Lauren Williams was 13 when she watched Jade Jones capture the nation’s heart with a gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Fast forward nine years, and Williams is joining Jones in the British team heading to Tokyo.
Speaking to GiveMeSport Women for our Road to Tokyo series, Williams described how fellow Welsh athlete Jones was her source of inspiration as a teenager.
“Before I did taekwondo I was a kickboxer – I did that for 10 years,” she explained. “When I went on holiday with my parents, we sat and watched the Olympics on TV. We were flicking through the channels to try and find a great British athlete to watch, and Jade happened to be on, and there was about 10 seconds left.
“She was winning at the time, and the points were getting higher and higher, and it got really exciting. And my dad turned to me and said ‘is this something you’d want to do?’.
Given she is now heading to an Olympic Games as a taekwondo athlete, it’s surprising to hear Williams initially turned down the offer to give the sport a try. But a year later, she was presented with the perfect opportunity to follow in Jones’s footsteps.
“Taekwondo did a scheme back in 2013 that encouraged athletes from different sports and backgrounds to come and try taekwondo,” Williams said. “I tried it, and gave it a go. I was too young at the time, but my dad said ‘put her in, we’ve not come all this way to trials for her not to fight.’ He let me do my thing and I managed to beat the girls, and the performance director saw talent. So here I am today.”
Now 22, Williams will be making her Olympic debut in the under-67 kilogram division this summer. She is already a three-time European champion in the weight class, and has a couple of Grand Prix gold medals to her name as well.
Now tipped to be one of the leading stars of the next generation of Team GB, Williams revealed she hopes to be a role model to those coming through in taekwondo.
“I go back to my hometown quite frequently and I go to my kickboxing club,” she said. “I see a lot of the kids and youngsters I used to teach, look up to me, and I’ve realised there are a generation of youngsters that aspire to be in this position.
“It always reminds me of that 12 year old me looking up to Jade, I didn’t realise there were youngsters in that position looking up to me now, and it’s really nice. I hope someday they’ll be joining me in the academy and it will be a similar story.”
The 28-year-old Jones will be competing at her third Olympic Games next month. Following victory at London 2012, she successfully defended her under-57kg title at Rio 2016. She will become the first ever triple Olympic taekwondo champion if she achieves gold in Tokyo.
While conceding she did feel some pressure, Jones said it helped she already had Olympic and world titles in the bag.
“If I got nothing else from now, at least I’ve managed to complete taekwondo and do all that. Now, I’m seeing everything as a bonus.”
I want to win this third gold more than anything, but at least I’ve kind of ticked everything off, so the rest is seen as a bonus and it takes a bit of the pressure off.
Her Olympic experience is also set to come in useful at a Games like no other. As a result of the pandemic, international spectators will be absent from Tokyo 2020. Athletes will also have to live, train and compete under strict regulations to prevent the spread of coronavirus. How is Jones feeling about entering into such a unique environment?
“I’ve tried to lower my expectations, because we don’t know what it’s going to be like,” she responded. “If I go and get my hopes up and think it’s going to be like the other ones, I could be let down. So, I’ll try to lower my expectations and just go there with an open mind.
“I’m just really chuffed that it’s still going ahead. I’ve got the experience of the other Olympics in the bag, so when I step on that mat at least I’ve got that, knowing what the pressure feels like, what an Olympics is like, so I’ll definitely be drawing on that.”
Williams and Jones will be joined in Tokyo by Bianca Walkden, the third female member of the Team GB taekwondo squad.
Walkden is a three-time world and European champion, but an Olympic title has evaded her so far. She lost to China’s Zheng Shuyin in the over-67kg semi-final at Rio 2016, sparking an intense rivalry between the pair.
This was antagonised at the 2019 World Championships, when Walkden defeated Zheng in the final in a controversial manner. She was booed as she received her world gold medal, but Walkden is looking forward to coming across her nemesis again.
“We’re actually on the opposite sides of the draw this time, so I’ll be on one and she’ll be on the other side,” she said.
So if we are going to fight, we’re going to fight in the final and what a way to continue the big rivalry that we have in taekwondo.
“I think if anything, more people know about the rivalry, not many people know about the other athletes in that weight category, so I think if anything, it’s opened more eyes for taekwondo for people. So hopefully, you’ll see the final as me and Zheng, and hopefully I’ll come out on top this time and I’ll be the new Olympic champion.”
Walkden is hoping she flies home with a gold medal around her neck, and the nation will be hoping she is joined by Jones and Williams too.