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'I’ve gotten over it, but I used to have a really bad relationship with food'

Irish Olympian Jack Woolley on the challenge of making weight and how sport ultimately saved him.

Jack Woolley pictured at the Olympics during the summer.
Jack Woolley pictured at the Olympics during the summer.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

WHEN WE CATCH up at the start of December, Jack Woolley is taking a well-deserved semi-break.

It has been an intense year for the 23-year-old Dubliner.

During the summer, in Tokyo, he became Ireland’s first-ever representative in taekwondo at the Olympic Games.

It was a major achievement, even if Woolley was disappointed with the outcome, suffering a round-of-16 loss and saying at the time: “Some people come here to participate at an Olympics, I came here to win it.”

Woolley was in the headlines again a month later for entirely different reasons, as he was hospitalised following a vicious, unprovoked assault during a night out in Dublin city centre.

He also finished the year on a high, impressing in recent bouts, including a gold medal triumph at the Albanian Open.

It is the frustration of Tokyo though that lingers, and even aside from the result, Woolley says it was not a positive experience mainly owing to the event taking place amid significant Covid restrictions.

“We were allowed in the holding camp because we were there training together and stuff like that,” he tells The42. “But as soon as we got into the village, it was: ‘Don’t do this, don’t do this.’ You’re not allowed to go here and if you want to go to this place, you have to wear a mask — there were a lot of rules. I wanted to stay as mentally focused on the Games as possible and I was trying to shut off all the negative stuff, but I think that took a lot of energy out of me.

“I was so worried about: ‘I can’t do this. What if I break the rules and get in trouble? It was literally: ‘Go to your room, go to the food hall, go training, go back to your room,’ that was all we were allowed to do. We were allowed to go for a little bit of a walk. But when it’s 40 degrees outside and humid, you don’t want to be walking around too long in the middle of Japan.”

He continues: “It got a bit overwhelming sometimes. When you’ve got just your coach there with you, you don’t want to be in each other’s face too much. You don’t want to end up getting sick of each other.

“My coach isn’t a big fan of social media so he was trying to tell me: ‘Stay away from it for the next week, you need to prepare for the Games.’ And it was like: ‘Okay, now I’m just sitting in a room looking at four walls.’ So it felt a bit like a prison, to be honest.”

With no more competitions now until February, Woolley has been able to relax to an extent of late.

“Taekwondo is not going to be my main focus in the next month or so, more gym-orientated training and stuff just to have a good strength period.

“With the gym, it keeps me focused. I need to have something. I couldn’t take a week off from everything. I’d have to be doing something just because with weight and stuff in taekwondo, it’s a big factor.

“If you take a week or two off training, your weight is going to go up and you’ve got to spend the time getting it down again. So I’d prefer to keep it a little bit ticking over but years ago, I would have been panicking, I’d have to be training flat out all the time. Now I’m at the stage where I have things outside of the sport that I’m able to shut off and relax. So Christmas is a good time for me to chill out for a bit.”

For elite athletes, training and competing tend to be almost an addiction — in fact, it essentially needs to be to an extent if they are to stay at the top level.

Woolley acknowledges though that striking the right balance is crucial and that simply enjoying sport can be a challenge. A certain amount of diligence is needed for a competitor to thrive, though it is also possible to push yourself too much, to the point where it becomes overly obsessive and ultimately, unhealthy.

“It definitely can be a good thing,” he says of adopting the ultra-disciplined lifestyle and mindset required to be an athlete of the highest calibre.

“It keeps you focused. It keeps you in check. You know what you’re doing. You have your routine. I need a routine. Even when I wasn’t competing at such a high level, I needed a routine as a kid. I was just very like that.

“But it can get a bit obsessive, especially with the weight. When I was younger, I’d be checking it four or five times a day. I used to bring weighing scales to school. It used to get very on top of me. But you learn over time.

“I’m also coaching young kids who are up and coming and could be at my level in a few years. I’m kind of learning from my mistakes of being obsessed with it and letting it get the better of me. So just giving them a bit of advice — take a step back, chill out, you’re not going to become the best overnight.

“Just take it as a process. You need to be a little bit more relaxed with the sport, especially at the elite level, it can get a lot, so if you let it build up there are moments where you think: ‘I don’t want to do it anymore, I want to leave.’ But it’s just taking your time with it, relaxing and trying to enjoy the process, because if you’re not enjoying it, there’s not much point in doing it.”

jack-wooley-in-action-against-lucas-lautaro-guzman Ireland’s Jack Wooley in action against Lucas Lautaro Guzman of Argentina at the Olympics. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

One significant pitfall that is often overlooked when it comes to taekwondo and other combat sports is the pressure to make weight ahead of fights.

