The most prestigious tournament in the senior Olympic Taekwondo Calendar this year to date aptly had the motto ‘Making History’. The Roma Grand Prix was held in Foro Italico an amphitheatre like venue a stone’s throw from the Stadio Olympico in Rome. Ireland’s Jack Woolley was as per the motto, attempting to ‘Make History’ in achieving Ireland’s first Grand Prix Medal.
Standing in his way were 31 of the world’s top fighters all looking for honours and the quadruple ranking points on offer. Going into the Event seeded 10 out of 32 fighters, Jack and his team were able to anticipate likely opponents on the day, which started off in the round of 32 against Bulgaria’s Kayolan Binev. After a tentative start the first round of three finished 4-3 to Woolley, the pace continued in a similar fashion into the second with a score line of 7-5. In the third and final round Woolley opened up his catalogue of kicks and steamed ahead finishing the match 24-8. This win set up a bout with Rui Braganca of Portugal, a Rio Olympian.
This was the first time the pair met and Braganca took a 9-1 lead after round one. Woolley found his range in the second and third round and came back to win 21-12 in what was to be one of his biggest wins of his career to date. Now with a quarter final against Jesus Tortosa Cabrera of Spain who was placed 4th in Rio, Jack hoped to overcome the 6-foot 5 giant who recently beat Jack in the quarter finals of the European’s. The Spaniard took a 7-0 lead, but with some minor tactical adjustments Woolley overcame his opponent with a score line of 33-21.
The match caught the attention of the audience including World Taekwondo President Dr. Chongwon Choue who invited Jack & his coach Robert Taaffe to the VIP area after the fight to discuss the high intensity match. This result put Woolley into uncharted territory as no Irish athlete has ever won a Grand Prix Medal and now had the Mexican Carlos Navarro to contend with in the Semi Finals. The match which was televised around the world with millions watching proved to be an exciting encounter. Woolley took a 3-2 lead in the first round in a tentatively combatted start from both fighters. As the fight progressed both fighters unloaded their signature kicks with the match ending 20-12 in the Mexicans favour.
The rules of taekwondo changed from June 1st with spinning kicks now worth more value to add to the optics of the game and Navarro took good advantage of the extra points landing 2 solid spinning kicks. A late fight back from Woolley with a blitz of his headhunting was not quite enough. Navarro who was also a Rio Olympian and a crowd favourite shared a sportsmanlike embrace with Woolley after the fight with both fighters showing great respect after the amazing spectacle. A bronze medal, a cheque for $1,000 and quadruple ranking points were earned by the Tallaght Fighter. Jack’s Club and National Coach Robert Taaffe discussed the event after, ‘Today was a good day for Jack, and he now has made a big statement in World Taekwondo. The Euros were only a few weeks ago, and very fresh.
We had a good approach tactically in the Euros, and have tweaked it slightly today, and it has worked in our favour. He overcame some major fighters today. There were 4 good matches, no injuries, and he looked fresh in this heat. The stadium is outdoors with only a canopy overhead, so it had a different dimension to our approach which we were ready for. This was the first of 5 Grand Prix events and the result will set up an attack on Olympic points on the Road to Tokyo.’ After his gold medal success in Austria last weekend, and his biggest performance of his career in Rome, Jack now proceeds on to Bulgaria and Luxembourg for 2 final events in a 4 in a row burst, before some well-earned rest time and work in the gym preparing for big events later in the year. The week was an incredible spectacle of taekwondo, where Rome was taken over by taekwondo fever, the most notable spectator was the Pope, who enjoyed a demonstration n St. Peters Square in the Vatican City.