South Dublin Taekwondo

Jack Woolley – Irish Fighter Interview – March 2020

Interview By Rob Corwell, Irish Fighter – with Jack Woolley – Irish Fighter March 2020

Jack, congratulations on qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. How does it feel? Thank you. It’s surreal to think after four years of hard work I can finally say I have secured Ireland’s first ever Olympic spot in Taekwondo. I was expecting to feel some kind of euphoria but instead it was more a sense of relief, as now we are able to train hard and focus solely on possible opponents I could face in Tokyo.
When did you find out you secured a place to the Olympics? I found out the morning of December 20th 2019. We had to wait for results at the World Taekwondo Grand Slam in Wuxi, China. As if Yushai Liang of China took Gold or Silver at this event then he would have secured the place in Tokyo over me. As you can imagine I didn’t sleep much that night waiting to find out the news but after the long wait we were told the chinese athlete got Bronze and Ireland had its first ever Olympic qualification.
I understand that the final Olympic qualification is not yet complete for many athletes, and you secured a place before the European Qualification Tournament. Can you explain how you qualified so early? There are two ways of qualifying in my sport. The first way is through Olympic rankings,the top six nations with the highest ranking qualify automatically. For those who don’t get in through the ranking system they will have to compete at their continental qualification tournament and place either 1st or 2nd (except Oceania who only have one quota on offer)
You have travelled extensively to tournaments during recent years, can you pinpoint any key events which you feel were major factors in qualifying? I’m extremely grateful that my taekwondo career has taken me to over 40 countries and most of these countries more than once. In November 2019 I got my 50th international ranking medal which happened to be a silver at the European senior Championships. This medal was very important as if I placed any lower than 2nd I wouldn’t have made the top six for qualification. The PanAmerican presidents cup also played a massive part in qualifying. Brandon Plaza of Mexico was hot on my heels throughout the year after his Silver medal at the World Championships. We travelled to Las Vegas to beat him and prevent him from taking 20 ranking points that would have put him in the qualification position instead of me. I managed to win this event, beating Plaza by a score of 48-29 in what was a very exciting and crowd pleasing final. Although beating the mexican helped, the job wasn’t over. I finally had to beat Safwan Khalil, Australia, at the Grand Prix Final in Moscow. I managed to beat him and out place those below me in the rankings going for my qualification spot. That was three results I had to secure in order to qualify and now after meeting the mark at each of these competitions, I can say I have qualified Ireland’s very first olympic place.
How does a 21 year old young man from Dublin get to the Olympics? I had to mature quite quickly as I was traveling alone from a young age. My coach , Robert Taaffe, works a full time job. I would often fly solo and meet him a day or two later at the competition. Therefore, I don’t think the fact I’m only 21 would bare much of an impact on my qualification. It was difficult sometimes to be based in Dublin as there was/still are a shortage in training partners. I would travel abroad to training camps to get more experienced training but I am happy living at home in Ireland as I’m around friends and family which gives me a sense of comfort, that way I’m not thinking about the sport 24/7 and burning out mentally.
You were very close to qualifying for the Rio Olympics, just one place off.  How do you feel this has affected you since? In 2016, at  the age of 17, I represented Ireland at the Rio Olympic Qualifiers in Istanbul, Turkey. We went into this competition as an underdog in the -58kg division as it was only my second year as a senior. There was little pressure on me to perform and expectations weren’t too high. After fighting my first match we then realised I could go all the way, take either Gold or Silver and qualify for Rio. Unfortunately It wasn’t meant to be and I brought home a bronze, losing to Israel 10-12 in the dying seconds of the important semi final. I was heartbroken but then again I was only 17 and knew that if i was this close then in 4 years I would be more than ready. I couldn’t let this defeat get to me and I got straight back on it. Just a few weeks later we travelled to four ranking events in three continents (USA, Canada, Turkey and UAE) and I managed to make it to the final of each of these. Since then I’ve never let a result affect me negatively and instead made them drive me to show everyone what I’m actually capable of.
With the increased media attention, how do you ensure you remain focused? I don’t allow the extra media attention to impact me whatsoever. If anything it makes me proud that after all the hard work myself and Robert have put into training and competition, we are finally giving taekwondo the exposure it deserves. I would say it keeps me more focused as now people are following my progress and it pushes me to do better. I just want to show everyone that I am not content with just Olympic qualification but I will give everything it takes to bring home that Olympic gold.
How would you describe your fighting style? My fighting style would be different to most Taekwondo athletes but still be extremely dynamic and fast paced.I Hate having low scoring matches. I’m constantly looking to score or overpower my opponent with my front leg. Luckily in modern Taekwondo long legs and flexibility give you a major advantage as Head kicks are rewarded with more points than punches or body kicks. I would be well known around the world for my ability to score at obscure angles and distances.
