If Hollywood ever decided to make a feel-good movie about an Olympic superstar, they should contact Jingyu Wu. Or, perhaps not. The Chinese athlete’s life story is so remarkable, it would probably be unbelievable on film.
Wu, 33, has won two Olympic gold medals – in Beijing in 2008 and in London in 2012 – making her one of the most successful taekwondo fighters ever. After a shock loss in Rio in 2016, she took a two-year break from the game and gave birth to a daughter.
Now, the legend is back.
Defying age and motherhood, Wu is in the midst of a comeback that is seeing her sweep medals in one of the Olympics’ fiercest, most athletically challenging disciplines.
The big question animating the taekwondo community is whether, in Tokyo in 2020, Wu can capture a third Olympic gold – a feat no taekwondo player has yet achieved.
If anyone can pull it off, it is Wu – for mysterious powers swirl around the Chinese fighter.
An Olympian rises – and falls
In one of those stranger-than-fiction coincidences, her success was eerily presaged on celluloid years before it became reality.
In 2003, Wu, then an unknown, provincial-level taekwondo player, was chosen to play a bit part in a movie. Simply named Taekwondo and starring well-known Chinese actress Tao Hong, the film told the fictional tale of a girl who becomes an Olympic champ.
Wu had a bit part, playing the star as a youth. It was a role that gave her perhaps five minutes of screen time. “I was just a common athlete at the time,” Wu recalled. “Just a little girl!”
Five years later, the little girl had grown up. On the battleground at the Beijing Olympic Games, she turned her film gold medal into the real thing.
In 2012, she repeated the feat in London. That made her a member of a tiny elite: only six taekwondo fighters have won two Olympic golds. Would Wu make it a historic hat-trick in 2016?
It was not to be. Wu crashed out in Rio, failing to make it even to the quarter-finals.
“I was not at my best, there were a lot of expectations, I had a lot of stress, I was not fully focused,” Wu told Asia Times on the sidelines of the World Taekwondo Grand Prix, in Sofia, Bulgaria. “I had never lost a game at such a big event.”
Post-Rio, Wu dropped out of the sport. She became vice-president of the Chinese Taekwondo Association, and gave birth to a daughter, Shao-yu.
But though she had disappeared from pundits’ radars her fighting spirit continued to simmer.“I did not think of giving up – I never think of giving up!” she said. “If I had got a medal in Rio, I might have quit, but I lost. I want to win again!”
A mother returns to the ring
The Beijing-based mother quietly returned to the rigorous training of the super athlete. Wu was known in the community for her manic, five-hour training sessions, but was forced to restart from scratch. As the Chinese phrase goes, she had to “eat bitter.”
“I had to go back to basics – even running!” she said. “Honestly, it was too hard. At my age, I need more rest.”
In February, after a two-year, three-month retirement she loped onto the mats at the Fujairah Open in UAE. “I was nervous,’ she admitted. “Very nervous!” When the smoke cleared, Wu had a gold medal around her neck.
“Superkicker” was back.
In addition to her back-to-basics training, she had to rebuild her Olympic ranking points from scratch. That meant a grueling competitive schedule.
More golds followed at the Presidents Cup Asia and the German Open. At the elite level, she won silver at the World Championships in Manchester in the UK and another silver at the Grand Prix in Chiba, Japan.
Fight watchers were electrified.
“I don’t know how she came back after giving birth!” said Laurence Rase, Performance Director of Team Belgium and herself a former athlete, and also a mother. “She is fighting against the clock. I remember when I turned 30, my body changed and I lost that aggressiveness. That is why I follow her.”
“She is an amazing fighter, someone I have always looked up to,” added Jade “The Welsh Wonder” Jones, who also seeks a third Olympic win in Tokyo. “It would be magical if we could both get golds.”
Taekwondo’s favorite fighter
So what is this formidable personality like, up-close?
Unlike many fighters who specialize in only two or three techniques, Wu is ambidextrous, wielding a broad arsenal of kicks. Physically, she is a human dynamo, noted for never-stop stamina. Add that to a precision-engineered tactical brain, and you have a human combat machine.
“She can do everything to the highest standard and is arguably the best fighter, male or female, of all time,” said John Cullen, World Taekwondo’s head of broadcasting. “She is the most balanced, aggressive and intuitive fighter of her generation – or arguably any.”
Above all, Wu embodies self-confidence.
“There is no difference among all the top players physically, with her, it is her work ethic and her self-belief,” said Karim Dighou, coach of Team Australia. “When push comes to shove – she shoves!”
On the field of combat, Wu is a killer. Off it, she is a delight. Her English name is Joy – and it is appropriate.
Wu looks at least a decade younger than her 33 years. Tiny and deceptively fragile looking – she fights in the -49kg weight class – she is a mixture of shy and upbeat who just can’t seem to stop herself from smiling.
Despite her superstar status, she has time for all. “She is an amazing fighter but she is also kind and humble,” said Rase. “She says hello to everyone, she is always respectful.”
Why mothers must dream
In a world where many mothers live through or for through their children, Wu offers some sage advice.
“Even if you are a mother, you need to have a dream, a wish, because your ability and your actions affect your child,” Wu said. Speaking of Shao-yu, she said: “I have taught her courage, to not be afraid of difficulties – you have to challenge yourself even when you are very little!”
After Tokyo – whatever the result – Wu expects to devote herself to the Chinese Taekwondo Federation. She also wants to work with refugees and the less fortunate, and is already noted for her presentations to young people.
“She is a model,” said Chinese Coach Juanmin Guan. “She is an inspiration to others in China.”
So what drives her to keep playing one of the Olympics’ roughest sports? Wu credits higher powers. “I think I was meant to be in taekwondo,” she said. “It was the choice of the gods!”
Whether the fight gods will favor her in Tokyo cannot be known. But 2020, she insists, is not only about precious metal – there is a deeper drive.
“Since that first gold in Beijing in 2008, medals mean nothing to me,” she said. “I just want to try and do something that others cannot – I want to see what I can do.”
UPDATE: The comeback continues: Hours after this story was published, Wu won the World Taekwondo Grand Prix in Sofia, Bulgaria, after demolishing Rio 2016 gold medalist Kim So-hui of South Korea in the finals with a 24-9 victory.