With the 26th edition of the World Taekwondo Championships just days away, the Australian National Team is preparing to descend on Baku, Azerbaijan, to trade blows with the world's best.
The team took shape earlier this year at the Senior World Championships selections event in Penrith, where sixteen athletes won gold in their respective divisions, including several from the National Performance Centre's Taekwondo Program such as Saffron Tambyrajah (Notorious Martial Arts, VIC), Stacey Hymer (Notorious Martial Arts, VIC), Reba Stewart (Halls Taekwondo, VIC), Bailey Lewis (City West Taekwondo, VIC), Tom Afonczenko (Notorious Martial Arts, VIC), Leon Sejranovic, (Notorious Martial Arts, VIC), Liam Sweeney (One Taekwondo, QLD), Rebecca Murray (Edge Taekwondo, QLD) and Matthew Summerfield (Rawlins Taekwondo, WA).
Rounding out the team are Juliet Lahood (Global Martial Arts, NSW), Arash Mozhdeh (Mozhdeh Martial Arts, VIC), Emily Stellino (Global Martial Arts, NSW), Jake Buhagiar (Halls Taekwondo, VIC), Adam Meyers (The Story Centre, VIC), Molly Parks (Mozhdeh Martial Arts, VIC), and Amber Heslop (Forza Taekwondo, ACT), who will all fly the flag for Australia.
A team of nine staff will accompany the squad to Baku in critical support roles, led by Australian Taekwondo's Chief Executive Officer, Heather Garriock, who will be Head of Team for this tour. Garriock, a two-time Olympian who collected 130 caps during her playing days for the Matildas, is no stranger to leading elite teams and understands the excitement and expectations placed on athletes and coaches heading into the World Championships.
The team's coaching group will be led by Australia's National Performance Coach, Seokhun Lee, who will be supported by National Program Coach Ryan Carneli, three-time Olympian Safwan Khalil (Global Martial Arts, NSW) and Behnaz Mojdeh Jouybari (Mozhdeh Martial Arts, VIC). Nick Sanders, who is the Performance Program Manager at CombatAUS, will accompany the team as manager.
The staffing group also includes physiotherapists Dean Ritchie and Amber Bennett from the Victorian Institute of Sport, while Dr Joseph Tamer from the Australian Taekwondo Medical Committee, will travel as team doctor.
Several athletes in the team have done Australia proud in previous Championships and will be looking to build on that success, while others are making their first appearance at the event.
Jake Buhagiar and Matthew Summerfield are two of the young athletes who will debut for the Australian senior team after impressive junior seasons in 2022.
Buhagiar picked up gold medals in the -55kg division at the World Taekwondo President's Cup, Oceania Championships and Tahiti Open. He also made an impressive run to the Round of 16 in the World Junior Taekwondo Championships.
Summerfield broke Australia's 14-year medal drought at the World Junior Taekwondo Championships with bronze in the junior -68kg division, before closing the season with senior gold medals at the World Taekwondo President's Cup and the Tahiti Open.
How are you feeling ahead of the big event?
Jake Buhagiar: I'm nervous yet really excited for Baku! It's a massive opportunity to learn and grow and see where I stack up against the world's best.
Matthew Summerfield: It's just sort of sunk in the last few days, like, 'wow, I'm actually going'. I've been off injured, so I was focusing on recovery, but now that I'm training again, it's getting really exciting!
You've had some terrific success at junior level, picking up numerous medals and putting in impressive performances at the World Junior Taekwondo Championships. How have you found the transition to seniors so far?
Jake Buhagiar: The step up to seniors is definitely challenging. The fighters are much stronger and have enormous amounts of experience at a high level which makes it tough, but I am enjoying the challenge.
Matthew Summerfield: I was a little shocked at first by how different it is, but my coaches Ryan Carneli and Seokhun Lee, have made it really clear that it's a long journey and the results aren't expected now; we're looking to the future, and for me to put my best foot forward for as long as possible.
Have you and your coaches/training partners had to adjust technically and physically for the step-up?
Jake Buhagiar: We haven't had to adjust to much as I was already training, from a young age, on the same level as the older guys. The only real difference has been the implementation of more strength and conditioning to increase strength and stability within my sparring.
Matthew Summerfield: We've adjusted in both areas. Physically, I'm fighting grown men now, who are experienced in the sport and have a lot of strength behind them. They also have the [champion's] mindset and incredible experience behind them. They know so much more about Taekwondo than I do, so learning from my training partners with similar experiences is important for me, and I'm taking all of that on board.