What is your fighting weight and what are other fighters in this division like? I fight in the -58kg category and am 5ft 11, which most people think is crazy but i would be considered average height in this division. Some of my opponents would be three or four inches taller than me but these players would have to cut a lot more weight than I would. Luckily in 2018, World Taekwondo brought in a new rule to prevent people cutting so much weight coming up to competition. We are now randomly selected the day of competition to weigh in with a 5% allowance on our fighting weight (60.9kg for the -58kg division). With my section being so diverse with regards to height, we must analyse each opponent before the match in order to capitalise on each player’s distance game.
How often do you compete? Unlike many Olympic sports, I would compete between 15-20 times a year at international events. As the rankings are so important for qualification and every year you drop 25% of points of each previous year, we have to constantly keep increasing our ranking . A lot of competitions we attend would be European based but we will travel intercontinentally four or five times a year to tactically prevent other players, who may have an easier competition closer to home, from achieving their maximum points.
How many fights do you have in a year? In World Taekwondo most competitions are run on a single elimination format. This means if you win you progress to the next fight and if you lose you’re eliminated. So based on how well I am doing the number of fights differ. To get gold I would typically have to win four or five matches on fight day. As I am highly world  ranked I would be seeded well, sometimes my first match would be later on in the day because i would typically progress through the first round from a bye. I fight approximately 40-50 matches in any year.
Do you have a favourite fight of your career? My favourite fight of my career so far would be from the London Grand Prix in 2018. It was against Cesar Rodriguez from Mexico, who was Junior world champion, 6 time PanAmerican continental medalist, Grand Prix medalist and he also qualified his country their Rio olympics quota in 2016. He had also beaten me the year previous at the Spanish Open. This match sticks out in my mind for so many reasons. Firstly it was in London so it was easily accessible for my friends and family to come see me compete as until then they had not seen me fight in person internationally since 2012. To have them shouting for me in the stands was an amazing feeling because i’m used to travelling alone and having to extra motivate myself. With Rodriguez having such a successful career I was self doubting myself before the match and almost conseeding to a loss. I walked into the ring feeling defeated already but as soon as the referee started the match that had all gone. Hearing the home support from the crowd really helped. After round 1 I was down 2-10 but after a few words with my coach during the water break I came in ready for the comeback of my life. After round 2 I had taken the lead and by mid way through the final round I was more than 20 points ahead with a score of 43-21, it was stopped early by the referee (once a player is ahead by 20 points or more in the final round it is stopped). The fact I had home support, dealt with the self doubt and was able to pull that comeback out of the bag, it will be a match I remember for the rest of my life.
What is your favourite tournament you have attended? In 2018, my team and I travelled to the Polish Open. I managed to fight my way through 4 good fights and take gold. Although I had won gold at many other senior ranking events this was definitely the most meaningful. As always after winning a medal I rang home to tell my family the good news. Unfortunately, I was met on the other side of the phone with news that my Nana aka my biggest supporter had passed away just 15 minutes previously. You can imagine how i felt after being so happy with winning gold and then hearing this horrible news. The funeral was scheduled for the following week but I was flying to Taiwan for a Grand Prix the same day. My Polish Open Gold medal was used as part of the service as I couldn’t be there myself. If it wasn’t for the ranking points I achieved at this Grand Prix in Taiwan the following week I wouldn’t have qualified for Tokyo so it was a major decision to make but I know it’s the thing my Nana would have told me to do.
What is a typical week like in your pre-event season? My schedule has changed since qualifying. I now train every weekday at 7am before my coach goes to work. I have 2-3 Strength and conditioning sessions in Abbotstown at the Sport Ireland campus weekly. Usually 10-15 hours of taekwondo/sparring a week. I also have physio, psychology, nutrition and recovery sessions in between training. When I get time off during my day I tend to either nap or coach the younger kids in my club. I get Sundays off, unless I am abroad at competition, which are very important both mentally and physically to just relax and have some sort of personal life.
And how about a typical week in the build up to an event? Coming up to competition, I would focus on tapering off from my busy training schedule and keep to approximately 75% of my typical week. I would also be cutting weight so keeping an eye on my diet and then controlled dehydrating coming up to the last little period before weigh in. It’s very important not to over train during this period as you need to be feeling at your optimum level on fight day.
