Martial Arts: Stevenson kickstarts the gold rush

Doncaster martial artist leads a female strike force to Athens. Alan Hubbard meets her

Britain's Olympics aspirations need to stay firmly in touch with their feminine side. As the countdown to Athens quickens, it is becoming apparent that when the flame bursts into life on Friday 13 August - and it will, despite the doom-laden prophecies from the Cassandra chorus - this will not be Sydney revisited. Certainly not for Britain's men.

If there is gold in the Athenian hills it is more likely to be excavated by the female members of the team. Leaving aside sailing, and possibly shooting, it is hard to see, at this stage, gold glinting on the chest of British medallion man. But a posse of women are in pole position for the podium. There are ladies who leap, run, ride (on bikes and horseback), row, sail and swim, one who hangs around bars, and another who lives for kicks.

Triple jumper Ashia Hansen, marathoner Paula Radcliffe, modern pentathlete Georgina Harland, cyclist Nicole Cooke, eventer Pippa Funnell, yachtswoman Shirley Robertson, swimmer Katy Sexton, pairs rowers Cath Bishop and Katherine Grainger and gymnast Beth Tweddle - Britain's first-ever European medallist in the sport - are all potential golden girls, if fit and on form. And some of these leading ladies have a strong supporting cast also capable of beating the rest of the world.

But there is one woman, and one sport, which could burn as brightly in Athens as the flame itself. Four years ago, a 17-year-old schoolgirl, Sarah Stevenson, stepped from her Doncaster classroom to finish fourth in that most ferocious of martial arts, taekwondo, when it made its full Olympic debut in Sydney.

Within a year she had gone on to win the world title, beating the Chinese Olympic champion, Zhong Chen, after being 4-0 down in the first round.

Standing close to six foot, and with a kick like a mule, Stevenson has so impressed the movie star Jackie Chan that he tips her for Olympic glory in the Korean sport, an amalgam of karate, kung fu and kick-boxing that has its origins as far back as 37 BC and literally means "the way of the hand and the foot".

Until fairly recently it was an activity as foreign to this country as the tongue-burning sauce called kimchi with which the Koreans flavour everything. But now, thanks largely to Stevenson's rocket-like rise, Britain has acquired the taste, and to the astonishment of the world is regularly beating the Asians at their own game.

The whole sport literally seems to have had a leg up since Sydney. "Potentially we now have some of the best youngsters in the world," says the national performance director, Gary Hall. "Every kid has a computer game with a martial art on it somewhere, and taekwondo has become a bit fashionable through that."

Britain will be taking a full complement of four to Athens, one of only nine nations to do so out of 110 competing countries, which shows the progress the sport has made in the past four years. In addition to Stevenson, there is last year's world championship silver medallist Paul Green, 27, and the 21-year-olds Sarah Bainbridge and Craig Brown.

All, according to Hall, are potential finalists, but it is the high-kicking Doncaster belle on whom the main medal hopes are pinned. However, while feet and fists are poised, fingers are firmly crossed.

Lottery funding as a result of her fine performance in Sydney has enabled Stevenson to concentrate full-time on training, but last year she suffered a major injury setback, snapping a cruciate ligament when delivering a kick to an opponent's body armour. Her knee has had to be completely reconstructed, utilising part of her hamstring to create a new ligament. She says she virtually had to learn to walk again.

Her only real competition since then has been the Olympic qualifiers in February. "Once I got in the ring, it was like I had never been away, I am glad to say."

She now competes a weight above Sydney in the plus-67kg category. This, she says, is her natural fighting weight; however it is among the most difficult divisions.

"In Sydney I was really only there to do as well as I could because I was so young," she says. "Now I am focused on winning a gold. There is no doubt that Lottery funding has made a world of difference. Also, television exposure means more people know what the sport is all about."

Taekwondo requires the deft footwork of the tango, but it is the only sport in the Games where a kick in the teeth is not only permitted but positively encouraged. Rule changes mean that hits to the head are now worth double the points of those to the torso, and Stevenson has a reputation of being something of a KO queen. "She goes out to win, no matter what it takes," says her Doncaster-based coach, Gary Sykes. "Looking at her normally you wouldn't think it was the same person.

"She's a Jekyll and Hyde character. Outside the ring she's quiet and demure. The aggression comes out in the way she kicks. She really is an amazing kicker."

"The kicking is easy, it comes naturally," says Stevenson. "The hard bit when you get to this level is the pressure working out in your mind what you are going to do, what you want to achieve. Actually, I'm motivated by fear. Doing all this work and then losing would be the scariest thing."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Service and Installation Engineer

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: SEO / Outreach Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is a global marketin...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Estimator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Negotiator - OTE £24,000

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An enthusiastic individual is r...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?