** Jack Woolley was confirmed as part of the Irish Olympic team on Thursday. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tallaght’s Jack Woolley became the first Dubliner to be confirmed on the Irish Olympic team, making him the first person from the country to compete in Taekwondo in Tokyo in July.
The South Dublin Taekwondo Martial Arts and Fitness man achieved the qualification standard in December 2019 but had to wait until this week to have his ticket rubber-stamped on Thursday.
Not that he has been anxious to get that final sign-off as he looks forward to the biggest competition of his career to date.
“It’s funny, I’m the type of person to shut things off,” he said. “Even when it came to exams and stuff like that, I wouldn’t really think about it until it’s close to the time.
“So, I’m still not overly thinking about it but it is starting to become a little more real day by day. It’s exciting news and I’m very happy to be able to say that I’m officially going to the Games.”
As a 17-year-old, he agonisingly missed out on the 2016 Games by the narrowest of margins but, in hindsight, he admits it did not take too long to get over that setback, adding that this Games was always likely to be more valuable in the long run.
“That healed after a couple of weeks. I don’t have time to dwell on the past in this sport. Whatever happens and you have to get on with it. Move onto the next thing.
“It did hurt for a little while but I was still young and probably going to go to a Games for the sake of going to a Games at that age.
“Now, I’m going to win so there is a big difference in talent and maturity and, overall, in myself, I feel a lot better now.”
It is the latest step in a career long in the making, getting obsessed with the sport long before he was even allowed to practice it formally, following his brother – five years his senior – up to practice.
“I wasn’t allowed because I was four or five, you had to be six. So I was meant to be at the back with the parents watching but I was the kid sprinting around the gaff, being a bit crazy, doing the splits, kicking walls, trying to join in where I wasn’t technically allowed!
“On my sixth birthday, I gave it a shot and thought this seems fun. I never looked back. I also quickly realised the competition side of things is what I like. It is hard to come by a child with that mentality. They do it for fun or their friends but I did it for competition and by the age of eight, I wanted to get into the ring.”
He switched to Clondalkin-based club South Dublin when he was eight, primarily as it was handier to get to, but it was there he met coach Robert Taaffe who opened up what was possible for him and remains with him to this day.
“He had a different perspective on the sport to most people at the time. A lot of people were technical things, going more martial arts based. He set it up to involve everybody but have that group dedicated to the sport side of things.
“He brought me away to my first few international competitions at a high level. I travelled before for fun but he saw potential in me, brought me to the Spanish Open when I was only 13 and I won a medal.
“My parents said maybe we will go to a few more but money was tight so I couldn’t necessarily go to a lot. [Taaffe] was the one who got me into the competitions and is still with me now and will be my coach at the Olympic Games.”
For now, his next steps are the European Championships in three weeks where he can potentially improve his world ranking. If he can do enough to move up to third in the world, it would boost his starting position in the Olympic draw with the biggest guns kept apart in the early rounds.
After that, at the Games, there is very much one target on his agenda – top of the podium in the –58kg category. And, currently sixth ranked in the world, he says it is a realistic prospect.
“Every athlete wants to go out and say ‘I’m going for gold’. you’re not going to turn up to the Games and say I’m going for a bronze.
“Do I feel I can win it? Of course I can because I’ve beaten some of the athletes who are going to the Olympics, the ones that have beaten me, it’s been close.
“If I perform 100 percent on the day, there’s absolutely no reason I can’t win the gold. If I’m on form, I don’t see anyone in the division beating me. When I fight well, I’m unstoppable.”