Taekwondo – it’s quite simple to understand. Everything you need to know about the Korean martial art is there in the name: tae means to break with the foot; kwon means to break with the fist; and do is the method in which you do it. There: simple. They don’t mess around in this sport.
I’ve come to Sportcity, the Manchester home of the British taekwondo squad, to meet a woman who is, without doubt, the sport’s best in the world. Sarah Stevenson, 29, is the world champion and a veteran of three Olympic Games. She won bronze in 2008, becoming the first Briton to win a medal in the martial art, and is favourite to take gold in London this year. She’s so far ahead of the field that as long as she’s fit in May, she’ll be chosen to represent Britain in the Olympics – not for her the pressures and vagaries of a complicated qualification system.
But, given the physical nature of the sport, being injury-free at the right time isn’t a given for any of the competitors and, on this bright April morning, she walks into the coffee bar with a discernible hobble – the result of having injured her cruciate ligament at a training camp in Mexico in February and having surgery on it eight weeks ago. She now faces the battle of her career to get herself fully fit and fighting again by May.
“I’ll do it,” she says with confidence, easing her foot, complete with a tattoo of the five Olympic rings, on to a stool and sitting back in her chair. “My life is on hold at the moment. Everything I do is to get myself ready for the Olympics. It sounds daft, but I have no life; nothing in 2012 matters except the games.”
It’s not hard to see why this engaging woman has risen to the top of this tough sport. The fight and commitment bursts out of her as she explains that she has daily sessions with a sports psychologist as well as resting, exercising, icing and having endless physio sessions on her injured knee. “The training I’m doing to come back from injury is tougher than my normal training,” she says. “And that’s saying something.” It is. I’ve watched Stevenson and her squad members train before, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. The thing you notice first of all is how incredibly loud the training is. Every fighter has his or her own “shout”, a guttural cry that they emit as they hit or kick. In a room of 20 of the country’s best fighters, the noise is quite overwhelming.
“The shout is an important part of taekwondo, to fight without the shout is like playing football without a ball. At your first lesson you learn the shout and find your own noise. It helps you to be aggressive and gets you noticed; oppositions fear you, you feel stronger. It’s aggressive and assertive and part of what the sport is.” The aggression, for Stevenson, is all part of why she loves taekwondo. Indeed, she says that one of the keys to her success has been her aggression and the fact that she battles to control all her fights. “I put pressure on my opponents. I like to be in control. The aggressive side of the sport has never bothered me at all, I’ve always been feisty. I’m a bit of an animal to be honest.”
Despite her strength and determination, Stevenson does not cut an aggressive-looking figure. She’s tall and slim with toned limbs and she is attractive. If you saw her in the street, you’d never suspect that she kicks and hits people full time. “I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with looking good and fighting hard,” she says.
Stevenson began taekwondo when she was just seven, at her local club in Doncaster. “I was shy and quiet at the time and found it hard, but the sport gave me tons of confidence and built me up. By the time I was in my mid-teens, I absolutely loved it. I wouldn’t be half the person I am if I hadn’t done the sport. It’s made me strong.” There’s no question that she needed every last drop of that strength last year when she lost her mother and father in quick succession, after short illnesses. She says her parents were her heroes and her inspiration. Her mum, Diana, was diagnosed with cancer and, while she was having chemotherapy, Sarah’s father, Roy, was diagnosed with a cyst on his brain. Her dad died in July last year, just two-and-a-half months after he was diagnosed, and Diana died in November.
It’s more than any 28-year-old should have to bear, and Stevenson says that all her achievements now are devoted to them, and in their memory. On her wrist she has a tattoo that says “because of you”, which she had done soon after their deaths. “Now I know how precious life is, and how quickly it goes. I know you have to seize these moments and make the most of them.”
Stevenson is coached by Steve Jennings, who holds the unlikely position of being both her coach and husband. It might be the stuff of most women’s nightmares – being told what to do all day by the same man you go home with at night, but Stevenson says it works brilliantly. “We never fight, we’re both 100 per cent committed and we make sure that taekwondo stays in the gym and isn’t taken home with us. When I fight, I fight for both of us. We’re a team.”
Is she ever scared before fighting? “I don’t have a physical fear of getting hurt so much as a fear of getting beaten. I think ‘what if I lose?’ not ‘what if I get hurt?’ But even thinking ‘what if I lose?’ is counter-productive, so I try to remove all those thoughts and concentrate on what I need to do to win.”
In a month’s time, Stevenson will know whether she has reached the fitness targets necessary for her to be selected to represent Britain in the games. She’s confident she can do it, and knows she will then face the most exciting tournament of her life. “The Olympics is crazy, it’s very difficult to explain the feelings you have at the games. There’s this mass of different people – different colours, sizes, shapes all thrown together. It’s crazy, it’s like a circus. You have to try and shut out as much of it as you can, and concentrate on yourself and your sport.”
Stevenson has had an incredible career, working and fighting hard, and making great friends along the way. She was even once sponsored by Jackie Chan when he saw her perform at one of his film premieres. But the best is surely yet to come. “I’m on Olympic countdown,” she says. “Nothing else matters now but getting fit and doing myself, Mum and Dad and Steve proud in the games. I know I can do it if I work hard.”
Alison Kervin is a former chief sports feature writer of The Times and The Daily Telegraph.