Taekwondo: Campbell's fighting chance

By Dana Johannsen

Deep in the heart of Albany's industrial zone, at the back of a block of commercial buildings, is a large converted garage. It is the last place you'd expect to find Olympic athletes training.

The nondescript building is just half a kilometre away from the gleaming Millennium Institute, home to many of the country's elite sportspeople, but the effect is miles apart.

There are no glossy banners of top athletes, no sponsors' signage, no fancy gyms or massage rooms - not even a proper changing room. Just a rubber floor and mirrors installed along one wall.

It is here that New Zealand taekwondo Olympic representative Logan Campbell, under the guidance of his coach Master Oh, trains every night. Campbell jokes he'd be there all weekend too if Master Oh had his way.

His training is a punishing regime of speed, endurance and flexibility work during the day and more taekwondo-specific sparring and repetition drills at night.

All this while trying to diet to get down to competition weight. Campbell will compete in the lightweight division (68kg and under) in Beijing. He's around the 71kg mark, so he has a way to go.

You'd be forgiven for thinking he was mad. Even Campbell's friends don't quite understand why he is putting himself through it all.

"All my friends are like, 'Why do you do this man? You're not making any money, you're breaking bones, you're driving yourself into the ground'. They've all finished uni and they're all working and getting good money so they don't really understand why I'd go and out and do this stuff."

But for Campbell, the answer is simple. "It's my passion."

Campbell sheepishly admits his interest in taekwondo was sparked by The Karate Kid movies.

"To tell you the truth, it all started because I watched The Karate Kid when I was young and was like, 'Oh that's so cool, I wanna do something like that'."

He wouldn't be the only child of the 80s to develop a fascination with the martial arts following the hit movie but, unlike most kids, it wasn't just a passing phase.

Any thoughts he had of immediate success - like Daniel Larusso's in The Karate Kid - were quickly stamped out.

"I was really bad, I was really unco-ordinated and when I was coming up through the ranks I'd lose a lot more of my fight competitions than I'd win."

But with the encouragement of his dad, he stuck at it.

"It was something we did together. He'd drive me to trainings and down to competitions and things and watch me fight.

"Even if I didn't win I'd still be a winner in his eyes - he'd still buy me KFC after every fight."

For the uninitiated, taekwondo is a martial art that originated in Korea, and it is, quite simply, brutal.

What distinguishes it from other martial arts is its emphasis on kicking techniques.

The rationale is that the leg is the longest and strongest weapon a martial artist has, and thus kicks have the greatest potential to execute powerful strikes without retaliation.

It takes strength, speed, balance, flexibility, stamina and, most importantly, a strong mind and a strong will.

Taekwondo is relatively new to the Olympic programme, becoming an official medal sport only at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

It was at about that time that Campbell was beginning to excel in the sport after winning his first big tournament, and from there he developed a single-minded determination to go to the Olympics.

"I first won an international competition when I was 13, and my goal since then was to go to an Olympics.

"It's like the pinnacle."

That dream was realised late last year when he took out his division in the Oceania Championships to qualify for the Games. But far from being elated, Campbell found the reality a little overwhelming.

Eight months out from the biggest competition of his life, he had very little funding. Up until that point, his parents had been stumping up most of the cash to send him to international competitions.

But it is a heavy financial burden for them to carry, and Campbell knew he needed a lot more international experience if he was to be competitive in Beijing.

"To tell you the truth, to begin with I was not feeling that good about the support we were getting," Campbell said.

But a small band of companies and individuals have rallied around Campbell to ensure he his given every opportunity to reach his potential at the Games.

A family friend sponsored a trip to Europe earlier this year, which allowed him to attend several top competitions, while he has a pilates instructor and personal trainer who also offer their services for free.

Last month Sparc came on board and offered a small amount of funding to Campbell and Taekwondo New Zealand's two other Olympic athletes, Matthew Beach and Robyn Cheong.

The investment paid immediate dividends, with Campbell and Beach both winning their respective divisions at the Korean Open earlier this month.

On his way to the title, Campbell beat top competitors from Korea, Hong Kong and Japan - all considered powerhouses in the sport.

"I know I wouldn't be making the same progress or be able to win competitions like the Korean Open if it wasn't for the people that have come on and helped me free of charge," Campbell said.

"I'm pretty pumped at the moment, I've just won a major competition and I'm beating guys I wouldn't have dreamed of beating a year ago."

Though he's not ranked up with the world's best, Campbell remains optimistic about pulling off a podium finish in Beijing.

He said in a knock-out sport, there are a lot more opportunities for upsets.

"We're the underdogs of the taekwondo world, we have a lot less opportunities because we're so far away from the rest of the world - if you're in Europe you can compete in a competition every week.

"We can use that to our advantage because no one is expecting big things from us.

"We can show the world how dedicated we are."

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