's most popular sport, and Kunwar himself is widely featured in national media. Now he is giving back to the sport as a coach, teaching the disabled around the country. In doing so, he hopes that he will no longer be a force of one. "I am the only Nepalese athlete here," he said of the Nepalese contingent in Moscow. "Next time, there will be more."
Taekwondo, which requires neither equipment nor stadium, is well suited to Nepal, he believes. "For taekwondo you don't need a cricket pitch, you can play it in a small room," he said. "It is very easy to play."
Nepal's soaring landscapes might just be the perfect breeding ground for taekwondo athletes, Kunwar reckons. "We are lightweight, high-altitude people," he said; his countrymen's physical combination of agility and leg strength is appropriate for the kick-based combat sport.
He hopes that one day there may be an even bigger event for those who practice Para-taekwondo. "I want to get gold at the Paralympics," he said."I want to be a medalist."
Nyshan Omirali: Former footballer reaches his goal in Moscow
"I felt joy, excitement and fulfillment," said the athlete. "The first person I contacted was my mother!"
The 22-year-old had every reason to feel on top of the world: He had just been crowned world champion in the K42, over 75 kilogram category after a series of tough fights, notably against opposition from Azerbaijan.
Omirali had previously played football, before being introduced to taekwondo by his coach, Almas Abdikairov. In the run-up to the World Championships, Omirali was put through a grueling work-up: cross-training, overall physical conditioning and match-specific training.
The preparation was particularly important for Omirali, as Moscow marked the first time he had stepped onto the mats of a World Championship. "It was my first experience at the top level," Omirali said.
Once he landed in the Russian capital, Omirali would find that it was not just the intense physical preparation that would carry him toward gold. As the fraught action in the Dinamo Sports Palace got underway, he would be favoured by the rules. With head kicks disallowed for the safety of the Para-athletes, the WTF had put a premium on spinning kicks to the body, which scored three points, compared to one point for normal kicks. And Omirali's favorite technique is his scorching spinning back kick.
The back-kick is a standout technique of taekwondo. A crowd-pleasing move, delivered with a full body spin and often also a jump, it is used largely in counter attacks. Known in martial arts and combat sports circles as one of the most powerful blows the human body can deliver, it smashes into the opponent's body protector.
This, then, would be the move that Omirali unleashed time and again. "My favourite technique is the back kick," he recalled. "I am glad it worked for me."
With the action over, Omirali had done what he had set out to do. "My ultimate goal was only gold, and only first place!" he said.
Hiroki Sugita: Foot-focused fighting style appeals to Japanese martial arts fan
Although the sport's Korean name translates to "the way of foot and fist," it has always focused most heavily on leg techniques. While taekwondo cannot compete with boxing in terms of punching or fencing in terms of sword-fighting, when it comes to kicking, taekwondo reigns supreme.
This emphasis is what drew Japan's Hiroki Sugita, 28, to taekwondo after a devastating accident.
"When I was 20 years old, I had a car accident: I was sitting next to the driver, a friend of mine," he recalls. The car crashed, leaving him with a serious disability.
Japan boasts a wealth of domestic martial arts and combat sports, including judo, karate and kendo. But judo requires a strong hand grip and kendo needs two hands to hold the bamboo sword. For a young man with Sugita's disability, a striking style was most appropriate. The choice came down to karate or its close cousin, taekwondo.
"Karate is more forceful, taekwondo is more agile," he said. "And my left arm is very problematic, so I wanted to find a sport that uses only the legs."
In the run-up to the 5th WTF World Para-taekwondo Championships in Moscow, Sugita did physical and tactical training, but his core workouts were focused on taekwondo's signature footwork. "My main training has been stretching and the basic kicks," he said.
Given the disabilities affecting most of its contestants, Para-taekwondo permits punches to the body, but will not award points for them, further strengthening its kick-centricity.
This emphasis is in line with Para- taekwondo's current stage of development and the athletes it attracts, said a senior official with the sport's world governing body.
"It is important that we broaden our base, we have to be inclusive," said Jacobus Engelbrecht, who heads the World Taekwondo Federation's Para-Taekwondo Committee. "It is about making sure opportunities are created."
But, Engelbrecht claimed it is also important to focus on the sport's core strengths in the here and now. "Let us develop one area properly," he said. "At the moment it is mainly for upper body amputees and limb deficiencies."
In other words, Taekwondo's famed kicks are, right now, being as heavily emphasised in the Para-sport as they are in the regular sport.
