Aaliyah Powell: Overcoming taekwondo ‘fear’ and rivalling Jade Jones

Aaliyah Powell
Powell got into taekwondo because she was too young to take up fencing
Dates: 19-22 May Venue: Manchester Regional Arena
Coverage: Watch all four days live on the BBC Sport website and app (UK only)

“When I first started taekwondo I hated sparring and I was really scared!”

Aaliyah Powell wanted nothing to do with the combat side of her sport as a 10-year-old.

Fast-forward almost a decade and she has not only become a junior world champion, but also broke Jade Jones’ record as Britain’s youngest-ever senior world medallist.

The 19-year-old is now the double Olympic champion’s biggest rival for a place at Paris 2024.

Powell’s rise is all the more impressive given she sustained a serious knee ligament injury that threatened to derail her career.

On Sunday, Powell aims to remind rivals of her prowess when she goes head-to-head with her “idol” in the same -57kg division at the European Championships in Manchester.

“Europeans will be exciting, especially with us both being in the same category,” she tells BBC Sport. “I’m pushing to achieve the same goal as her, which is gold in Paris.”

‘I wanted to fence rather than fight’

Powell laughs when reflecting on the “fear” she experienced when first stepping on to the mat. Back then, the girl from Huddersfield had other dreams.

“I originally thought fencing looked fun, but I was too young and after watching my cousin do a taekwondo taster session, I followed her,” she says.

“I said I’d do it for one or two years until I was old enough to drop it for fencing, but I’ve been doing it ever since.”

She initially “fell in love” with the more traditional form of the martial art – the Poomsea discipline – which sees players assessed on their ability to perform sets of movements, such as kicks, blocks and punches in a ‘meaningful order’ in response to imaginary attacks.

“My coach would have to stand behind me and force me to fight people otherwise I’d run away,” she recalls.

“As I got older the tactical elements hooked me though, and once I got over the fear of fighting, I progressed very quickly.”

A ‘reluctant’ world bronze medallist

Powell began to realise she could have a career in the sport after winning her maiden international title – Dutch Open cadet gold – in 2016.

Euro Youth silver (2017) and World Junior gold (2018) followed before a ‘shock’ senior British team call-up for the 2019 World Championships in Manchester.

“I was still a junior athlete, I wasn’t full-time and my dad just put the application in on a whim on the last day it could be submitted,” she recalls.

“I didn’t think I’d get the pick and when I did, I was shocked and didn’t want to do it.

“In fact, I said ‘I’m not doing it!’ because when you’re a junior taking on seniors it is really daunting and I was scared.”

Powell was eventually convinced to compete and despite the event taking place during her GCSE exams the then 16-year-old stunned the home crowd – and taekwondo community – by securing what she describes as an “overwhelming” -53kg bronze.

‘Devastating’ injury blow

She soon became a full-time member of the senior GB Taekwondo programme, joining the likes of Jones as well as fellow Olympic medallists Bianca Walkden and Lauren Williams.

Dreams of immediate sustained senior success were soon dashed, though, after partially tearing knee ligaments, before a complete rupture of her meniscus in late 2019.

“I cried a lot at the beginning,” admits Powell, who feared for her future in the sport.

“I had to have a couple of surgeries and on top of that there was Covid and lockdown, which stopped me training and halted my progress for sure, but it’s given me a lot of mental resilience which will hopefully help me in my career.”

The fighter says she has drawn “confidence” from speaking with team-mate Walkden, who returned from three potentially career-ending knee injuries before claiming the first of her three world titles.

Powell or Jones for Paris 2024?

Since her own comeback, Powell has claimed bronze at the World Taekwondo Women’s Championship and silver at the Swedish Open last month – losing 9-5 to Jones in the final.

“We’re the same weight, only one of us can go [to the Olympics]. I’m looking to achieve it for the first time and obviously she’s been really successful for a long time,” says Powell.

“It’s hard for both of us,” she continues, “but I think we both really push one another and make each other better.”

The 2022 Europeans – which run from 19-22 May – are the first major event of the Paris 2024 qualification cycle and Powell has only one target as she begins the race for GB’s sole Olympic -57kg berth.

“Gold is what I’m going for,” she states. “It’s what I want and for me it would just show the hard work, sacrifice and perseverance to push through the injury was worth it.”

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