Building up to Bradbury*

Not all good sports stories end with glory. Keiran Deck, an International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) 2nd Dan Black belt, ventured for his first time into the Olympic style taekwondo (WTF) at the NSW/ACT State Selections to see how the two collide. Not very well, apparently …

It’s Saturday night. The mood is light but I’m quietly tense as we chomp on lamb shanks and pasta. We’re discussing, as families do, the next day’s events.

“So what are the rules?” my Dad asks.

I answer using the vision most prominent to an outsider: athletes with their hands by their sides. “You can’t punch to the head,” I say. “Or the legs.” A competitor loses points for falling over too often and gains them for kicks to the chest or head, I explain. Anything else I admit I’ll have to learn on the hop.

For 12-years I’ve been training in the art of Taekwondo. I’ve never had a bout and I train with the hope that I will never have to use it. I enjoy the art, the perfection of technique, the CO2-manufacturing lactic burning pain. But I don’t think fondly of applying the techniques in aggression. So I was surprised to discover I had raised my hand when an opportunity to compete came around. That’s new, my conscious said to my subconscious. ‘We’ came to agree that a competition was a worthy way to challenge my ability.

The next morning I woke to a Canberra winter special; like driving through a bottle of Champagne, the horizon was ringed with a pink band and paddocks sparkled with sheets of frost. After a good sleep I felt fresh and focused.

Shivering Sydneysiders streamed underdressed into the AIS Netball Arena and shivered some more as the mats were laid and ties tightened. Officials stood with their arms crossed in suits and sneakers, hairlines receded or getting there. Kids warmed up by kicking paddles, their legs sharp but feet still wobbly-numb.

I weigh-in and the registrar tells me I’m not likely to be fighting until two o’clock. Seven hours! I feel like the overzealous cartoon character, Scrappy-doo, held back by his ghost-fighting compatriots: ‘lemme at ‘em’. Alas, the fight is not to be against a masked, confidence challenged groundskeeper whose weakness is a hot cup of Milo. “Ah, you’re fighting Will,” the registrar says. “And speak of the devil.” Will is my first opponent of a possible three; it’s a knock-out competition. He’s not interested or doesn’t hear the lady’s conversation opener and hands her some papers. I throw them a polite but hopefully unyielding smile. Before I walk away, he turns to greet another athlete, revealing the big ‘AUS’ on the back of his tracksuit. That’s new, I think, laughing a little nervous laugh.

The seven-hour wait means I have plenty of time to take in the tempo of the day. It starts slow. My coach and martial art Chief Instructor, Rory, walks in as the yellow belts – tiny taeks that they are – engage in two one-minute rounds. A kid no older than six is treated with a hug after a heart-breaking kick to the throat. We applaud as he wipes the tears and walks off. As the athletes get bigger, and the hits get harder, Rory and I recite my tactics out of sight.

After Lauren Burns won Gold at Sydney 2000, she said she was not a black belt in Taekwondo but a practitioner of the sport of Taekwondo. The differences between Olympic and ITF style TKD originate from their intended applications. WTF athletes have honed their techniques to score points. ITF, on the other hand, is the style practiced by the Korean military.

In training we spar with no protective gear but it’s largely non-contact. The focus is to stop one’s technique before it hits your partner and by the time you reach black belt, this is done more or less at full speed. We punch and kick towards the head, neck, torso and legs, often following a kick with multiple punches towards the face. Accidents happen, though not often. In fact, I worry I’m not going to be able to follow through and hit the guy.

This concern isn’t made easier when Will and I meet for the second time, here in the marshalling area. Athletes are made to sit-side-by side for around 30 minutes before their bout. I try and I try but I can’t help but spark up conversation. It doesn’t feel right chatting to someone I’m expected to fight in a few minutes; should we be exchanging abusive glances and comments like they do at a boxing weigh-in? I ask about the junior members he coached throughout the day. There were lots; some won, some didn’t do so well and a couple were in their first bout, he says. I don’t tell him that I’m about to be too.

Then we’re up.

After seven hours burning nervous energy I’m no longer nervous, but I’m pretty charged. We’re both cautious in the opening exchanges, reading one another. Facing up in a fight is like taking guard on a cricket pitch, only there are four potentially perpetual objects coming from two yards, not 22. Will’s first technique is followed by a flurry which nabs the first point. It doesn’t take long for him to work out my flaw – my groundspeed – catching me retreating too slowly: two points. I get on the board by lifting my front leg and snapping it into his advancing chest. Hiiiya! I hold ascendency by moving left then shifting stance and going right. I see my chance but he’s seen it too and moving back like a hare, he unleashes a jumping back kick. It misses, I move in for the kill, but he’s on the ground and the referee breaks it there. Will’s in the lead, three-two. He scores a couple more easy points, again no thanks to my slow feet. I decide to go on the attack. I do a crescent kick, it misses like it’s supposed to but I’m not balanced enough to follow through. I try it again immediately. This time I find myself inside his guard. I pounce, I strike, click, and down he goes. But that’s not right.

I’m not completely sure what just happened as the replay queues in my mind. Will’s clutching his jaw. I try to see if he’s OK then look to Rory. He’s looking at Will. The referee asks the medico something and pulls me aside. He says something else in Korean which I understand using his hand signals: disqualified. At one minute, seven seconds into the first round, I’ve been disqualified. I had punched Will in the face, right on the chin. Not at full power but timed well enough that he doesn’t get up. Can’t punch to the face; the rule rolls in my ear. Doofus. My instincts had taken over and under adrenaline I was unable to hold 12-years of kick-punch combination training short. He isn’t knocked out, thankfully, and laughing within a few minutes. He has a sore neck though so the ambos are called as a precaution – to my further embarrassment it’s their only visit of the day. I help lift him onto the stretcher.

Turns out Will’s coach is the competition organiser. “Are we welcome back, sir?” I venture nervously. He gives a belly laugh. We are, but I know now I won’t be forgotten. That Champagne morning seems days ago.

A week later Rory received an email asking for clarification on a banking mishap for “your student Keiran Deck (Bronze, Black Belt Open 68-74kg division).” The mishap promptly cleared, Rory put the brakes on this official: Bronze? Wasn’t he disqualified? Rory surmises the email trail which ensued: “By virtue of there only being three Athletes in the division, you have placed 3rd and can therefore go to Nationals.” In the end I wasn’t disqualified. Because Will wasn’t able to fight any more, he won on points. In adding to my fortune, two athletes didn’t show, meaning I defaulted into third position.

By Keiran Deck

*Bradbury verb 1. To win a race or contest from behind at the hands of competitors who falter at the last hurdle/bend. 2. [adopted variation] To win because the competitors didn’t even show.

The bout begins. Photo: Lisa Hogan.

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