National gold a spark for New West martial artist

The thrill of competing at the highest level is, for most athletes, something that stirs the drink.

When that inaugural event ends in gold, the spillover makes everything sweeter.

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New Westminster’s Jason Russell quenched his thirst as a first-timer 10 days ago at the national taekwondo championships in Laval, Que.

With teammate Belinda Co of North Vancouver, Russell saw effort turn to surprise – yes, even he was bowled over by the achievement – as the duo captured the pairs over-30 poomsae national title, rising past the defending champions in the process.

“I thought that just going would be an accomplishment in itself,” recalled Russell. “We surprised a lot of people when we finished our pairs. We were the last (to perform) in the circuit so when they put the scores up – we were in first place.

“We were surprised and everyone else was like ‘What just happened?’ Everyone in the room was quite surprised. My partner and I were sort of the dark horse – we were competing against people who were previous champions. We were unknown, and it was pretty clear win, it wasn’t very close. (So) it was pretty clear we were the best ones there.”

Having first taken up the sport six years ago, Russell envisioned getting to the nationals as a reward in itself. His partner, who had competed at the previous national and world championships, had a game plan.

“(Co) was the one who said we should go as a pair; if we practiced, we could do well,” said Russell. “She was the believer in the whole thing and spent a lot of time helping me out. … I really owe our success as a team was because of her.”

Along with the guidance of his club instructor, Master Young Suh, Russell gained confidence and resilience in training, while building a foundation in the martial art form. When he and Co arrived at the nationals, the pair were extremely focused.

“There are not a lot of adults who compete in this pairs events. The champions, a lot of times come from different cities and may practice a few days in advance of the tournament,” said Russell, who trains at OMAC Taekwondo on 12th Street, while Co belongs to a North Shore club. “We have been practicing for this for about seven or eight months. We’ve been working on this a long time, working on the synchronization and thinking how to handle all the technical parts.”

Poomsae, which is patterns based with competitors performing the same set of moves that are scored by six judges. It tests an athlete’s ability in precision and form. With a partner, synchronicity and exact execution are crucial.

“You’re stepping together, you’re moving together and you get judged based on how closely you are in sync and how nicely and how accurately you do your patterns,” he said.

On the second day of competition, Russell picked up a bronze in his men's under-50 individual event, capping an excellent debut at the nationals.

As a result of their gold medal, Russell and Co will now represent Canada at the world championships in Denmark in May – just more icing on a sweet cake.

“Belinda competed in the previous worlds in Taipei two years ago … That’s part of the reason she was so gung-ho. It’s so awesome. She says the world championships are like nothing else.”

The 47-year-old found his way into the sport while looking at an activity for his son. Now, father helps coach son in the New West club.

“We poked our nose in." he recalled of their introduction to the sport. "It was sparring night, that’s what you see in the Olympics, with the pads on and full contact sparring – at that time there were several national champions who’ve since went on to university. I saw these kids flying and I thought, ‘Wow, this looks like so much fun. I think I’ll sign up too.”

While he's sparred in competition before, Russell chose poomsae as his focus. In sparring, where belt levels decide the competition, it was hard keeping up with teenage and 20-something rivals. He found just as much of a rush in working on the pattern-side of the sport.

"I got silver in both sparring and poomsae events and I thought I could do better than that. I had sort of a chip on my shoulder," Russell recalled of his competitive fire.

Now, he’s itching to get back on the mat to turn more training into triumph.

“It’s definitely ignited a new fire. I came in third in my (men’s u-50) event and missed second place by 0.016 of a point out of 10, so I was a hair’s breath away from silver. If I polish up a few things, it would have been close between first and second. I’m even more excited to come back and try a bit harder next time.”

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