Do you have any pre-fight and post-fight routines? Before every fight me and my coach will have a discussion about the next opponent and what his strengths and weaknesses are. All of my warm ups will be pretty much the same except for one or two drills specific to my next fighter. I will then try zone out from the competition environment by putting in my earphones and listening to a set fight day playlist. By the time i walk through gear inspection and watch the match ahead of mine I will be relaxed and ready for my match. I might be nervous at some competitions as they are really important but by the time i step foot on the ring all those emotions are gone and i’m focused on the job i came to do. I used to be quite superstitious in the lead up to fights. I would have my set fight day boxers, my sliders would have to line up with the edge of the mats perfectly and my towel hung on the back of the coaches chair  but with more experience competing those habits have become less important as it can start to become an unnecessary mental game. Post fight, I would go straight out to the stands and take notes on my next opponent, then sit down and try regain focus for the rest of the competition day. Once the fights are done I always call home and let my friends and family know the results as not every competition has live online results or livestream.
What would you do after a really good performance? After a really good performance, myself and my team would go get something to eat, and if I don’t have a weigh-in coming up in the next week or so, I will order the biggest ice cream on the menu.  I might then go to see some of my international friends and hang out as 24 hours before my fights I like to stay focused and away from too much human interaction. Travelling so much with the sport is great when you get to know all different fighters around the world and you’re able to have a laugh once the competition is over.
How about after a not so good performance? If it’s a bad day at the office I will typically just get something to eat then head straight to bed. I prefer to not watch my fights back until the day after because I will be frustrated and I will keep myself up all night thinking about ‘What Ifs’.
How do you get into your best focused state? To get into my best focused state, I think back on the fights when the odds were stacked against me and how I overcame them. Music plays a huge part in my mental well being as it helps me shut off and just refocus on what has to be done. Learning that you only have control over yourself is very important. There’s no point getting worked up over something out of your hands such as what your opponent is doing, referees decisions or the crowd. It’s how you personally deal with it that’s going to help you win the fight.
You shout a lot when fighting, how come? If you walked into a taekwondo hall blind folded you’d be a bit confused as to what is going on. Not all players would shout when they kick but when we score a good shot the tendency is to shout as a celebration. You won’t score a punch without shouting and basically telling the corner judges a solid punch was thrown. In training, the shouts can be a way of intensifying the atmosphere of the class. It’s also a way of controlling your breathing and releasing energy.
Do you think attitude is a major factor in winning? There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Overstepping that line can be detrimental to performance, you have to walk into the ring thinking “I am in the best shape possible” compared to “I am better than everyone else”. Sometimes focus can be perceived as arrogance but once you’re walking into that ring standing tall, game face on and mentally ready that’s all you can ask of yourself.
In sport the word ‘sacrifice’ is used commonly. What does this word mean to you? Both athletes and coaches go through a tremendous amount of sacrifice. Taekwondo being a weight making sport can be very difficult sometimes as we have to cut weight by dieting, exercising more and even dehydrating coming up to weigh ins. This is definitely the toughest physical sacrifice athletes make in this sport. Balancing a personal and social life is incredibly hard when you are training or coaching more than 20 hours a week and travelling up to 20 times a year. I don’t find it easy to hold friendships or relationships as people don’t always understand how much i have to dedicate to taekwondo. Not being able to spend time with friends and family can be tough but luckily I have  amazing support back home and they know what it takes for me to become a champion. It also helps that I train with one of my best friends, David, and I get to travel the world and compete alongside him.
We interviewed you last in 2017 and asked you what were your goals for 2017. You mentioned ‘It would be absolutely incredible to say at the age of 18 I’m World Champion and number 1 in my weight class in a sport which was mainly dominated by athletes in their mid 20s.’   How did that go? When I was 18 I did manage to become world number 1 in the -54kg senior category. This was a major achievement as it was the first time anyone from Ireland had ever broken the top 32 in the world, never mind number 1.  Although I went into the world championships in 2017 as the highest rank, -54kg became extremely difficult to make as it was held the week after I finished my leaving cert on the other side of the world, in South Korea. I was too weak and tired to compete at my best level and unfortunately didn’t bring home a medal. That was the last time I fought in that division and moved up to the Olympic weight category -58kg, which is way better for me mentally and physically to make. I wasn’t expecting to walk into my new weight class and take medals straight away but luckily I was comfortable and within just 2 months I was back making podiums. Now i am world number 5 and the goal is to once again reach number 1 but in -58kg.
Would you regard taekwondo as an individual sport? On paper I would say Taekwondo is an individual sport but after years of training i’ve come to realise that without a strong team of training partners, clubmates, coaches and parents it wouldn’t be possible to be at the level I am today.
How important is team to you? Team is really important to me. After qualifying the place in Tokyo I was surprisingly calm.  I hit a mental wall of “okay, now that the 4 years of hard work is done, what’s next?” I had interviews with Television and Newspapers about qualifying and it wasn’t until the words ‘team’, ‘support’ and ‘the next generation’ were mentioned  that it hit me emotionally. Without my teammates, friends and family none of this would have happened. Success in sport is like a four legged table in a way that if you remove a leg it will fall. We as athletes need to have people in our lives to keep us determined to become champions.