The work behind the scenes put in by athletes to ensure their bodies meet the requisite criteria is often underappreciated. And particularly when it comes to inexperienced youngsters, the need to swiftly shed body fat can potentially take a competitor to dangerous places. Woolley is one of the many athletes who has experienced substantial challenges in this regard in the past.

“I would say it’s the toughest [aspect of the sport]. It’s pretty hard. I’ve been doing it since [I was a child], so I’m kind of used to it by now. But it never gets any easier.

“I’ve gotten over it, but I used to have a really bad relationship with food. Now, I’m pretty decent with it. It can be quite tiring when you’ve got to train for a fight, but at the same time, try to get your weight down.

“I’m not as bad as I used to be. I used to have to lose eight or nine kilos for fights because I used to fight the -54 category and used to walk around at the weight I am now.

“But I only cut four kilos now at the most. I wouldn’t have to lose any more than that. It still does get hard. You get to a certain weight and it’s like: ‘Okay, I need to get rid of water now because that’s the only thing left.’ My body fat is very low. So it’s just trying to sweat it out.

“Unfortunately, that’s just the sport. People are always like: ‘Why don’t you move up?’ I’m like: ‘Okay, let me just show you the height difference between my weight category and the Olympic weight category above me.’ They’re probably five inches on average taller than me. It’s a big massive jump up into the next weight. It goes from 58 to 68 kilos for the Olympics, so I’ll just stick at mine.

“I’m enjoying it a little bit more, but you can see it especially with the kids, I can see myself when I was their age, it’s just trying to prevent them from going down a similar path, letting the whole weight thing get on top of them and that being their main focus. I wish that I spent more time, focusing on myself, focusing on the sport, rather than obsessing over whether me having a glass of water is [the reason for] putting on .2 of a kilo. It gets to that stage. But these things kind of make us the people and the athletes we are.

“And I think that is a big thing for me to have overcome. I used lockdown to have a good relationship with everything, the food, my weight and all that because we didn’t have any competitions, so we had a bit of time off.

“I was still training but I wasn’t looking in the mirror and saying: ‘Oh, maybe I’ve put on .1 of a kilo, that’s 100 grammes and stuff like that. Now I’m just kind of like: ‘I know I’ll make weight whether I have to spend five or six days cutting weight.’”

Asked just how dangerous this pressure on athletes to cut weight can be, Woolley adds: “I think, with the physical side of it, it’s probably nowhere near as bad as the mental side of it.

“We have a couple of young girls in the club, they’re hitting 15 or 16 and you can start to see with the media and stuff, and how they’re supposed to look, it doesn’t help with the sport. I had that as well.

“So I’m trying to give them a bit of advice. I’m not the main coach or anything but because I’ve gone through a lot and I’ve experienced a lot myself, I think a lot of the younger athletes will come to me for advice rather than letting the main coach [intervene], because they know I’ve kind of been through it and stuff.

“I think that my experience is handy to have and [can help] stop other people from having to deal with that.”

Asked about the type of advice he would impart to others, the Tallaght fighter says: “It’s going to sound very clichéd, but I always say: ‘Try to take every day as it comes.’ You’re not going to lose weight overnight. You’re not going to change everything. You’re not going to be able to become the best in the sport [instantly]. You just have to work at it, work at it, work at it.

“You have to develop what’s right for your body. My body is different to most people’s. My body fat has always been quite low. Even when I put on the weight, it’s just a lot of water weight. It took me a while to understand that. I did suffer badly with food and stuff like that.

“Just not letting it get on top of you and realising that your body isn’t the same as somebody else out there [is important].

“Especially nowadays with your Instagram and stuff, it’s not real, even with me. When you feel at your best is when you’re posting. You don’t see people out there posting when they feel shit, or when they look shit. So it’s just about trying to get that understanding.”

***

jack-woolley-dejected-after-being-beaten-by-lucas-lautaro-guzman Jack Woolley dejected after being defeated at the Olympics. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

While the sport has brought Woolley to some dark places at times, it also, in a sense, saved him.

He was “naturally good” at school, but “only lasted two weeks” in a journalism degree at Dublin Institute of Technology. He cites the bad commute (Woolley doesn’t yet hold a driving licence), an intense training schedule and the fact that he was constantly getting into arguments with fellow students as his reasons for dropping out.

Sport was, and is likely always going to be, his abiding passion, whether it’s competing himself or guiding others.

“You get a mixed group of people that join taekwondo,” he says. “You’ve got anyone from the ones that are bullied in school, and parents want them to have some sort of self-defence.

“You get a lot of introverted kids that are very shy but they’re athletic and their parents want them to do something to bring them out of their shells a bit. And what better way than to kick someone [he laughs].

“You’ve got all ages. Teenagers are hard to keep in the sport, I will admit, in every sport. They get to the age where they’d rather see a friend, have sleepovers, they’re 15 or 16 and they’re wanting to start going out to parties and all the like, so it’s very difficult to keep them in.

