After suffering bitter disappointment in December 2019 and narrowly missing out on a medal at the Taekwondo Grand Slam in China, Lauren Williams has set her sights firmly on the Olympic gold at the Tokyo Games later this year.
“We’re going for gold, I’m not going for any other colour,” Williams said.
“Obviously, any medal would be nice, but a gold medal is what I’m going there for. Going into the contest as European champion is good, but there are a lot of strong girls in my weight category regardless of what nation they’re from, so hopefully, I can do it on the day.
“It has always been a big dream of mine to be an Olympic champion, so that’s what I’m going there to go out and to try and achieve.”
Growing up, it seemed like the 20-year-old from Wales would craft her trade as kickboxer rather than as taekwondo athlete. By the time Williams turned 14, she had won over 30 kickboxing titles, including World and European Championships.
Everything changed for the youngster after watching her now training partner Jade Jones win her first Olympic gold at London 2012. Inspired by a potential pathway into the Olympics, Williams decided that she would try her hand at a new sport.
“I was on holiday in my caravan at the time,” Williams explained.
“My dad put the Olympics on the television and taekwondo came on. We watched it as Jade was from Britain and the crowd was going absolutely mental.
“It was the last 10 seconds of the fight and we were both getting really into it with it being a martial art. That fight properly captured our attention and that was where it all began for me.”
Following the Olympics, Williams’ father applied to Fighting Chance, an initiative that enabled athletes from other sporting backgrounds to trial in taekwondo to find out whether they had the potential to transfer over to the sport. As a result, Williams was offered a place on the GB taekwondo academy in Manchester shortly afterwards, when she was just 14 years old.
Being so young, Williams was unable to live at the accommodation which was provided by the programme. Unwilling to give up on her dream, her family decided that Williams would pitch a caravan on a site in Manchester with her mother for two years.
“As I joined the academy when I was 14, they hadn’t taken on anyone that young so there was no accommodation available for me,” Williams said.
“If I wanted to move up and to join the programme full time, then I would have to find accommodation myself.
“We had a little touring caravan which we cited on a caravan site for 18 months to two years. My mum had to give up her job to come and live with me, while my dad and my sister had to stay at home in Wales. It was a big commitment from them.”
Her parent’s commitment soon started paying dividend as she began to make a name for herself as one of the finest female taekwondo athletes. In 2018, Williams won over £54,000 in prize money after winning the Grand Slam and offered to pay off her parents’ mortgage as a thank-you for all they had sacrificed for her.
In just five years of the sport, Williams has won 16 major taekwondo titles, but her success has come with a number of injury setbacks. But it’s these setbacks that the 20-year-old believes have moulded her into the fighter that she is today.
“Transitioning into a new sport and joining the programme full time it took a toll on my body quite early on and I suffered a lot of injuries,” Williams said.
“But when I think about the injuries, I was able to come back hungrier and come back stronger every time.
“I think if I hadn’t had those injuries, I’m not sure I would have the same drive. I think the injuries, despite being tough to deal with at the time, have ultimately shaped me into the athlete that I am today, and I wouldn’t change it.”
Williams fights in the female -67kg category but trains alongside some of the best fighters in the world from other weight categories. Training with the likes of Jade Jones and Bianca Walkden, who are also on the GB programme, Williams is able to train with elite athletes, something that is incredibly important in aiding her own development.
“It’s incredible, you’re training with the best day in day out and you can’t ask for much more than that, said Williams.
“You’re always pushing each other and finding ways that we can all improve together as a team and I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
The Olympics will follow the same format as every other taekwondo competition, three 2-minute rounds with body shots and headshots all scoring. At the end of the fight, the highest scorer is the winner. While Williams will have to wait until the selection meeting later this year to know her fate for certain, ensuring she remains in the top six ranks will help her draw positions come Tokyo.
Williams got a taste of what to expect when she travelled to the Rio Olympics in 2016 as a reserve but this summer’s games in Tokyo will be the first time, she has the opportunity to compete in the Olympic kit.
“I went to Rio 2016, but I didn’t get the full experience because I wasn’t an athlete, so I didn’t get to see the village or take part in the kitting out days, explained Williams.
“I’ve always been super excited about the kitting out days, so for me, that’s one of the most exciting things, not even competing it’s just the kit,” she jokes.
“When I get all the kit, that’s when it will feel like I am part of the team.
“I was in need of a break, [after the Grand Slam] I needed to refresh and reset my mind ahead of the Olympics and I feel like I’ve had the appropriate time to do that so I’m back and I’m ready.”