Taekwondo wonder: Sarah Stevenson

Girl with the world at her feet
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The Independent Online

What do Steph Cook, Nicole Cook, Trina Gulliver, Kate Brown, Charlotte Cornwallis, Lisa Adams, Alex Coomber, Anna Hemmings and Helen Gilby have in common? All are British, and all are world champions, in a variety of sports ranging from modern pentathlon to canoeing. And all, plus a whole host of others of both sexes, did not even get the time of day from the BBC in the recent Sports Personality of the Year Awards.

Then there was Sarah Stevenson, whose astonishing achievement last month went totally unacknowledged despite being worthier, in many respects, than David Beckham's right foot or Lennox Lewis's right hand.

Stevenson might just be remembered, even by the Beeb who televised it, as the schoolgirl from Doncaster who almost beat the Asians at their own game by coming within a point of a medal when the ancient oriental art of taekwondo made its Olympic debut.

As a tall, shy 16-year-old, she was the reigning world and European junior champion. "She is so good, it is frightening to think what she could do if she sticks at it," said her coach, the former British international Gary Sykes, at the time.

Well, stuck at it she has, and in the immortal words of Muhammad Ali, she "shook up the world" in the ritualistic form of a martial artistry that translates from Korean as "the way of the fist and the foot". Last month she put both in, with considerable effect, venturing deep into the backyard of the sport to become the world senior women's middleweight champion, the first Briton to win a taekwondo medal.

On the tiny island of Jeju just off the Korean mainland, the now 18-year-old Stevenson beat, successively, a Malaysian, a Tongan, and then "the biggie", the Korean champion in the quarter-finals. The crowd were stunned into silence, unbelieving that their heroine could fall to a westerner. Stevenson's semi-final victory came over the European and World Cup champion, from Belarus. "She was tall and her legs were massive. She was hard and awkward."

But not hard and awkward enough. In the final Stevenson found herself down by four points to nil in the first round against China's all-action female version of Mike Tyson, Chen Zhong, who had won the Olympic heavyweight title. "I thought, 'someone help me, tell me what to do'. But I told myself I hadn't come all that way to let her beat me by that sort of margin.

"So I got stuck in, and by the end of the third I had pulled up to 4-5. She seemed to panic, I didn't think she could believe she was being given a hard time by a Brit."

Stevenson ended up winning 10-7, and left Korea clutching a medal, a certificate and a cuddly toy.

"It's been an amazing year for me, really. I'd been working full time as a secretary for a local estate agent after returning from the Olympics, because I'd no more Lottery funding, and I didn't think I'd have much chance of winning. Maybe I was more relaxed about things, not putting the sort of pressure on myself that I usually do. I just had a go."

Her Korean odyssey has given her the incentive to go prospecting for Olympic gold in Athens. She quit her job last week to resume full- time training again with the All Stars club at the Doncaster Dome, where hundreds of local kids have followed her into the sport. As a world champion she should qualify for top Lottery funding but, in another of those bureaucratic nonsenses which bedevil British sport, infuriatingly large lengths of red tape remain to be unravelled.

Meanwhile she is being sponsored by several local companies. "I could not have got this far without all those people who have helped me." These include her parents, whose car-boot sales partially funded her Olympic dream.

"The Olympics gave her such inner strength and self-belief," says coach Sykes. "As far as the Koreans are concerned she's turned into a bit of a taekwondo legend."

Taekwondo is an amalgam of karate, kung-fu and kick-boxing, with points scored by two-fisted punching, to the body only, though a kick in the teeth is acceptable.

If pressed, Stevenson could probably do the party trick of breaking bricks and boards with her bare hands (that, at least might have turned them on at the gimmick-driven Beeb) but the girl who'd like to become a child psychologist when she hangs up her headguard is satisfied with having broken the mould.