“But at the stage where you become like 12, 13, you’ve been doing the sport a few years and you kind of realise what you want out of it. Whether it’s just a social aspect, a fitness aspect, or you see yourself doing something big.

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“We’ve got as big a group of teenagers now in the club as we’ve had for years. You can see the difference between them. You can see the ones that are doing it for fitness, and the ones that want to get to the Olympics.

“My brother was bullied in school, that was the initial reason why my parents got him in. He’s five years older than me, so I was sat down in the back watching him, thinking: ‘I can do that, I can do this.’

“You weren’t allowed to start until you’re six, so as soon as my sixth birthday came around, I jumped right in and they were like: ‘Well you’re pretty good at this.’

“I was still a nightmare to teach when I was a kid. But I moved clubs then and I was quickly put in line. The coach sat my parents down and said: ‘He has what it takes to be someone big, don’t let him waste the lessons.’

“My parents had a word with me, I sorted myself out and at 12-13, it was just before London 2012 where my parents were sat down in front of an international coach: ‘We’re after seeing him spar, he needs to focus on that because he could be something.’

“You do get those types of kids that come through [to the top level] but they’re very rare to find.

“It’s nice to have a sport. It keeps people off the street, it keeps the anti-social behaviour away and stuff like that.

“After the attack, that was something I wanted to speak about as well. Kellie Harrington came up to my house after, just to see if I was alright. We were both chatting about it because we’re both in contact sports and she saw what happened to me, especially so close to where she lives as well.

“So [it's about] keeping the kids in a sport or doing something just to keep them away from that type of behaviour.”

He continues: “I live in Tallaght and growing up in Jobstown, I could see a lot of it happening. The community respected me because of the sport and stuff like that. I would never feel unsafe here, but I can understand why a lot of people would because there is anti-social behaviour, it’s just a shame because I don’t see that side of it myself. I’m just trying to get a lot of people into the sport. I see it happening a lot more now.

“I was only thinking about this yesterday. I was sitting on the bus, a group of lads got on and there were four or five of them. They’re the kind of lads you would have looked at and thought: ‘dodgy’.

“But they all sat down and they were discussing: ‘Oh yeah, I have a fight that’s coming up. I’m going to do this charity event. They’re all in the MMA, they’re in SBG [Straight Blast Gym], they’re doing this. You wouldn’t think that those lads are there and are doing something, are focused on something and they’re going to be watching their weight. They’re going to be eating healthy, they’re not going to be out drinking and smoking every weekend, so I think it’s getting better, especially with the exposure that combat sports are getting.

“They’re capturing the attention of a lot more people that would be considered anti-social. They want to get into a combat sport. They want to get in the ring and do something with a bit of an adrenaline rush.

“But being in a contact sport, I feel trying to promote it as much as possible will help everyone get involved a little bit more.”

kellie-harrington-speaks-to-the-media Kellie Harrington was among the people that showed support to Woolley after he was attacked in Dublin city centre earlier this year. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Woolley also admits that he could have easily gone down the wrong path had it not been for taekwondo.

“I think so. Even though my brother did [taekwondo], he’s a lot quieter than me. He’d be the introvert, I’d be the extrovert. So I would have had a lot more friends. I would have been a bit more out there. A bit more well known and stuff, so I think that I could have fallen into that very easily, especially growing up where I did.

“It is there and I would have been friends with a lot of the people who are involved in that stuff, but not anymore.

“Up until primary school, I had a lot of friends down in my area. But with the sport and stuff, my parents wanted to make sure that I didn’t fall into it and I wasn’t swayed away

“They sent me to school 20 minutes in the opposite direction in Rathcoole. So that was a decision on their part just to keep me away because they knew I could have been influenced quite easily when I was younger.

“I wanted to do what everyone else was doing and I didn’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons. Now, I don’t care. I always thought people would look at the sport and be going: ‘What are you doing that for?’ I wouldn’t speak about it too much until I started doing well. The types of people that I could have fallen into that with, they’re very respectful.

“Just because I’m an athlete doesn’t mean I don’t go out. I don’t go out every weekend, but when I do go out, I bump into somebody and they’re like: ‘Oh Jack, do you remember, we went to primary school together? It’s great, I follow you online, I’m proud to say I know you.’ They kind of make me take a step back because I realise: ‘This person is leading a completely different lifestyle but they’re still supporting me.’ It makes me feel really good about myself.

“I could have fallen into [other areas] but luckily I didn’t. It’s very easy to go down that path, but it’s also very easy to get out of it. It all just depends on what opportunities you’re given and stuff like that — trying to give people more opportunities so that doesn’t happen to them is probably what we need to be doing at the moment.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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