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."

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
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

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker