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."

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