Whatever Jade Jones does for the rest of her life – and when she sets her sights on something it generally happens – she will always cherish Rio.
Winning her first Olympic taekwondo gold medal in London four years ago at the age of 19 was a surprise to many, herself included. This time she had that title to defend, which made her repeat achievement all the sweeter.
As she performed her latest celebratory lap of honour around the hall, clutching both a Welsh flag and a Union Jack, all sorts of mental snapshots jostled for attention. Her journey to Brazil was far from smooth, a double gold a remote speck at times. After 2012, her coach Paul Green feared he might lose her entirely from the sport, such was her battle to regain motivation. Now Green reckons she is more than capable of becoming a three-times Olympic champion. Jade the Obscure? Not if she keeps capturing the public’s heart like this.
It may even be that the 23-year-old Jones is reinventing her sport. Green believes she is “faster and stronger than her opponents” and is “one step ahead of the other girls”. Jones, shorter than many of her rivals, has also worked tirelessly on her tactical approach. “I needed to modernise because straight after London everyone was working me out. But funnily enough the same thing that won me gold in London won it for me here. If you are good at a certain kick then use it. If it works, it works.”
Her trademark move – a pivoting low-to-high, rattlesnake strike to her opponent’s head – is a thing of venomous beauty and dashed any prospect of a dramatic comeback by her tall Spanish opponent, Eva Calvo Gómez. The so-called “Headhunter” eventually stormed through 16-7 and has now lost just once in the last 18 months. She has also rekindled her enthusiasm for her preferred martial art, first sparked when her grandfather took her along to a class in her native north Wales to release her excessive energy. “I remember walking in and seeing all the flashy kicks and spins. Straight away I was drawn to it. I never wanted to miss a session. If my grandad said I couldn’t go I would literally cry and do anything possible to get to training.”
There were tears of a different kind before her semi-final; despite her apparent assurance in competition, there were nerves behind the scenes. “There was so much pressure it got to me a bit. I was a bit scared because I didn’t want to lose. Then I thought: ‘No, I’ve just got to go for it.’ So that’s what I did. I used to get really tense and want to win too much. But you’ve done all the work in the gym and put hours of training in; it comes out naturally if you just relax. Lately I’ve learned to chill out; what will be will be.”
It has helped further to have team-mates such as Bianca Walkden pushing her onwards. “For this Games the road was so much harder. GB’s got so much stronger as a squad so I’ve had people chasing my tail for my spot.” The demanding Green has given her equally little respite. “He’s amazing. Even though he’s a bit of a psychopath in the gym it all pays off. He’s always on my back. If I miss a session he won’t train me for a couple of weeks just to show me that either you train or you don’t bother coming. It keeps me grounded and keeps you going to the sessions.”
The world of taekwondo is reaping the benefits. To see Jones sharing the podium with two hijab-wearing fellow athletes – including Kimia Alizadeh, Iran’s first female Olympic medallist – was also a great advertisement for the inclusiveness of this compelling sport. Jones hopes this message will keep rippling outwards: “People don’t see taekwondo as a girls’ sport but there are so many people doing it now. It’s just amazing. It teaches you so much respect and confidence. It’s great. Get into it.”
In Wales, not short at these Games of athletes who have punched above their weight, Jones’s rising popularity is such that fond references to “JJ” are no longer confined to the former rugby international JJ Williams. She is not finished yet, either, with firm world championship ambitions as well. “The Olympics will always be the pinnacle to me but before I retire I definitely want to be world champion. I think in life you just have to find something you are good at. When you do, just go for it. Taekwondo is my thing; I want to do the best I possibly can and give my all to it.”
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