So you will be Ireland’s first taekwondo athlete at the Olympics. Is this the start of good things to come for Irish Taekwondo? I hope so! We have some really good up and coming talent and I’m really excited to work alongside them in the next few years. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I won’t be the only Irish athlete at the 2024 Paris Olympics. With all the extra media attention I have received since qualifying it can only be positive for Irish taekwondo. Hopefully, I’m able to inspire younger generations to take up the sport and aim high like I did when I was a kid. Unfortunately Taekwondo is considered a minority sport in Ireland but with an increase in members nationally, a larger amount of media coverage and just a better understanding of the sport by the general public, I believe taekwondo could become one of the most popular sports in the country.
What motivates you? Expectations motivate me the most out of everything. Not just what others expect but what I expect from myself. From a young age I knew I was going to do something worthwhile with my life so when things get tough and I feel like not being productive and even want to quit I take a mental break and tell myself that “this is what I want”. Of course what others think about me comes into play but most importantly it’s because i want to. I’m the type of person that if i don’t want to do something i won’t, so it goes to show how much I love the sport after starting almost 16 years ago.
What is important to you? It’s important to me to get a decent balance between a sporting life and a personal life, although that is not always possible. With travelling so much i always enjoy coming home to Ireland and having some ‘me time’. Whether it just be sitting down watching gogglebox with my parents, staying over at my friends house and getting a takeaway or just chilling out in my room. It’s the little things, like that, that are important to me.
Do you have a favourite sporting moment that you would regard as inspirational? I don’t have a stand out moment that I would regard as inspirational. But I think being able to say you were the first ever person in your country to achieve something is pretty inspiring. I am the first Irish athlete to qualify for the Grand Prix series (Top 32 athletes in olympic ranking), to reach number 1 in the world and to qualify for an olympic games. They are what make me get out of bed every morning.
If you didn’t do taekwondo, what sport do you think you would do? I definitely wouldn’t do any ball sports because i’ve very little hand eye coordination when it comes to catching or throwing anything. I also couldn’t see myself doing a team sport. I like the fact in taekwondo the only person i can blame for a loss is myself. A sport similar to that in which I can control myself and how well I do. Possibly gymnastics would be the best fit sport for me as I’m extremely flexible and would have great leg strength from daily kicking people in the head.
Other than the Olympics are your other sporting ambitions for 2020? My sporting career won’t stop after Tokyo, once one door closes another one opens. At the end of the year there will be a Grand Prix Final in Cancun, Mexico, which I will be aiming to bring home the gold and kick start my 2024 Olympic ranking points with a bang. 
And after 2020? After 2020, we have world championships in 2021 and then every two years after, so becoming World champion is definitely on my to-do list. I will be planning on sticking to the -58kg for the 2024 Paris Olympics at least. That will be 4 years of competitions and preparing to walk into the Olympic village as favourite to win.
So in the final lead up to the Olympics what are your plans? We are planning on doing a few competitions between now and July in order to keep my ranking in a good position, so I’m going to Tokyo with the best chance possible of bringing home a medal. I also believe that there is no better practice than going and getting first hand experience in the competition environment. There will then be a lot more emphasis on training and player analysis once we know the official list of athletes who are qualified.
Should we expect to see more taekwondo on TV? I hope so, hopefully my fights in Tokyo will be broadcast on national TV. Tokyo is extremely expensive to go to, between flights, accomodation, Olympic tickets etc. It’s just not feasible for a lot of my friends and family, so it would be amazing to know them and the rest of the country are at home, shouting at their teles and supporting me. Who knows after that if there is a big interest in the sport we could have a lot more events shown because believe me there are enough competitions each year to meet a demand.
Looking ahead, what are your hopes for the Paris Olympics & beyond? I’ll be aiming to go into Paris as the favourite to win and if i do become olympic champion im sure i will have a lot more opportunities thrown my way. Ideally i’d love to become a national team coach and one day coach at the olympics. I don’t see myself drifting from the sport, whether I decide to move abroad and open a club or stay home and bring all the up and coming talent to my level, I don’t know. I don’t like looking too far ahead as I prefer to concentrate on the ‘now’.
If you could give any advice to any young reader of this article who has sporting goals, what would it be? I would advise them to set short, mid and long term goals as its something I did when i was young. From things as small as winning your first medal at a local competition all the way to becoming an Olympian. You need to have dreams and aspirations but you also need to plan how they are going to happen. If things start getting too hard you have to push through, you will get past it and you can get back to making your dreams a reality.
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