This, however, is not to say that taekwondo is simply about fast and forceful kicking; like all sports, it is equally about fair and friendly competition.
Sugita is currently a rarity among Para-athletes in his country. "In Japan, there are not that many Para-sparring athletes, though there are some Japanese Para-athletes who choose taekwondo for its foot-focused fighting style are some poomsae athletes," he said; "I want to exchange and meet and make friends. I want more interactions."
Haşim Celik: Inspired to take up taekwondo by an Olympic champion
In his K44 under 75 kg match against Boris Chepurenkov at the 5th WTF World Para-Taekwondo Championships in Moscow in 2014, the 23-year-old from Turkey adopted a wide stance, weight forward, stalking his opponent. Switching feet fluently, he controlled the distance, firing fluid round kicks off both forward and back legs, varied with a front pushing kick.
Although he was unable to fully deploy the point-winning jumping back spinning kick he had landed three times in his first match against Russian Makhdi Amarov - Chepurenkov jammed the kicks - Celik's rear-leg round kick, fired from the clinch-break, made an audible "thwack" as it knifed in under Chepurenkov's guard.
Final result: 5-1. That victory, following his earlier win, put Celik comfortably through to the quarter-finals.
Off the mats, Celik analyzed the match. "My coach ordered me to control the fight and to watch the opponent - to see his power, his speed, his empty spot," he explained. "After that, he ordered me to fire my techniques into the open spot. It got good results."
But things did not do either Celik or his coach's way in his semi-final match against Russia's Magomedzagir Isaldibirov.
Although Celik dropped his opponent twice, the hits were not registered on the PSS and the pacey Isaldibirov returned fire with a flurry of kicks, moving ahead in the scoring.
With the clock ticking, Celik unleashed a full arsenal of high-scoring techniques - jump spinning round kicks and jump spinning back kicks - keeping his opponent under pressure right up to the bell. But the final score was still 5-2 to the home-crowd favourite - who eventually took silver. That left Celik with a deserved bronze in one of the Championships' most competitive categories.
Looking downcast in the stands after his loss, Celik managed to summon up a smile and a shrug for those giving their condolences. "Maybe next time," he said.
Soft spoken and with a thoughtful demeanor, Celik, who was born with missing fingers and toes, was always shy: "When I was a child, I was so embarrassed because of my disability."
His father forced him socialise with other children and registered him on a football team, but the young Celik used to hide his hands behind his back - which did little for his play. His father, seeing this, offered him a financial reward for every goal he scored. The tactic worked, and his football improved.
Celik, currently based in Germany, started taekwondo after watching one of the sport's superstars, Servet Tazegül, at the Bavarian Championships in 2006. "I saw Servet doing all these tremendous kicks, these fancy looking techniques, I asked him how he did them and he told me to come and learn too," Celik recalls. "So I did."
The two train in the same club and became very close - to the point where Celik was the witness at Tazegul's wedding. (Tazegul was on his honeymoon during the Championships in Moscow, but still messaged Celik to wish him luck. "Even on his honeymoon, Servet is thinking about taekwondo!" Celik said.)
Celik had a formidable talent for the sport. This, married with a daily, after-school training programme, won him silver at the European Championships in Bucharest in 2013 and a gold at the World Para-Taekwondo Championships in Lausanne in the same year, making him one of sport's top players.
"His big advantage is he can attack with both his front and his back leg and his distancing is very good," said Turkish Coach Yilmaz Polat. "And he always listens to my orders during matches."
Coaching may be one of the reasons for Celik's pre-match calm. While he admits that he is nervous before matches - he does deep breathing exercises on match-day mornings - he claims he does not focus on who his upcoming opponents are, letting his coach take care of that. During events, he manages stress by talking with his team mates about anything but taekwondo.
Aside from taekwondo, Celik's goal is to finish university - he is a student at Germany's Friedrich Alexander University - and become a lawyer or a judge. But he also hopes his chosen sport will enter the Paralympics.
If it does, he could become a rich man.
"Olympic sports are very well supported by the Turkish Government," said fellow Turk and World Taekwondo Federation auditor Ali Sagirkaya, who estimates that Tazegül was awarded around $1 million for his Olympic gold medal at London 2012. But currently, taekwondo is not in the Paralympics, meaning that there is little cash available in the sport - even in a country as taekwondo-crazy as Turkey.
However, for Celik, none of this is important. "I don't do this for the money, I am in love with this sport," he said. "If I raise the Turkish flag over the arena, that is my reward; it is worth millions to me."