From North Wales To Rio: Talking Taekwondo With Olympian Jade Jones
Having become the UK’s first taekwondo gold medallist at London 2012 before winning once again at Rio, we chat to Jade Jones about her groundbreaking role in British martial arts.
In one sense, assessing Jade Jones' sporting legacy seems a strange task to undertake at this point. Still only 23 years of age, preparing in the long run for the Tokyo Olympics, the woman who claimed Britain's first taekwondo gold medal has so much more to win in her career. Nonetheless, for someone so young, Jones has played a groundbreaking role in the development and public perception of British martial arts. Fighting in the women's 57kg category, she won that momentous first taekwondo gold on home soil at London 2012, then followed up with a spellbinding defence of her title, hammering Spain's Eva Calvo in the final at Rio 2016.
While two Olympic golds at the age of 23 is impressive enough as achievements go, it's the manner in which Jones fights which really captures the imagination. She is utterly relentless, totally focused, and tenacious in a way which few of her opponents can match. Her nickname, 'The Headhunter', is well known at this point, and nobody could deny that it's deserved. The sight of Jones belting another fighter in the head has been ubiquitous in the taekwondo coverage of the last two Olympic Games. Kicks to an opponent's head protector earn three points under the rules of the World Taekwondo Federation, while kicks and punches to the body guard, or hogu, earn only one. The fact that Jones is the master of the former says it all, really. She is interested only in winning, and winning emphatically. In her single-mindedness, she goes straight for the head, an approach which almost always ensures that her victories are merciless, sudden, sharp and sweet.
It's that single-minded approach to her sport which has propelled Jones into the public consciousness. While it would probably be fair to say that, prior to Team GB's last few Olympic outings, martial arts weren't at the top of the nation's sporting priorities, people couldn't help but be impressed by Jones' Olympic showings, which have made her one of the most recognisable athletes amongst Britain's recent glut of stars. She is currently in the running for Wales' Sports Personality Of The Year, and is similarly shortlisted for the prestigious Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Awards. She's clearly got a fighting chance of adding to her numerous accolades before the year is out.
Speaking to Jade ahead of the awards season, she comes across as someone who isn't really all that fussed about a few extra plaudits. We only have a short time to chat over the phone because she's got an imminent training session to attend to, which seems to be far more the sort of thing that she's about. While she says of her spate of shortlistings that "it's an amazing honour to be up there with some brilliant sportswomen, and just to get that recognition really," there's something in her tone that suggests she would be far happier sparring full-throttle with a partner than attending an overwrought public awards ceremony. It's that same impression of single-mindedness coming through, in that she'd clearly prefer to be belting someone in the bonce than contemplating her next outing in front of the cameras.
Having read another interview in which Jade admitted to being a mischievous, excitable kid at school, it's hard not to wonder whether taekwondo is a singular sort of focus for her because it serves as a hyperactive release. While most of us would be pretty excited to be attending an awards night where we might feasibly win, Jade has felt the rush of fighting, and winning, in front of millions across the globe, which must rather take the edge off. "Yeah, definitely," she says, when asked if martial arts are a way of harnessing her rascally childhood exuberance in a way that other activities do not. "You have a goal, and you have to put basically all of your energy into making that goal happen. When I first started taekwondo, I had a tick list on my bedroom wall. It had stuff on it like 'Get into an academy' all the way up to 'Be Olympic champion', and I just kept ticking those goals off."
What would her childhood self think if she could see her now, then? "She'd probably think it was a bit bonkers, to be honest. Even some of my friends from school now say: 'How on earth did you do that?' I was the cheeky, naughty kid who you don't think is going to make any good of themselves." Jade grew up in Flint in North Wales, which is perhaps not the first place one associates with taekwondo. She credits her grandad for getting her into the sport, while admitting that it could have been another martial art that she took up as opposed to the South Korean discipline.
With the abundant talent for fighting Jade has, one wonders whether or not it would matter which discipline she chose as a child. "My grandad took me to a local club, and it was just by chance really that it was a taekwondo class on at the time," she says. "I remember watching the flashy kicks and the spins, and thinking that I wanted to try it out for myself." While martial arts might have been a relatively small scene in Flint when Jade first took up taekwondo, it certainly sounds like it has grown in the time since. When asked if she's noticed a growth in popularity and participation at home since she won her first gold medal, Jade says: "Yeah, absolutely. In lots of the old clubs where I used to train, the numbers have pretty much doubled for taekwondo. I did a seminar there a couple of weeks ago, and the number of people who came was crazy for a really small town. Everyone seems to want their kids to do taekwondo, and see if they can make something of it, too."
Jade has clearly left a local legacy, though the influence of her double gold doubtlessly extends beyond the Welsh border. That said, she still has close links to Flint, even if much of her time is spent travelling to competitions around the world. "I go back to Flint quite a lot, and people are constantly stopping me to say well done," she says. "When I was at Rio, there were hundreds of people in the pub and the television cameras were there, so I got to see my friends and the atmosphere back home before I fought." The backing back home only motivated her further in her pursuit of a second gold. "It made me want to try even harder for the final, and to win while my friends and family were watching me," she says. She even found herself on Facetime with her auntie before the decisive match against Calvo, and got a glimpse of the North Walian support before going out for the fight of her life.
In between London and Rio, Jade spoke several times about the difficulties of maintaining her focus, and learning to live with the weight of expectation. When asked about how she will manage this ahead of Tokyo 2020, she sounds much more at ease with the pressure. "Now that I'm older, I understand myself more, and I know myself much better. Obviously, with London, that had been my goal for years. When I won, I should have taken more time out and tried to enjoy it more. I didn't really know how to handle the pressure of being Olympic champion.
"Now, I know when I should have breaks and when I shouldn't have breaks. I know when to push on and when to hold off. It still is hard, thinking: 'God, Tokyo is four years away.' It is a long four years, and it's hard to get things exactly right. It's probably best not to think about Tokyo, to think about little goals along the way instead and then, when the time comes, it's like: 'Oh, bloody hell, time for Tokyo.'" She laughs at this, as if the thought of it is vaguely absurd. Considering that she only won her second gold medal a few months ago, it's understandable that the thought of her next Olympics might seem a little surreal.
All being well, when Jade fights at Tokyo, she will have just turned 27. In the aftermath of her third Olympic Games, with the possibility of another medal to her name, it will be easier to trace the outline of her sporting legacy as a whole. For now, it's safe to say that she has given taekwondo a much broader platform, and put martial arts at the forefront of Britain's burgeoning Olympic repertoire. Long may she reign as taekwondo champion, then, and long may she continue to belt her opponents square in the side of the fuckin' head.
Jade Jones was speaking ahead of the Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Awards in association with Vitality.