5ft 11in and 58kg: Jack Wooley is Ireland’s Olympic Taekwondo pioneer
Tallaght man will go to Tokyo as his country’s first ever participant in the sport
Jack Woolley: “I’m definitely one of, if not the most, flexible fighters in the world. Definitely among the top three. Everyone knows.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
The impulse is to hurl an expletive. You are 5ft 11in tall and you were cutting weight to make 54 kilos? Ah jeez Jack, WTF 54 kilos . . . 54 . . .
“Yeah, yeah, yeah it was tough,” he says. “I’m still cutting a bit.”
It’s blowing hard outside not far from his home in Jobstown in west Dublin. Jack Woolley is tucked away in clothing up to his chin and there’s a stifled, gravelly noise, a blend of croak and whoop, coming from deep down behind his black jacket. He points to his hacking chest.
In combat sports weight is unforgiving. The scales will never disappoint. Katie Taylor is 5ft 5in and was cutting from 62kg to 60kg for London 2012 and Rio 2016. Jeez Jack . . . but 54. That’s six inches taller than Katie and six kilos lighter than Katie.
Currently eighth in the world rankings at 58kg, Jack is still the lad and a remarkable outlier talent
Today is not a good day to talk body. Now, the only thing is now and it’s not good. In the morning the infection will be better or worse. He will train or not train, then move on. By July he will emerge game-faced in Tokyo. That he knows.
Not long ago the 54kg became 58kg because 54kg is not an Olympic weight in Taekwondo. After that, it was like the locks were blown off his cell. The four kilos are not so much but they are worlds apart.
But there was an irony in ending the tyranny of 54. In May 2017, the summer after Rio, he became the top-ranked Taekwondo fighter in the world at the lower weight. Officially a teenager from Tallaght was the world number one in a Korean martial art.
Almost as soon as he had it, he had to let it go. Much the same as boxer Kellie Harrington moving down from 64kg to 60kg, to compete in a weight division on the Olympic roster, Woolley went up a weight. Currently eighth in the world rankings at 58kg, Jack is still the lad and a remarkable outlier talent. No Irish athlete before him even competed in a Taekwondo Grand Prix event, the world’s top 32 players.
“To be honest even 58kg, it’s not easy,” he says.
The scales have always determined how he behaved, occasionally made him less stable and affected his moods. At secondary school in Rathcoole the teachers were aware of his ambition and drive. They understood his talent made peculiar demands. He was fighting and beating the best in the world as a 16-year-old. But it came with consequences. At school they respected and tolerated his choice.
“During the Leaving Cert in 2017 I was trying to lose weight. It was horrible, very emotional,” he says. “I got really upset. I got addicted to it and started bringing the weighing scales to school. I had a weighing scale in my locker and I was weighing myself between classes hoping that I’d lose point one of a kilo.
“I was the only one who was allowed to have chewing gum because they knew that my mouth was going to be dry from dehydration. They knew I could get a bit angry because I’d be cheeky.
“In Transition Year coming up to fifth year I was that weight (54 kilos) naturally. But then I had to cut. It was then they really noticed a change in my moods. I was able to have lolly pops and those energy gels. I was sucking on them down at the back of class.
“The teachers understood. In sixth year I missed 117 days because I was travelling. I loved my English teacher. She was interested in my weight cutting, got involved in it and she understood I was going to be moody and she respected the fact I was involved in the class despite what I was going through with the weight.
“I did alright,” he says of the Leaving Cert. “Could have done better. I should have hit 500 points. I think I got 420 points. I got an A in honours English. I got an A in honours art. I only studied the things I liked.
“Now I’ll probably cut from 61kg,” he says. “That’s my walking around weight. That’s no problem. Three kilos. I’ll do that in a day.”
The sport came to him through his older brother, Ryan. Bullied, his father sent him to Taekwondo in St Dominic’s beside Tallaght Square.
“It wasn’t just verbal, it was proper fights,” says Jack.
Five years younger than Ryan he toddled along. He watched some of the classes and immediately knew he could kick higher than the people on the mats.
“I put my leg vertically in the air and the coaches were like “look, we can’t take you until you are six”.
He could always do the splits for as long as he could remember. He never did formal gymnastics but has memories of back flips and tumbling in his granddad’s garden as a child. At six-years-old he started Taekwondo and fell in love.
