When taekwondo athlete Jade Jones beat China’s Hou Yuzhuo to become Britain’s youngest Olympic gold medallist at London 2012, she threw her helmet in the air and completed a lap of honour of the ExCel.
It was an exuberant display that breached protocol – competitors must bow to each other at the end of a bout while still wearing their headgear – but one that illustrated both her youth and delight at achieving a stunning win in the 57kg class.
The 19-year-old champion, who fuels her performances with pre-bout meals of jelly and pasta, described her triumph over Chinese two-time world champion Huo Yuzhuo in the women’s 57kg class as “bonkers” and seemed more surprised to win than the overjoyed spectators.
In fact, her progress since taking up the sport at 15, and leaving school the following year to focus on training, has been rapid.
Jones, from Flint in Wales, took up the martial art at the suggestion of her grandfather as a means of keeping her out of trouble. She immediately found her feet, literally, as the discipline emphasises kicking moves as a way of defeating opponents.
In 2010, she won bronze at the 2010 European Taekwondo Championships in St Petersburg, Russia. Then, thanks to funding from locals at the pub in her village, she travelled to the inaugural Summer Youth Olympic Games in Singapore and beat Vietnam’s Thanh Thao Nguyen 9–6 in the 55kg category final to win gold.
Her first senior title came at the US Open in February 2011 in the 62kg division, following a bronze medal the day before in the 57kg. She had to settle for silver in the World Taekwondo Championships in South Korea but won another gold in October that year at the British Open in Manchester.
At the 2012 German Open, she won another silver, losing to China’s Yun Wang in the final, followed by a bronze medal at the 2012 European Taekwondo Championships in the UK. But she finished her year on the incredible high that only Olympic success can bring.
As she went into the London 2012 final, having knocked out top seed Tseng Li-Cheng of Chinese Taipei in the semi-final with a series of trademark headkicks, expectations were high – and she didn’t disappoint, beating Hou Yuzhuo in a cagey contest that saw her suffer painful knocks in the second round.
But Jones wore down Huo, who conceded two penalty points, before storming to victory with a thrilling, clinical performance in the final round.
Taewkondo’s newest star later revealed that her success was down to forensic study of her potential rivals’ techniques ahead of the Games – along with a daily five-hour regime of sparring and weight training. Mental toughness played its part too, as she revealed she had to fight through the pain barrier to win.
She said: “I hurt my foot in the very first fight, It was a kick to the shin, so I had an injection in it. At first, I was whingeing and feeling sorry for myself, but I just had to deal with it because I wanted to win.”