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'I cried on national TV at 17 years old. We watched it in every single class I had that day in school'

Irish Olympic hopeful Jack Woolley is an impressive guy on and off the mat, and his journey has been a rollercoaster so far.

Soon-to-be Irish Olympian Jack Woolley.
Soon-to-be Irish Olympian Jack Woolley.
Image: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

BLOOD, SWEAT, TEARS, highs, lows and many sacrifices have lead to this moment and I am extremely grateful and proud.

A snippet of Jack Woolley’s social media post after booking his ticket to the Tokyo Olympics — and becoming Ireland’s first-ever representative in taekwondo — summed the journey up. That was in December 2019.

Yesterday, the 22-year-old Dubliner was officially confirmed as a Team Ireland member for the delayed Games by the Olympic Federation of Ireland [OFI].

It was another special moment, another step along the way, as Woolley targets the biggest prize in the world: an Olympic gold medal.

“There’s no reason why I can’t come home with a gold medal,” he told The42, confident and assured in his own ability, but with bucketloads of modesty to go with his self-belief.

“Never mind being Ireland’s first qualified athlete in taekwondo, I want to be the first Olympic champion in the sport as well for the country.”

Woolley fell agonisingly short on the Road to Rio, his journey at the tender age of 17 followed closely by RTÉ cameras and aired on a documentary by that very name.

There’s no two ways about it: it was gutting for the Tallaght native in the moment, but in hindsight, it may have been for the best. Physically and mentally, he’s ready now, although he won’t shy away from the disappointment and heartbreak of five years ago.

“I’m the type of person to not try and dwell on things too much. And when I do dwell on things, I kind of start to panic because it’s not like me.

“I would say it didn’t take that long to get over Rio. Because I was so young, I was 17, there was documentaries, there was such a big thing around my qualification. I cried on national TV at 17 years old in fifth year. I remember the day that there was a certain documentary that was aired and we watched it in every single class I had that day in school. And I cried on it.

“Watching it back, I kind of became a bit dead to it. I think watching myself be so upset over it drove me to not be in that position again.”

In that same documentary, Woolley opened up about his sexuality, having just come out as bisexual to his parents. With whispers around his locality at the time, his grandparents also had to be told beforehand. 

Labelling it on television is something he came to regret, as he so openly and honestly told Mark Gallagher of the Irish Daily Mail last January. In that same interview, he revealed how some opponents — given the variety of ethnic backgrounds competing in martial arts — refuse to shake his hand.

Those regrets still linger at times, but Woolley is cognisant of keeping his personal life and sporting life detached.

“When it comes to my personal life, I try to keep it as separated as from the sport as possible,” he explains. “But it is out there, I can’t do anything about that. If people ask me about it in a sports capacity, I just kind of shut it down.

“Even in general, if people ask me a question, what’s it got to do with them? I don’t see them going around asking everybody just because I might be in the media or whatever.

“I think the only time you should ask somebody is if you’re looking to bring me on a date,” he grins, “that’s the only other time I think you should ask someone about that type of personal stuff. I’m not really fussed at this stage.

“I’d just prefer to keep it separate, like the same way if somebody was asking me about my family issues or stuff like that, I very similar. You’ve got Jack Woolley the athlete and then you’ve got Jack Woolley the person and I try not to cross them over too much.”

Jack Woolley the athlete is seriously impressive, that’s for sure. He talks the talk, walks the walk, and has the accolades and medals to back it up. A special talent on and off the mat, Woolley started taekwondo at the age of six, following his brother — who was being bullied in school and sent to martial arts for self defence — to local classes.

His star rose in a meteoric fashion, winning tournaments on international stages at such a young age, but he really announced himself to general Irish sporting circles in the run-up to Rio 2016.

That journey was one he learned from; eyeing the top six Olympic rankings for Tokyo in order to avoid the the back-up qualification event he fell just short at last time. The comeback is always stronger than the setback.

