Tackling taekwondo

2004-05-10 13:32

Cape Town - Quick movements, strong physical attributes, flexibility and above all a strategic mind, are just some of the elements 20-year-old Duncan Mahlangu has mastered in order to book his place to Athens as a taekwondo athlete.

A mere seven years ago, 13-year-old Mahlangu was just an ordinary kid from Garankuwa, north of Pretoria, interested in various forms of martial arts. What started out as a club involvement under coach Chris Moche, an instructor in martial arts at the local primary school in Garankuwa, soon evolved into something much more important.

In Mahlangu's eyes, it was the Four Nations Ambassadors Cup in 2001 that put him on the map.

''In 2001 I was selected to represent South Africa for the first time. This was at the Ambassadors Cup in Johannesburg where I ended up finishing third. It was also during this time that I talked a lot to Donald Ravenscroft, who became the first South African to qualify in taekwondo for the Olympics, but had to pull out due to injury. It was after this competition that I realised that I can also make it."

And this is exactly what Mahlangu set out to do. In 2001, he was selected to visit Korea, the birthplace of taekwondo, for a training camp. It was at this camp that Mahlangu met master JH Cho, who has been his coach ever since. Mahlangu's training in Korea paid off and in 2002 he won gold at the national trials in Johannesburg.

The 2002 Korean Open, the big taekwondo championship of that year, produced the fight Mahlangu considers as his career best. Mahlangu came second in the junior category and walked away with the bronze medal in the senior category.

It was at this championship that the upcoming flyweight champion came to realise that ''winning is possible".

In 2003, Mahlangu went back to Korea and Thailand for more international experience and coaching before the World Championships in Germany. Mahlangu learnt another valuable lesson there: every sportsman has his ups and downs...

The World Championships turned out to be more of a disappointment than anything else. "This was the event where I had to fight in the featherweight category for the first time. This was a big adjustment. I came 16th in Germany and then lost my first fight at the All African Games against an athlete from Central Africa."

After these results, Mahlangu's hopes for a good performance at the World Olympic Qualifying tournament, that took place in December 2003 in Paris, were not very high.

The trip got off to a shaky start. "Just before we left for France I lost my wallet," recalls Mahlangu. "Arriving in Paris during winter time also didn't help much to lift my spirits. In the fight before the quarter-finals, I had to fight against an athlete from Cuba, who was much bigger and stronger than me. After being 3-0 down, my coach reminded me, that it's now or never. I came back with a back kick and ended up winning the fight."

From here Mahlangu went straight to the finals, but decided not to fight against the athlete from Korea due to injury and also in order to hide some of his moves for the Olympics. Having made it to the finals automatically booked Mahlangu's seat to Athens.

Mahlangu gives all the praise to a Nocsa Investment in Excellence course presented just before Paris. At one of the seminars, he came to realise that the mind is the key to all success.

This is also the aspect Mahlangu enjoys most about taekwondo. "It is a very challenging sport, almost like chess. It differs from kickboxing in terms of the intellectual stimulation taekwondo requires. You have to see the gaps and make decisions in a split second before your opponent does so; it's not just about kicking and boxing."

The intellectual stimulation taekwondo provides, is currently enough for Mahlangu. He considers himself a full-time sportsman, with quite enough to keep him busy. A typical day during a training camp includes three sessions of hard work every day. Morning sessions will consist of the physical training like running and cardio. Running also happens to be another sport Mahlangu is interested in. Afternoon sessions will focus more on specialised taekwondo training, which Mahlangu considers the hardest part of a training session. According to Mahlangu, almost 90% of taekwondo involves kicking.

Flexibility and strength is therefore essential. Weightlifting and demo fights usually follow at evening practice sessions.

When taekwondo doesn't play such an important role in his life anymore, he would like to study engineering, but for right now, taekwondo is his life and the Athens Olympics in August his priority.

"I might end up going to a training camp in Korea before the Olympics, just to train with master Cho there and fight against some of the local high school fighters. Taekwondo is one of Korea's main sports and therefore I will have many talented training partners."

But how does Mahlangu feel about qualifying for selection to the Olympics after nine years of hard work and sacrifice?

