Jones just loves those teenage kicks

Taekwondo is a British success story and Jade, a rock-hard girl from Flint, is keeping up with the best
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The Independent Online

There is a gymnasium next door to Asda on the Eastlands estate in Manchester where they practice free kicks even more aggressively than the footballers in City's ground across the road. The gym houses the young practitioners of what is rapidly becoming one of Britain's most successful sports.

Taekwondo, which translates from the Korean as "the way of the hand and the foot", is an amalgam of kung fu, karate and kick boxing that has its own distinctive pattern of controlled violence.

It has been growing in Britain since a girl from Doncaster, Sarah Stevenson, started beating the Asians at their own game. Fourth at the Sydney Olympics, she went on to become world and European champion and an Olympic bronze medallist in Beijing.

The newly wed Stevenson, now 27, still has outstanding Olympic ambitions but there is a new kid on the mat. Jade Jones may sound like an X Factor wannabe but the 17-year-old from Flint in north Wales is actually a pocket rocket who punches harder than most female boxers and kicks like a mule. These attributes have brought her a junior world championship silver medal, a bronze in the European seniors and, in Singapore three months ago, Britain's first gold medal in the Youth Olympics. Now she has been shortlisted for the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year.

"What Jade has done this year is just phenomenal," says Gary Hall, the GB performance director. "She's one of these characters who is never satisfied and always wants more – she is absolutely driven to be the best. She may be slightly built and is in a weight category [under 57kg] that is dominated by the East but she has been to Singapore and Korea and beaten them in their own back yard. She has a very special ability and a great future ahead of her."

Jones started when she was eight, her grandfather taking her to a local gymnasium to "toughen me up and keep me off the streets". She says: "I looked at a number of sports but I was immediately attracted to taekwondo. I started in the semi-contact version and my coach said I was a natural, but that form isn't in the Olympics so I switched to the full version where you can punch and kick. What I love about it is the contact, the kicks and the flashy spins."

Taekwondo is one of the success stories of British sport. Aaron Cook, 19, won the European senior title, narrowly missed out on a medal in Beijing and last year knocked out the five-times world champion Steven Lopez. He took silver in last month's French Open, where another 19-year-old, Bianca Walkden, won gold.

Taekwondo may require the deft footwork of the tango but it is the only Olympic sport where a kick in the teeth is not only permitted but encouraged, with a hit to the head worth double one to the torso. "Knocking people out is part of the sport," says Jones. "After all, they are trying to do the same to me. When we went to Korea for a training camp I was beating a lot of the Koreans but I know there's a long way to go yet. The sport is my life now, I just love it."

The enlightened use of funding has seen top-quality coaching brought in from overseas, notably one of the sport's greatest gurus, Professor Moon Won Jae. In Korea he mentored 24 world champions and five Olympic gold medallists. He joins Nelson Miller, who comes from Cuba, and two of the best English coaches, Steve Jennings (Stevenson's new husband) and Paul Green.

Says Hall: "The sport has moved on significantly over the last two years and this year has been the best yet. We've collected more golds than ever before and the players, working within the elite academy supported by UK Sport and Manchester City Council, are definitely going in the right direction. We have the best quality coaches and also the sports scientists and psychologists from the English Institute of Sport.

"Our programme very much follows that of cycling. Dave Brailsford [cycling's renowned overlord] has been something of a mentor. We are treading new ground all the time, the ground that cycling was treading years ago, and Dave is always willing to give us the benefit of his experience.

"We are currently in the process of moving headquarters to a new school academy in Manchester which will be a British first for an elite sports programme. We will also be moving to a new gym with the support of Sport England."

Jones says she realises the road to 2012 will be intensely competitive. "There are only two places available for girls and three of us are in contention – Sarah, Bianca and myself. I really look up to Sarah because she was the first British girl to win an Olympic medal. She has been very helpful to me and actually coached me in the junior worlds in Mexico. She was a great inspiration. I'd love to go on and do what she has done.

"I know I am quite small and I have to meet quite a lot of taller opponents but in this sport it doesn't matter about size if you have the ability to win."

You can be sure that Jones will be putting her best foot forward. And upwards. After all, a medal of any colour in London will be better than a kick in the teeth.

Message from an icon: Sarah Stevenson

Jade Jones has surprised me a lot. She has come a long way in a short time and to do so well at senior level at such a young age is amazing. She reminds me a lot of myself when I was her age. She was very nervous when I coached her during the junior worlds, as she was under a lot of pressure. I was the same.

She is quite slim but a real powerhouse and quite flexible. Because she's so light she can get her legs up to the head very easily, which is beneficial as these days you get more points for kicking to the head.

She is getting much better now at controlling her nerves but even when she is nervous she manages to get in there and do it, just as I did. If I could do it at that age (17) without a lot of help, imagine what she can achieve with all the expert coaching and assistance physically and mentally that's available to us now. She will have a great future.

We have so much help now and I appreciate that because I know what it is like not to have it. Taekwondo has come on tremendously in this country and should really be challenging for those Olympic medals in 2012. But nothing is certain because it is not one of those sports where you can say the best is always going to win. A lucky kick to the head and it could be all over.

We have the US Open in February and also the World Championships in Korea next year, which will be crucial in choosing the weight groups for the Olympics. My own sight is on winning another Olympic medal and obviously I would like it to be gold after my bronze in Beijing. [Stevenson was at the centre of a controversy in 2008, when officials reversed the result of her second-round bout against the double Olympic champion from China, Chen Zhong, and awarded her the contest].

I'll be 29 in 2012 and although taekwondo is not a sport where you usually go on well into your thirties, I hope to be at my peak. I just hope I can steer clear of injuries as the three of us, Jade, Bianca Walkden and myself, will be competing for two places and we are all doing really well. So we have to fight for that spot – and we will.

Sarah Stevenson, 27, was the first Briton to win an Olympic taekwondo medal, in Beijing in 2008, and is a former world and European champion

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