Aaron Cook comes fighting back after 'losing everything'

By Nick HopeBBC Olympic sports reporter
Cook targets World redemption

It should have been the pinnacle of Aaron Cook's sporting career.

Friday, 10 August 2012 was the day of the -80kg Olympic taekwondo final - the moment he had spent years working towards.

But instead of taking gold, Cook was a few miles away from the venue crouched over a hotel toilet bowl being sick.

It was not illness that made him vomit. It was because he felt his dream had been "stolen" by the Team GB selectors who controversially omitted him from the squad despite his world number one ranking.

That day the pain became too much to bear.

"I was absolutely in pieces, in tears, being sick. It was my worst nightmare," he said.

Cook had emptied the £30,000 in his bank to fund appeals against his Olympic rejection, while his parents spent £100,000 of their life savings supporting their son - efforts which were ultimately in vain.

In the aftermath of London 2012, Cook's fortunes did not improve. The fighter lost all eight of his sponsors, worth £150,000.

"We lost everything," said Cook. "I lost my Olympic dream, all of the sponsorship I had saved and my parents lost all of their money.

"I'm not saying I would have won, but I had a fantastic chance. It was all I dreamt about and trained for every day."

On Sunday, he has a chance of redemption.

Competing for the Isle of Man, Cook, 22, is bidding to become world champion in Mexico.

"It's probably one of the most important competitions of my life," he said. "It's going to be extremely hard, but if I win my life could change overnight."

Cook was inspired to take up taekwondo by the superhero-based children's television show Power Rangers as a five-year-old.

Through the junior ranks he developed a fast-paced, energetic and aggressive fighting style.

He demonstrated that to the world as a 17-year-old at the 2008 Olympics, where he came close to winning a medal, losing in the semi-final.

When I met Cook for the first time the following year, the fighter boldly predicted he could become a multiple Olympic champion and match British rower Sir Steve Redgrave's five-medal haul.

Cook inspired by watching Power Rangers

The man I met at his new base on the Isle of Man for his first in-depth interview since the Olympics was unmistakably different. He was more humble.

His answers were more considered, but he was also clearly anxious and frequently stopped to reconsider his responses, admitting at one stage: "I was nearly in tears then."

He said: "I'm not going to lie. For three or four months after London 2012 at times I was very emotional. I was absolutely distraught and felt depressed."

It is clear that fighting away from the mat has taken a heavier toll than anything he has ever faced on it.

Three months before the London Games, Cook successfully defended his -80kg European Championship crown and was ranked world number one. But GB Taekwondo instead selected rising star Lutalo Muhammad for the Olympic -80kg squad.

Former British champion John Cullen described the decision not to select Cook as like "Barcelona not picking Lionel Messi".

Muhammad, a European champion at -87kg who went on to claim a historic bronze in London, is just a few months younger than Cook. He joined the squad in late 2011 after being identified by a UK Sport-backed talent identification programme two years earlier.

Cook's path was very different. Motivated by the success athlete Mo Farah and tennis player Andy Murray had attained by working outside of national programmes, Cook quit the GB academy following a first-round exit at the 2011 World Championships in South Korea.

GB Taekwondo has always insisted that did not influence its decision, something the British Olympic Association (BOA) eventually accepted by ratifying Muhammad's selection.

But that was not before a bitter spell in which taekwondo became a regular back-page story.

At the height of the animosity, Cook said he felt "robbed and cheated". Muhammad's camp received hate mail.

It is 14 months since that rejection and Cook has had to try and let it go.

"I have accepted it and had to move on because otherwise it would just keep eating me up," he said.

In the aftermath of his Olympic snub, Cook considered relocating to France or the United States in an attempt to naturalise in time for Rio 2016.

Cook wins controversial 2012 Euro gold

But in his heart he wanted to remain British.

Cook does not have any personal or family ties with the Isle of Man. He is taking advantage of government rules allowing athletes to compete under the Manx banner if they relocate to the island and offer to help develop sport in the community.

The World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) recognises Isle of Man Taekwondo as an independent body, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not. Therefore he will remain eligible for Team GB come the Rio Games.

"We saw what happened last year and it seemed like a great opportunity for both parties," said IOM Taekwondo director Richard Halsall.

"Aaron is passionately British, we are passionately British and we saw it as a way of developing taekwondo on the island and giving Aaron the freedom to compete.

"We don't have any money but he has a lot of moral support. The government have been excellent. They have helped with a training centre and also a regular physiotherapist who will be out in Mexico with him."

Cook is self-funded. He ran a series of seminars and taekwondo demonstrations around the UK to raise cash for the World Championships. And he is still heavily reliant on his parents' support

But the fighter, who won Swedish Open gold on his Isle of Man debut, insisted moving has been "one of the best decisions I've made".

"It's a fresh start and I am so grateful for the support," he said.

At this point in the interview, there was a clear change in Cook's body language as he relaxed and began to smile for the first time.

He spoke with genuine enthusiasm when referring to his life on the island and how he wanted to inspire others the way he was by those "mighty morphin" TV martial artists in the 1990s.

"This is going to be my home for the rest of my fighting career and hopefully I can help a few kids get strong enough to compete internationally with me," he said.

Cook's mother Christine and father Nigel, who have been a driving force behind his career and constant source of support - emotionally and financially, have remained in Manchester for work.

However, Aaron's brother Luke, 23, relocated to support his younger sibling.

The elder Cook had provided video analysis of Aaron's opponents since the fighter turned professional. Now he has taken on more responsibility and succeeded his brother's former coach Patrice Remarck, who now leads the US national team.

"Luke stepped into that role and we've done six competitions in total and we have won four, so it's going well," Cook said.

"He is going to be coaching me at the World Championships on his birthday so hopefully it will be a fairytale story."

With Muhammad competing in the -87kg division in Mexico, any meeting between the fighters will have to wait.

"I have nothing against Lutalo. He is just a fighter that was doing everything he could to get there and was picked ahead of me," Cook said.

With a grin he added: "Obviously, I would love to fight him but unfortunately he's not in the -80kgs."

Over half an hour into our interview, the current world number two appeared fully at ease. He was keen to emphasise that, despite the dramatic events of the last two years, he still has plenty of fight left.

"What's happened has made me stronger as a person, more determined and more focused to win," Cook said.

"I want to show everyone that I'm the best in the world and I want to do it for my family who have supported me.

"They believed I could be Olympic champion and world champion, and after everything we've been through it would be a real fairytale story if I could achieve that."


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