Something looked different at the European Championships in Manchester, Britain – and it wasn’t just having able-bodied colleagues at home.
Time and time again, favorite fighters from almost every division have struggled to outrun their lower-ranked opponents, leaving spectators feeling like they’ve just witnessed a seismic shift in the sport.
Perhaps the biggest story was that of hometown hero Beth Munro winning her first international title – and beating Paralympic foe Lisa Gjessing 17-9 along the way. Not only had she not beaten the Paralympic champion before – including in the Pan Am Championship final last month – but she only handed the Danish legend her second defeat.
Munro started the sport less than three years ago.
She capped off her fairy tale victory at home with a 16-11 win over reigning world champion Turkey Secil Er.
“Both are massive accomplishments,” she told World Para Taekwondo after her win. “Finally beating the champion (Gjessing) was pure exhilaration and winning the Europeans with my family and friends watching was just amazing.”
His teammate Joe Lane also won his first international tournament by dominating the -80 kg group. Lane overcame a tough challenge from Ukraine’s Roman Ivanyuk in the semi-finals before knocking out Uzbekistan’s Asadbeck Toshtemirov in the final.
“It’s amazing – it’s what I trained for,” a delighted Lane told the BBC event broadcaster after winning his first international title. “Me, my coach and everyone around me, we worked hard”.
New fighters emerge as medal threats
The tournament was full of surprises, with young athletes showing they could compete with the best in para taekwondo.
Spain’s Dalia Santiago beat 2017 world champion and Paralympic bronze medalist Amy Truesdale 12-2 in the semi-final en route to silver – her first medal at the European Championships. That makes it two in a row for Santiago, who also beat Truesdale to gold at the President’s Cup – Europe earlier this year.
The promising Azerbaijani Sabir Zeynalov seems to be closing the gap with the leaders of the -58 kg group. He added a European Championships bronze to his World Championships bronze, losing both events to Turkey’s Ali Can Ozcan – 41-12 at Istanbul 2021 and 22-19 to the eventual champion at Manchester 2022.
Azerbaijani Paralympian Imamaddin Khalilov put the -70kg group on notice by taking Mexican Paralympic Champion and 2019 World Champion Juan Diego Garcia Lopez to a Golden Point round before falling to the Mexican superstar. The silver marks her first medal at the European Championships.
French veteran Bopha Kong showed he still had a fight in him by beating reigning Israeli world champion Asaf Yasur in the -58kg semi-final. Kong fell to Ozcan in the final, but still added his seventh medal at the European Championships.
Georgia also heralded its arrival as a promising program by seeing four different athletes win medals. The team won four bronze medals in Manchester – Lia Chachibaia in -52kg, Ana Japaridze in -57kg, Sandro Megrelishvili in -63kg and David Makadze in +80kg.
The favorites dominate
However, passing the favorites was not easy.
Uzbekistan’s Guljonoy Naimova has continued her breakneck pace since Tokyo 2020. The sport’s only reigning Paralympic and world champion moved through the +65kg group by a combined score of 16-2.
Garcia Lopez may have needed a Golden Point round to win his first European title, but he avoided only a third loss in a brilliant four-year run.
Croatian Ivan Mikulic claimed his third European title – and first since 2016 – with a convincing 9-2 victory over Turkey’s Mehmet Sami Sarac in the +80kg group, while Mexican Jessica Garcia added her first European title to last month’s Pan American crown with a 13-11 win over Turkish Paralympic runner-up Meryem Cavdar in the -52kg category.
Turkey showed they remain the gold standard for para taekwondo programs by winning the overall European title. County athletes won seven medals, including four gold.
Vice-world champion Nurcihan Ekinci topped the -47 group, while his teammates Gamze Gurdal (-57 kg), Ali Can Ozcan (-58 kg) and Paralympic bronze medalist Mahmut Bozteke (-63 kg) are Turkey’s new European champions. Other medalists include Cavdar (silver in -52 kg), world champion Secil Er (silver in -65 kg) and Sami Sarac (silver in +80 kg).
Unprecedented stadium for Para taekwondo
The tournament will also be remembered as the first time para and able-bodied taekwondo competed at the same time – a trend that is taking root in para sports around the world.
The event provided para-athletes with an unprecedented stage to strut their stuff. The finals of the event took place on Center Court and were shown on UK public broadcaster BBC.
“It gave massive, massive exposure,” Usman Dildar, vice chairman of the WT Para Taekwondo committee, told World Para Taekwondo. “To have the same exposure, the same platform as able-bodied people – the equity was amazing.”
The format was a hit with fans and athletes alike.
“Spectators kept asking about the difference in rules (between able-bodied and para taekwondo),” Dildar said. “They noted Valid was more touching (accurately) while Para was more powerful and passionate. They preferred Para”.
New champion Munro praised the energy of the event.
“The cohesion and energy of the team (was incredible),” she told World Para Taekwondo. “It was electrifying with the crowd. It was also amazing to see the equality that we deserve for para-athletes – that it lasts for a long time.”
Oceania Athletics plans to hold integrated athletics championships next month in Australia, while Britain is committed to integrating the Commonwealth Games this summer.
Ukraine wins hearts – and medals
The Ukrainian able-bodied and para teams took part in their first international action since the full-scale invasion of Russia halted team training and travel.
The country’s para team was taken on by Elite Sports Aarhus, in a project supported by the Danish Taekwondo Federation and the Danish Paralympic Committee. The team trained with Paralympic Champion Lisa Gjessing and her coach, Bjarne Johansen.
Six-time world champion Vika Marchuk rocked the team by winning her second consecutive silver medal in the -47 kg group. She nearly beat Turkey’s Nurcihan Ekinci before a miscommunication at the end of the fight saw a free kick and penalty hand give the world championship runners-up the fight 13-12.
Marchuk had a harrowing exit from Ukraine, where she was forced to hide in bomb shelters before leaving and faced a 12-hour trek to the border after escaping by train.
“Vika started to panic because of the noise,” Ukrainian team manager Yuliia Piskova told World Para Taekwondo of the last-minute incident. “She started seeing flashbacks of when she was fleeing Ukraine – the crowds at the train station, and everything.”
With a silver medal in their pocket, the Ukrainian team continued to roll. Orest Pylypiak won bronze at +80kg – her first medal at the European Championships – and world championship bronze medalist Yuliya Lypetska added bronze at +65kg.
Roman Ivanyuk gave eventual European champion Joe Lane a run in the -80kg quarter-final before running out of gas and losing 10-7.
The athletes’ determination to compete — and succeed — despite traumatic experiences at home has won the hearts of fans and competitors alike. The team was welcomed with a special dinner with representatives from World Taekwondo, the European Taekwondo Union and organizers from Great Britain.
“The teams were so happy to support Ukrainian athletes,” Dildar said. “Everyone was around the Ukrainian team, offering them love and support.”