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Irish Olympian Jack Woolley: ‘We’ve sat in saunas and not drank water for two days’

The 25-year-old from Tallaght opens up on finding love and dealing with the weight of his own expectations as he prepares for his second Olympics in taekwondo

“I use this phrase, ‘it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me’ about everything that has gone wrong. Because I feel like I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for things like that.”

After a short, startling demonstration where Jack Woolley swings wildly athletic kicks and punches into the head and torso of his sparring partner, eventually drawing a blood stain from his right arm, we’ve adjourned to an upstairs room in the Sport Ireland Arena to talk all things life, love, and taekwondo.

Where to begin? The Irish Olympic pioneer, the first to qualify in his sport for Tokyo, is set for Paris again this July (securing one of the only 16 worldwide spots in his class), only the now 25-year-old from Tallaght openly admits he’s a changed person, more mature for sure, less burdened by the weight of expectations.

“I know Tokyo didn’t go to plan,” he says, “and the circumstances with everything that was going on around it, but it just made me appreciate this cycle a lot more. I’m going to go into these Games to enjoy it, have the best experience, and that’s the only way I’m going to come away with a medal.


“I went into Tokyo feeling very stressed, put a lot of pressure on myself, because obviously I’m the first person in Ireland to go to an Olympics in this sport, so I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me to put a good image of the sport out to the Irish public.”

There is still not a single pick on him, only a healthy glow, but as in any combat sport weight is non-negotiable and entirely unforgiving. Woolley must weigh in at under 58kg on the day before fights (just under 128lbs, or 9 stone 1lb in old money). It is effectively the same weight he was at 17.

At 5′ 11″, his height is a blessing when on the 10m square taekwondo mat, a curse when off it, which means the scales are his best friend and worst enemy. It’s affected his mood, his metabolism, and potentially his long-term health since he first took to senior competition as a teenager, and he does not tiptoe around his eating disorder.

“My relationship with food has been terrible since I was a kid, realistically,” he says. “Growing up my mam always had issues with me eating, because I was always skinny. It’s not healthy at all. But it’s something that I’m working on. I have a nutritionist and a psychologist, and I deal with weight a lot better now.

“There was a period of time where it got stressful. Because it was eating me alive, forgive the pun. It was just all I could think about. Any time I got asked a question, it might not be about the weight, but I’d always bring it back to the weight just because it was containing my life.

“Now I have a much better handle on it, a better relationship with food. I wouldn’t say it’s the best, but I also wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near what it used to be. A lot of young athletes find it the hardest part. There’s a period of time where you’re going through puberty, you’re trying to figure out things. Especially in young girls, it’s a big issue.

“Something I look forward to, when I do retire, is never standing on a weighing scales again.”

Taekwondo has addressed in part what Woolley calls “the elephant in the room”, particularly for fighters who try to drastically cut their weight in the 24 hours before contests. Some 25 per cent of the entrants are randomly selected again on the day of competition and must weight back in within 5 per cent of their original weight.

“Cutting weight is the worst part of the sport, easily. I’m not going to sugarcoat things. I think it’s something that does need to possibly be addressed within high-level sport. How do you expect athletes to perform when they’re under-fuelled?

“Luckily we have a 24-hour window between weigh-in and fights, because all of our fights are on the same day. We weigh in the day before, but basically, everyone was drastically cutting weight. Now if you’re over the 5 per cent (in weight gain) you just don’t fight. So for me it’s 58kg, and then 60.9kg. I know a lot of people think, ‘Oh it’s three kilos’. We’ve sat in saunas and not drank water for two days. And a lot of that is just water weight, and realistically only six small bottles of water is three kilos.

“And you have to eat, because realistically you’ve not eaten either for the last three days.”

Woolley has always been open and candid about such things, including his sexuality, and although taekwondo will always be a minority sport in this country many of his experiences were played out in public.

When he came out as gay, featuring on Darragh Bambrick’s excellent Road to Rio series in 2016, his experience of missing out on those Olympics at 17, by one last kick in the last qualifying match, was captured ending in tears. When he made it to Tokyo his experience of losing his opening round match, again with a last kick in the face, also ended in tears.

“I have definitely become a better athlete and person since the last Games. I’ve been able to grow and mature as an athlete and a person to overcome these moments. And hopefully no one sees me crying on the telly any more because I’m sick of that.”

He points to a further balance in his life since meeting Dave, now his partner of three years, a week after returning home from Tokyo.

“Well, I think I’m an angel all the time, so that might be a question for my partner. It used to be a lot worse. My ma used to want to kill me, but now they just know, ‘Ah, Jack’s cutting, leave him alone’. That’s the excuse.”

He met Dave, a personal trainer, when Woolley was the victim of a violent and random assault at the Grattan Bridge boardwalk on Dublin’s river Liffey, one vicious punch to the face bursting his lip and later requiring facial reconstruction surgery.

“He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. That sounds really cringey! Of course, I love being an Olympian, but I never thought I’d have this type of relationship, with the sport, because it’s very hard to balance, being constantly away, stuff like that.

“I went to Tokyo not really having the support, maybe it was friends and family, but kind of being a little bit lost, but I got back from Tokyo, and I had somebody there. It was structure. When I feel like I’m doubting myself or I’m getting a bit overwhelmed by the sport it keeps me in line.

“My mam has this story about when she first met my dad, came home and my nana rolled her eyes and said, ‘Oh no, here we go!’ And my mam said she had the same moment with me when I came home after meeting him for the first time.

“It was the right time. Maybe I didn’t go into it expecting anything, as much as it happened. There were a crazy few months after Tokyo for me, so just to have somebody there that cared, and actually cared.

“As soon as Tokyo finished, that incident happened, and six weeks later I was in the ring again. And I won. So I felt like I had something to prove, and a lot of that comes back to feeling more secure about my life at home. So I just said ‘do you know what, just enjoy the process’ and then I was winning gold medals again.

“I had four consecutive finals straight after Tokyo, from October to December. I was in every single final and winning. So all that just made me appreciate things more, and just be a happier person.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics