Wednesday 21 February 2018

Wooley has world at his feet as he aims to put Rio misery behind him

Dubliner fell agonisingly short of Brazil Games but has responded to failure in impressive fashion

Taekwondoin Jack Wooley. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Taekwondoin Jack Wooley. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

You may not know much about Jack Wooley, but if the name rings a bell it's probably not for his achievements, but for how he reacted when the last flicker of light faded from his dream.

It was January 2016 and Wooley, then 17, was fighting in a crucial Olympic taekwondo qualifier in Istanbul, Turkey. To make it to Rio he needed to finish in the top two at the event, which, with 10 seconds to go in his semi-final bout, appeared all but assured.

But then his opponent, Ron Atias of Israel, unleashed a face kick which netted three points, enough to overtake Wooley and win 12-10. The kick didn't hurt the Irish teenager but it carried him into a world of pain.

"It was pretty devastating," says Wooley, whose tears were later broadcast on RTÉ's 'Road to Rio' documentary series.

"I cried on national TV, and no teenage boy wants to be seen crying on national TV."

For two weeks he languished in self-pity, tormented by his failure, but deep down Wooley knew he'd fight again - and fight better.

Last year he became Ireland's first world number one in taekwondo, rising to the top of the rankings at 54kg, and he also became the first Grand Prix fighter from Ireland, competing in his sport's top-tier competitions.

"I came back strong," he says.

Earlier this week, Wooley's alarm clock pulled him from his bed for a 6am flight to the Ivory Coast, where the Jobstown teenager will compete in the World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final this weekend.

It's a pivotal event on the path to Tokyo 2020, given the cache of ranking points on offer which will ultimately determine his fate.

Given how Wooley has pushed all-in on his sport since falling short of Rio, he hopes the cards will fall in his favour this time around.

"I did the Leaving Cert in June, but I didn't apply for the CAO," says Wooley (19).

"I train two or three times a day so I don't work, and because I'm not available for work I don't apply for the dole."

It means he leads a frugal existence, given the lack of investment in his sport here and the cost of travel to international competitions.

"Unfortunately the countries doing really well are Korea, Iran, Mexico and the competitions are in places like that," he says.

Earlier this week he was announced as one of 12 athletes who would be awarded Olympic Solidarity Scholarships by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which will see him receive $625 (€525) per month and a lump sum of up to $5,000 (€4,200) towards his travel costs in the build-up to 2020.

Given the efforts his parents and coach have made to help fundraise for his dream, it should help ease the burden.

"It got to the stage where my car was broken and we couldn't afford to fix it for a long time because I was going to all these competitions," says Wooley, who teaches kids at his taekwondo club each afternoon to help cover costs.

There are easier ways to get by but none are as fulfilling. Wooley trains six days a week, two to three times a day, and given the weight restrictions in taekwondo he also a strict diet.

While he rose to world number one at 54kg, that weight category is not contested at the Olympics so Wooley has since stepped up to 58kg, where he is ranked 13th in the world. The difference in fighting at a more natural weight, physically and mentally, is striking.

"My parents think it's the best thing ever because at 54 I was throwing mood swings," he says.

"Kids these days, you can see some being carried into the weigh-in and it's disgraceful. I'm eating well and I look a lot better now, but it's not just body health, it's how I approach life. I'm a lot more positive."

People often used to ask Wooley if he was anorexic, such was his stick-thin build at 54kg, but more recently his friends wondered if he was airbrushing his pictures on Instagram, such was their shock at him actually having some bulk on his leg muscles.

In a sport that asks so much, it's no surprise most of his friends are also fighters, though their ability falls far short of Wooley's.

Given the demands of his routine, the only chance he'll usually get to socialise with them is on the mats at training, not that he's complaining.

Wooley knows what he signed up for, knows where he's headed, and if that means never touching a drop of drink or having to finance his own way to far-flung places like Abidjan, Ivory Coast, he's happy to do so if it leads him Tokyo.

"I do put a lot of things on hold that people my age would do," he says, "but that's what you have to do if you want to get to that point."

Irish Independent

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