Firstly, he mentions feeling extremely sorry for his close training partners Donald Ravenscroft and Anelle Steyn as they have not qualified for selection for Team SA for the 2004 Games. Mahlangu seems very concerned about these two promising athletes, whom he refers to as his ''half brother and sister".

"I have learned so much from these close friends of mine," says Mahlangu. "We have spent a great amount of time in foreign countries together and motivated each other a lot. I would have loved for us all to be on the plane to Athens together.

"For myself I feel happy, I have made a lot of sacrifices and so did my friends and family. I want to stand on the podium and see my flag being raised... that is my main goal. I am going for gold and nothing else."

And what if something happens and Mahlangu doesn't end up as a medallist? Then the young taekwondo star will only work harder to reach Beijing in 2008. Mahlangu explains that taekwondo athletes can still compete up to age 31. "One might just end up having to change your weight category again," he says with a smile.

Mahlangu sees himself as his very own mentor. He refuses to pretend to be somebody else, or to try and live up to somebody else's standards. He wants to make a difference and show the world and development athletes in South Africa that anything is possible.

Mahlangu does give many thanks to the President of Taekwondo South Africa. According to Mahlangu, the support from the federation has meant a lot to all South African taekwondo athletes.

As the months prior to this year Olympics decrease, Mahlangu feels the pressure rising.

''I think I have a big responsibility on my shoulders. My performance in Athens might have an influence on the future of taekwondo in South Africa. I have to prove that South African taekwondo is really up there. But I can handle the stress and I will keep encouraging myself to ensure that taekwondo is taken to the next level after this Olympics."

Mahlangu has considered going over to Korea and training for longer periods, but definitely not forever. Studying and training simultaneously in the next three years to come is an option for him.

Korea would definitely mean more regular professional coaching and also more Korean food! Mahlangu considers eating as one of his hobbies. The Korean mixture of vegetables, rice and egg, called Beeb Beb Bap got the thumbs up as one of his favourite pre-match foods.

Apart from eating, Mahlangu loves to read and spend time with his friends in South Africa and even play a soccer match or two. Spending time with his friends while he is in South Africa is important to him, since he doesn't get the opportunity very often.

''I live out of a bag for most of the year which can be very tiring at stages and takes a lot out of you mentally and physically."

Although taekwondo training is also physically very hard on the body, Mahlangu has been pretty lucky injury-wise. The foot injury he struggled with during the qualifying tournament in Paris is almost gone now.

If there is one thing he learned from Paris, it is to be more aggressive. But one can see right away that Mahlangu is soft-hearted - he admits to this, but wants to change this personality characteristic in his fights to come.

To be more focused when he looks into the eyes of his Olympic competitors is also one of his goals for this year and future fights.

Mahlangu is also determined to utilise his perseverance, determination and discipline as an athlete to succeed in Athens. He admits that nothing about taekwondo is really easy at all. Physically and mentally it is a hard game, but standing on the podium makes everything worthwhile and will remain the element Mahlangu enjoys most at the end of the day.

Mahlangu feels positive about the future of taekwondo in South Africa. Athletes are starting to get more familiar with the sport and this year is also the first year that there is a budget available for young athletes with potential.

Unlike many other Olympians, Mahlangu is not planning on getting involved in coaching after he has quit competing. He wants to contribute more in terms off helping development athletes to get involved in taekwondo and building the sport as a whole.

Master Cho will keep on playing an important role in Mahlangu's life this year, building up to the Olympics. ''Master Cho wants to change some of my moves so that I can come out with a few surprises at the Games," says Mahlangu, sounding a warning to his opposition.

He has one message for South Africa, with his eyes on the Olympic Games: "Over the past years, I've come to realise how people underestimate the potential in South Africa. I keep on telling myself that I want to make a difference by taking a medal to contradict this. Nothing will stop me, if I don't make it this time, I will start again and do more homework until I, Duncan Mahlangu make the impossible, possible."

And he can be rest assured that the whole of South Africa will be supporting him in his endeavours.

  • This article originally appeared in the March issue of Olympic Update.