Taekwondo: Rugby to kick in as taekwondo back up

By Kelly Exelby

Talitaga Crawley has a ready-made back-up plan if the taekwondo gig at the upcoming London Olympics doesn't work out - she'll swap her chest guard for sprigs and play rugby sevens.

Crawley, one half of Samoa's taekwondo team for London, also has a scholarship to play sevens, with Samoa aiming to replicate the success of its men's team by developing the women's game as the short version makes its Olympic debut in Rio in four years.

But Crawley has put her sevens aspirations on hold to focus on taekwondo, with Samoa qualifying two players (men's heavyweight Kaino Thomsen-Fuitaga being the other) for the first time, although she isn't ruling out pulling on a rugby jersey next year.

She got the rugby scholarship while at school in Apia and will make a decision on which future sporting endeavour will take her to Brazil when she resumes her economics degree next year at Wesley College.

Samoa earned its Olympic taekwondo debut when Thomsen-Fuataga and Crawley won their respective male and female heavyweight divisions at the Oceania qualifying tournament last September, with Australia and New Zealand electing against putting up opponents in either weight category.

Crawley has been in Tauranga since March training under Samoan national coach, Master Kesi O'Neill, winning gold for Tauranga's team TKO at the weekend's NZU national open championships at the QEII Youth centre. She has also been staying with O'Neill, although the evolving coach/player relationship hasn't been without the occasional bump.

Crawley arrived from Apia weighing 87kg. O'Neill wanted her closer to 80kg and insisted at least one session a day of their three together would involve some level of fitness work.

"We've been using the track at the Domain or the racecourse or stairs up the grandstand, and quite often I've been riding the bike alongside her to make sure she does what I've asked," O'Neill said.

"We're still talking to each other, sort of, but I think there's a bond that's developed between us as we've worked on getting Tali's mind and body in the right shape."

Sparring on the weekend was her final shakedown before she and O'Neill head back to Apia on Wednesday to meet up with Thomsen-Fuitaga, who has been wrapping up his preparation with a series of tournaments in the US, Mexico and Europe. The trio will get a head start on most of the other Olympians when they arrive in the UK several weeks before the Games start to train in west London, courtesy of scholarships from the Samoan government.

O'Neill said adapting to the new electronic sensor scorepads, now used universally, and associated changes in scoring would be a big part of their pre-Games preparation, with other developing nations such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea and several African countries also getting in early on the back of IOC funding assistance.

O'Neill said a big focus in the past two months had been mental strengthening to ensure Crawley, who stepped on to a taekwondo mat just two years ago, doesn't freeze on the big stage.

"Tali's a young girl, only 20 and very fresh - even her spending 11 weeks in New Zealand away from family was a big step because she'd only been out of Samoa a couple of times. I've worked her hard and we've hit the wall a few times and there's been tears. She's shy when she's talking to adults but not so shy talking to kids so I've tried to draw that out of her and make her believe in herself."

O'Neill has tapped into the Olympic experiences of New Zealand black belt Logan Campbell and Athens Olympian Verina Wihongi on aspects like using the atmosphere, visualisation and relaxation but there's no disguising the fact Crawley will arrive in London ranking last of the 16 in her heavyweight division.

"She'll be up against girls who have been competing for 20 or 30 years - world, European and Olympic champions who will be rubbing their hands together if they draw Samoa. All along I've been telling Tali for every 50 kicks her competitors do in training we need to do 100.

"She'll be better equipped from this Olympics to compete in Rio providing she doesn't decide to go and play rugby."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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