“We wanted to just get in, be safe, have a breather and focus on the Games, rather than focus on a qualification event and literally three months later, you’re going into a Games,” he explains. “I think we needed more time.

jack-woolley-during-a-break-in-the-bout Woolley during a break in competition at the Europeans in December. Source: Aleksandar Djorovic/INPHO

“So that’s what we did, we got in the top six. It was a rollercoaster of a journey now, don’t get me wrong. It was mad, but it definitely worked out. The heartbreak at the time just made me push myself a little bit more and give it 100% over the four-year cycle.”

The path to here certainly was a rollercoaster.

In August 2019, he and his coach, Robert Taaffe, sat down and planned it all out. First stop was Las Vegas for the Pan American President’s Cup, but it wasn’t necessarily to secure ranking points for himself. He needed to stop someone else from winning it and guaranteeing a qualification place.

“I ended up getting them in the final,” he picks up the story, “and you can imagine the pressure on somebody: If you win this, you still have a chance of qualifying, if you don’t win this, it’s all over. We won, I don’t remember too much of the day, to be honest. It was all a bit of a blur. Your emotions are going mad.”

Next up to keep the qualification dream alive was to bag at least a silver medal at the European Championships. 

“We said, ‘Right if you get a bronze, congratulations, you’ve got a bronze at the Euros but you’re not going to the Olympics.’ I went in and I got a silver. It was a tough day at the office but I got silver, so I was happy.”

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The last thing on Woolley’s card in order to qualify for Tokyo was to outdo all of the players lower than him at the Grand Prix Final. Vice versa, they needed to do the same.

He won his first match, and those he needed to outdo all lost theirs. “We all celebrated and we thought, ‘Ah, brilliant, we qualified the first place for it,’” he recalls. But there was to be one more twist in the tale.

“We got told that night, there was actually a backdoor in. If a Chinese athlete got a gold or a silver at the Grand Slam in China that night, then he could have taken my place.

“I didn’t want to watch that, it was all online, the time difference. I couldn’t cope with it. So my coach told me to knock my phone off: ‘Don’t deal with it. I’ll knock at your door in the morning, I’ll wake you up, I’ll either say we’re in or we’re not and we’ll have to go through that together.

“He knocked at my door. There was cameras there from a TV documentary, and he just said, ‘We’re in.’ Just that wave of relief came over me and we’d qualified Ireland’s first place for taekwondo at the Olympic Games.”

Little did he — or any of us — know what lay ahead with the Covid-19 pandemic, but Woolley is buoyed by the light at the end of the tunnel in Tokyo this summer, all going to plan.

tokyo-2020-official-team-announcement It's all eyes on Tokyo for Woolley now. Source: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

Truth be told, he enjoyed the first lockdown. It was a welcome break from all the travelling, the weather was nice and he moved his training partner — “He was my best mate before, it was a good experience and we got closer. He kind of developed more into like a son to my parents now that he’s been around so much” — in, so his intense schedule could continue.

Both mentally and physically, Woolley was in a good place. Like everyone else, he thought the second lockdown would be over as quick as it started, and that it would be the last, but lockdown 3.0 certainly has been testing, despite his return to competition and training camps. 

“The third one at this stage is a bit like, ‘Ugh, okay,’” he concludes. “It’s a struggle to even get out of bed some days when you don’t have training. You have a day off and it’s like, ‘I don’t have anything to do’.

“I can’t even leave five kilometres from my house, there’s nothing to do within five kilometres anyway. People can have their pastimes as sports; they can go for a run or they can go out and play football, whereas I try to stay away from sports because it’s basically my job to come down and the train and do sport in general.

“It’s very difficult to find a pastime. Literally at the moment, it’s just wake up, go training, eat, have a nap and do that for the rest of the days. We’ll cope.”

Cope, he will. He’s done so many a time in the past, no doubt he’ll do so brilliantly again.

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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