Have any Taekwondo athletes inspired you on your journey so far?
Jake Buhagiar: Lee Dae-hoon has been an athlete I've always looked up to and am inspired to emulate. I love his fighting style and composure on the mats.
Matthew Summerfield: Definitely Bailey Lewis. I train with him now, so it's a bit surreal! Jaouad Achab, from Belgium, is also an incredible athlete who's always exciting to watch. Growing up, I really watched more of the women's fighting, particularly the -67kg division. I'd watch people like Matea Jelic and Lauren Williams and try to somewhat mimic their style.
Do you have any go-to snacks or drinks to give you a boost for significant events like this? Or any music that fires you up?
Jake Buhagiar: It's a bit of tradition, wherever I go, that the night before a fight, I have spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. It gives me the energy in carbs to fight at my best the next day. It is also one of my favourite foods so that helps.
Matthew Summerfield: I'm experimenting with my diet at the moment and what works for me since I've started fighting in the -63kg division this year. That's changed my routine up quite a bit, so I'm learning how to manage that and fuel myself better. I definitely like playing J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar; they usually get me through the warm-up. Throughout fight week, I stick to myself and listen to music pretty heavily. It keeps me calm, confident and relaxed.
What do you enjoy doing when you're not on the mats in your spare time?
Jake Buhagiar: In my spare time, I enjoy just hanging out with friends and family, and doing some sort of fun activities like going to the movies, go-carting and bowling.
Matthew Summerfield: I'm a crazy sneakerhead. I'd collect a lot more shoes if Taekwondo wasn't so expensive! I'm also really into AFL, NBA, and all sports really. I probably spend a little too much time on the PlayStation too.
Do you suffer any pre-fight nerves? How do you manage them in big competitions?
Jake Buhagiar: Before every fight, I'm always nervous and anxious, but I think that's a good thing in a way, as it proves to me that my mind is prepared for the fight ahead. To manage these nerves, I try and distract myself from the thought of fighting as much as possible.
Matthew Summerfield: I definitely have some nerves, but I have confidence in my ability, and you have to believe in yourself to achieve your goals. I'm there for the experience and the journey, so I'm just going over there to do my best and hopefully come home with a medal. I'm not feeling the pressure. It's exciting, really, to be there amongst some of the names I mentioned.
How do you balance high-performance Taekwondo with keeping up with school/uni?
Jake Buhagiar: It is quite tough to balance the two, but as long as I allocate an appropriate amount of time for each, then everything gets done and is done to the best of my ability.
Matthew Summerfield: I remember having a few fights with my parents where I'd say 'do I have to go to school? I want to focus on Taekwondo'. But I'm very glad I stuck it out. I've just started working, and I'll be enrolling in Uni soon. The main thing is scheduling around training, especially the sessions that will be harder on my body. After some morning sessions, I really need to relax and reset for training the next day. Other parts of the week are better for me to study or work.
What are the qualities that make you a good athlete?
Jake Buhagiar: Being disciplined and composed are two qualities that make me a good athlete. You have to be able to go to training, even when you don't feel like it and aren't motivated. Also, if you lose your composure during your fight, everything starts going downhill quite fast. So, being able to stay calm and in the moment has helped me be the athlete I am today.
Matthew Summerfield: Confidence in my ability is definitely key; you've got to be confident. Consistently showing up and working hard too. An athlete's success comes down to how hard they want to work and how far they're willing to go. You have to decide how much it means to you and if you're willing to do whatever it takes.
Taekwondo has taken you all over the world; what have been your favourite places to travel so far?
Jake Buhagiar: My two favourite places I have seen so far are Korea and Tahiti. I really enjoyed the Korean culture and people, and as for Tahiti, I loved the beaches and tropical landscape.
Matthew Summerfield: Tahiti was pretty cool last year. The beaches were amazing, I got badly sunburnt, but it was definitely worth it! This year, I loved Belgium and the Netherlands; it was my first time seeing snow there.
Finally, I imagine you're being fairly strict with your diet. What are you most looking forward to eating when the Championships are over?
Jake Buhagiar: Once the championships are over, I'm looking forward to eating a big juicy burger and chips!
Matthew Summerfield: I'm craving bagels so badly. I'll go to a bagel shop and order one of everything, I reckon!
Together, CombatAUS and Australian Taekwondo provide contemporary technical leadership to ensure the strategic direction of Taekwondo in Australia excels.
For updates of the Aussies' adventures in Baku, make sure you head to the World Taekwondo website for the latest event information.