It loved him back. At 13 he went to the Spanish Open and won a bronze medal and the following year won gold in his first junior international ranking event. He fought senior at 16. In his first tournament he won a bronze medal.
Still 16 he went to the US Open, one of the biggest tournaments in the world and entered the junior and senior events. In the senior event he met the world number three in the quarter-final and when he built up a lead of 12 points, the bout was stopped. He won the bronze medal. Two days later fighting in the junior event he won silver.
“That’s the way the sport is,” he says. “You see someone get a fifth or do well and then you see people who get the medals. They seem to keep that up. They seem to medal the next time. They might medal the next time again. You need that bit of confidence. I like to say I’m confident. Some people say I’m cocky.”
Woolley is an Olympic medal hope in Tokyo. Like gymnast Rhys McClenaghan on the pommel horse, he has risen alone outside the mainstream Irish sport. Now on €20k a year funding, it hasn’t been a smooth financially journey. For a while he became a young entrepreneur living on his wits and homespun business ideas.
He bought chickens and sold the eggs, made bread in the shape of kicking martial artists and set up a stall. With his ‘A’ in English he took to journalism school. But the demands to compete and travel abroad were the same as those that ripped through his school time. He lasted three weeks in DIT.
“I’d get upset because my parents used to have to fund-raise and my coach was dipping into the club,” he says. “I set up two businesses. We ended up buying chickens. I ended up selling eggs to neighbours and earning a grand over a year. Kept them in the back garden, 10 or 15 of them.
“Then we got these cookie cutters for Christmas and they were shaped like people kicking. We called it Ninja bread. We were selling them at competitions and at training. I used come home from school and bag them up. Had my own labels and all.
“The junior worlds in 2014 were in Taiwan and it was expensive. I used the last of my communion money to pay for it. I was what, nearly 16 and I still had a €100 because when I was eight I got two €50 euro notes off somebody. But I wanted a green note. I really wanted a €100 note so my mam went to the bank and gave me the €100 euro note. My dad ironed it and all. It just sat there for eight years. Then I had to go and use it on a competition.”
Jack doesn’t deny he is gay. On being gay he says wearily, it is time to move the conversation on. It has, already, become a little exhausting. It’s an interesting angle, he says, for a guy “who kicks people in the head for a living”. He gets that part okay and then there’s a nodding agreement that people of his age in the 1980s and 1990s might be stuck in a mindset, where not being heterosexual was headline gold.
“It was brought to my attention that it could affect my career . . . with people’s race and beliefs and religion in general,” he says of an occasional handshake not offered from opponents. Whatever reason.
“You don’t know what people are going to be like. I’m cautious. Nowadays everyone takes everything out of context. I never had any issues in school or going out with my mates. I was 15 when I came out. That was six years ago.
“That’s done. It’s not a thing anymore.”
Jack Woolley can stand in front of you and from inches away kick you on the back of the head. It’s quite an unsettling thought. His long legs, speed and super flexibility keeps opponents at length with the smaller fighters needing to work in close. So he developed an improbable close range move from where he could score points with his Scorpion kick, where he turns his back and snaps his leg into an arc with his foot making contact with the back of his opponent’s head.
Magnets on his feet and electronics in the score points of the protective head and body gear register the legal hits.
When he was younger and kicked people on the head they’d cry because it hurt or they didn’t like it. He KO’d another opponent, he remembers, with a jump in the air, a 360 degree turn and kaboom. They guy went down. He started fist pumping and celebrating. But his opponent was out cold and his distressed mother was in the arena watching.
It was wrong, he says, inconsiderate, un-cool. He says he has cried when he has lost but is no longer disrespectful.
“I’m definitely one of, if not the most, flexible fighters in the world,” he says soberly. “Definitely among the top three. Everyone knows. I’ve had to develop good knees good hips, a good back. It’s not just good hamstrings. You have to be able to change the angles of your kicks because everyone knows I’m going to kick them in the head because that’s my thing. So I need to be able to change at the last second.”
Tomorrow he might train.
“Today I’m not well. I’m not going to train. I need to get healthy. That’s my path,” he adds with a croak.
It’s all stepping stones to Tokyo, he says. If he gets the draw he wants, he’s looking at an Olympic medal, he says.
Mixing it at the top of the world, Jack is not being cocky.
Confident, Jack just being Jack.