Taekwondo is fairly new to the Olympics; it was first officially included in 2000. But in just a few years, the Olympics have become the pinnacle event of the Korean martial art. And the odds of earning a spot competing on that stage are incredibly slim. There are only four slots for Americans — two for men, and two for women.
Terrence Jennings has beaten those odds, by defeating opponents over months of qualifying matches. In July, he'll head to London for his first Olympics.
The 25-year-old is currently training full time in Miami. But before he gets completely absorbed in gearing up for London, Jennings took a few days off to visit his hometown of Alexandria, Va. — a chance to see family, get a break from the nonstop workouts, and make a triumphant return to the taekwondo school where he got his start.
The Old Training Grounds
Remarck Sport Taekwondo is a small storefront on a strip mall. But to Jennings, it's a second home. For years, he came here every night to train.
On a recent Friday evening, a smiling, unassuming Jennings walked around the school in jeans, since he took the day off from working out. He knew practically everyone there — the students, parents, instructors. They all called him TJ. He fielded congratulations left and right.
In the bright blue-and-yellow padded training room, a bunch of 3- to 6-year-old children in the Little Dragons class tumbled around noisily in their white martial arts uniforms.
Even though it didn't look like they were doing much, Jennings says that it's good to start taekwondo young — all of the basics you learn come back into play when you're competing, even at his level. Jennings was 11 when he stumbled into the sport.
"I was walking through the mall one day, and they had a kiosk set up for a taekwondo school that they were going to open," he says. The display included a small TV, showing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.
"I was a big Ninja Turtles fan when I was younger — like crazy about Ninja Turtles," Jennings says.
The movie clip stopped him in his tracks — and his mother ended up signing him up for a class.
About a year later, Taekwondo World Champion Master Patrice Remarck appeared at the school, looking for students to join a competition team he was starting. He picked Jennings, who was then 12, out of the crowd.
Long Road To London
For Jennings, taekwondo went from being a fun hobby to a serious pursuit. By the time he was a teenager, he was already competing all over the world, winning medals, and coming in to Remarck Sport Taekwondo to train every night with Remarck — and back for eight-hour sessions on the weekends.
"We did a lot of drills, lot of drills, lot of drills," Jennings says. Running drills, footwork drills, kicking drills.
"He trained really, really hard," Danielle Remarck says. She runs the school with her husband, Master Patrice, so she's watched Jennings for years. "He didn't whine about getting injured. He's a tough kid."
But she adds that Jennings is not a kid anymore — now he's all grown up.
Jennings left Remarck Sport Taekwondo in October to train in Miami with international coach Juan Moreno. His training is supported in part by USA Taekwondo, but he doesn't have any corporate sponsors.
After Jennings won his Olympic berth, people from around his hometown learned about his story and reached out to donate money so his parents could see Jennings fight in the London Games.
'No Looking Back'
Jennings is being careful as he prepares for London. He knows the danger of training too hard: He injured both knees while preparing for the 2008 Olympic trials. But, he says, "Once the ball gets rolling this is gonna be go, go, go. There's no break, there's no looking back, there's no second-guessing."
Back at Remarck Sport Taekwondo, after the Little Dragons headed home, an adult sparring class started up. Students from a range of ages and belt levels moved across the floor doing a "run-step-switch," Jennings explained.
"You're kind of getting close to your opponent, they go to kick you, and you step out," he said. "They miss — and then normally, you kick afterwards."
It's a move that might come in handy sparring with an opponent in competition. If you do enough drills, these moves become second nature.
That's what Jennings is hoping for in his upcoming Olympic moment. All of his focus is on the one day in August when he'll be able to take those years of drills to the fight of his life — and he's going for no less than gold.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We've been profiling American Olympic hopefuls in the lead up to the London Games. Today, Terrence Jennings. He's earned one of just two spots for American men to compete in the martial art of Taekwondo. It'll be his first Olympics. He's 25 years old.
Now, he's training full time in Miami, but NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin caught up with him as he visited his hometown of Alexandria, Virginia.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: The Taekwondo studio where Terrence Jennings got his start is a small storefront on a strip mall.
TERRENCE JENNINGS: Just standing out in front of here, like, brings back a lot of memories of just coming here every night. This is home. You know what I mean? This is home.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This is his first time back at his old school since becoming an Olympic athlete.
JENNINGS: Hello. How are you?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Hey, congratulations.
TERRENCE JENNINGS: Thank you.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In the bright blue-and-yellow padded room, a bunch of 3- to 6-year-olds are tumbling around noisily. It's the little dragons class in their white martial arts uniforms.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAEKWONDO CLASS)
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Jennings says it doesn't look like they're doing much, but it's good to start taekwondo young. All of the basics you learn come back into play when you're competing, even at his level. He was 11 when he stumbled into the sport.
JENNINGS: I was walking through the mall one day, and they had a kiosk set up for a taekwondo school that they were going to open. And, you know, they were playing "Ninja Turtles" on the TV, like a little screen that was, like, set up on the kiosk. They were playing a scene from the "Ninja Turtles" movie, and I was a big "Ninja Turtles" fan when was younger, like crazy about "Ninja Turtles." So me being 11 years old, walking through the mall, you know, I saw this, and I stopped.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: His mom signed him up. And about a year later, taekwondo champion Master Patrice Remarck appeared at the school, wanting to find students for a competition team he was starting. He picked out 12-year-old Jennings. Taekwondo went from being a fun hobby to a serious pursuit. By the time he was a teenager, he was already competing all over the world, winning medals, and coming here to train every night with Master Patrice.
JENNINGS: Running up and down the floor, facing the mirrors. We did a lot of drills, lot of drills, lot of drills, kicking these bags. You see how these bags are all split? I can say, honestly, I had something to do with that.
DANIELLE REMARCK: He trained really, really hard.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Danielle Remarck runs the school with her husband, so she's watched Jennings for years.
REMARCK: He always trained. He didn't whine about getting injured. And, you know, he's a tough kid.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, she says he's not a kid anymore. He's all grown up.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAEKWONDO CLASS)
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Back in the training room, an evening sparring class is under way. Jennings and I go in and stand in the back.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAEKWONDO CLASS)
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The students move across the floor, doing some fancy footwork.
JENNINGS: Right now, they're doing a run-step-switch, which is kind of like you're kind of getting close to your opponent. They go to kick you, and you step out. They miss, and then normally, you kick afterwards.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: These drills are important, he says, because in a fight, when you're sparring, you're agile, and the steps are second nature. Still, Jennings knows the danger of training too hard. He injured both knees while preparing for the 2008 Olympic trials. This time, he's being careful. Like with these few days home, a rest from full-time training in Miami.
JENNINGS: Once the ball gets rolling, this is going to be go, go, go. There's no break. There's no looking back. There's no second-guessing.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The Olympics have only included taekwondo since 2000, but Jennings says it's the pinnacle event of the sport. All of his focus is on that one day in August when he'll be able to take all those years of drills, drills, drills to the fight of his life. And, of course, he's going for no less than gold. Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.