British taekwondo fighters set for World Championships

By Nick HopeBBC Sport in South Korea

Scrutiny and stress accompany most athletes heading into major events, but the Taekwondo World Championships in Gyeongju, Korea, which are being held between 1 and 6 May, carry added anxiety for British fighters hoping to compete in the 2012 Olympics.

At the end of May, British Taekwondo must name the four weight categories (two male, two female) they are nominating for the London Games.

Great Britain can take a maximum of four squad members to the Olympics, so participation could hinge on podium places.

"We're just over 12 months from the Games, so realistically anyone putting a World Championship medal on the table is making a clear statement that their weight-category should be selected," GB Taekwondo performance director Gary Hall told BBC Sport.

"We know there is a tough selection meeting to be had and all the athletes are aware that there is a lot of competition for those Olympic places.

"There are going to be highs for some and lows for others, but we have a competitive group here and we're building for both 2012 and 2016.

The female weight divisions for London are likely to be the most keenly contested.

Doncaster-born Sarah Stevenson took a year out of the sport after the Beijing Olympics, where she overcame controversy to bring home bronze and returned in stunning style by claiming the 2010 European Championship title and attaining world number one status in the -67kg weight category.

However, this year's campaign has been rocked by heartbreak at home, with both of her parents diagnosed with cancer - as a result the World Championships will be her first competition of 2011.

"I know it's going to be a hard time mentally - it's going to be the hardest time of my life to go over there and try and focus - but I've been doing all right [in training] so if I can focus on the day I still think that I've got a good chance.

"Winning a medal would bring a smile to my face and all my family's faces, so I'm doing it for them."

Before switching from the -73kg to the -67kg division, Stevenson's closest direct rival was Bianca Walkden. She herself had an impressive 2010, winning the World Martial Arts and British Championships and is bidding to have the heavier division nominated for the Olympics.

Walkden, too, has struggled in recent months after rupturing an anterior crucial ligament in January and only returned to training in the past few weeks.

"I was absolutely devastated when the injury happened, but I just had to tell myself it's happened and now I must move on and get ready in time for the Worlds," said Walkden.

"That's what I've done and although I know it's going to be difficult, I'm still going for the gold."

The fighter in form is 18-year-old Jade Jones.

The 2010 Youth Olympic gold medalist has claimed three medals in her first two senior internationals this year and Korea could prove crucial in showing she has what it takes to cope with what would come with competing at an Olympics.

"I'm excited and nervous because London is on my mind, my family have already bid for their tickets, so I just have to make sure I get there now," said Jones.

"I'm up against some great people, but I'm just going to go out and fight for my life and hope that'll get my weight picked."

Aaron Cook was fourth in Beijing aged just 17 and after claiming the world number one ranking and European Championship title last year he recently stated that he aims to become one of the "greatest of all time".

Such is his potential that barring injury or a major decline in performance, his -80kg category looks a certainty for nomination.

"I'm definitely going there with the aim of winning a medal," stated Cook.

"It's something I've been dreaming of for a long time and Britain has never won a major male senior world title, so hopefully I can make a bit of history as well."

The question surrounds which other weight division will be selected.

Martin Stamper (-68kg) has been in great form in 2011, winning both the US and German Open titles, while former kick-boxing world champion Damon Sansum (-87kg) is also thought to be in the mix.

The latter of these has a particularly impressive back-story, having been recruited to the programme as part of a taekwondo 'Talent ID' scheme, run by the English Institute of Sport last year.

Sansum only took up taekwondo full-time nine months ago and has since won bronze medals in the Paris and US Open Championships.

"Being selected in the team for the World Championships is such a massive honour," commented Sansum.

"When I started with the scheme [reaching] the Olympics was the primary goal, but realistically I wasn't sure whether it would be achievable.

"My performances have improved and to now be in a position where my weight category could potentially be selected is amazing."

Great Britain have taken a 10-stong team to the World Championships and after receiving a glowing endorsement in UK Sport's annual review last month, GB are confident of continuing their recent success.