Taekwondo star Aaliyah Powell made history at the Manchester Arena recently as she became Great Britain’s youngest ever senior World Championship medallist. The 16-year-old was making her -53kg debut and claimed a bronze medal after beating Greece’s Christianna Tyrologou and Morocco’s Oumaima El Bouchiti before eventually suffering defeat at the hands of Russia’s Tatiana Kudashova.
Aaliyah, who is the reigning junior world champion, was preparing for her GCSEs while getting ready to compete at her first senior competition. She has received SportsAid awards for the last three years and is currently supported by the Backing The Best programme. The Youth Olympian and junior European silver medallist was also shortlisted for the charity’s prestigious One-to-Watch Award last year.
Here, Aaliyah reflects on her recent successes, reveals her long-term ambitions, and emphasises the importance of her family’s support....
How did you feel after returning from the senior World Taekwondo Championships with a bronze medal? What did it mean to make history?
“I was extremely happy to come away from the World Championships with a bronze medal as I didn’t go into the competition with any expectation. It was my first senior competition and I was up against the world’s best. All I wanted to do was perform and leave it all on the mat. I am very proud to have made history by being the youngest taekwondo athlete ever to win a World Championship medal. It’s always special to be the first to achieve something and making history is something that every athlete would like to do within their career.”
How did you find dealing with the press afterwards?
“SportsAid has stood me in good stead in dealing with the press. It was an element that was focussed on during workshops and it helped to prepare me for what to expect when speaking to the media. After the World Championships I did my first TV interview with the BBC and the experience from the SportsAid workshops, as well as doing the interview alongside senior athletes, allowed me to feel more comfortable.”
How do you find competing at senior level? What have you felt are the main differences between that and the juniors?
“To be honest I didn’t know what to expect from competing at a senior level before the World Championships. Looking back at the event the main difference between juniors and seniors is that there is a smaller margin for error and the intensity is a lot higher. Physically it is harder as the competitors are generally stronger and the duration of the rounds are longer. Mentally it is more challenging as you need to concentrate and stay focused throughout the match to avoid making silly mistakes.”
Are there particular inspirations or sporting heroes you’ve looked up to over the years? What qualities do they have that you admire?
“I’ve never had just one inspiration or one sporting hero as it’s always been a combination of people who achieve great things and display qualities that I admire. However, after watching Jade [Jones], Bianca [Walkden] and the other senior GB taekwondo athletes train and compete at the highest level it has made me appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into being an elite sportsperson. It has inspired me to apply this to my own career.”
What have been the key achievements, aside from your recent bronze medal, of your career in taekwondo so far?
“The key achievements for me have been winning my first major medal with a silver at the Junior European Championships in November 2017. I went on to win the Junior World Championships in April 2018 and competed at the Buenos Aires Youth Olympic Games in October 2018. I have also recently been offered a place on the world-class performance programme so I am very excited to see how training full time will help improve my game. My main target for this year is to go one better and win gold at the Junior European Championships in October and then to transition successfully to the senior programme.”
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in your career so far? And what is your main long-term ambition?
“So far in my career dealing with the pressure and expectation have been challenges that I have been working to overcome. Carrying this onto the mat creates a negative mindset and if you’re not in the right mindset it has a huge impact on how you perform. The key is to learn how to perform consistently under pressure and learn to live with it as it will probably be there throughout your whole career as an elite athlete. My main long-term ambition is to become Olympic and world champion.”
Which experiences have you learnt the most from up to now? How much did you take away from competing at the Youth Olympic Games?
“The Youth Olympic Games was a big learning curve for me - it was my first experience of competing at a high-profile multi-sport event. I expected to do well but ultimately I did not perform as well I had wanted to, I think I let the size of the event and the occasion get to me and I was disappointed with the result. It was a big lesson for me in resilience and how to respond to disappointment, it happens to the best of athletes so I just focused on getting back into the gym and training for my next event.”
What difference has the support from SportsAid made to you?
“The financial support I have received from SportsAid has been crucial in allowing me to achieve my goals so far. Being nominated for a Backing The Best award meant I was able to compete at events all over the world to gain the knowledge and experience I required and this helped greatly with my development. I have also received lots of recognition from SportsAid for my achievements with the highlight being nominated in the top ten for the One-to-Watch Award.”
Which other commitments do you have to balance alongside taekwondo? How do you find fitting in school and sport together?
“I have just done my GCSEs and this proved to be a very difficult time for me with balancing my revision and exams while preparing for the senior World Championships. Away from school and sport I enjoy spending time with my friends - shopping, watching movies and listening to music.”
Lastly, how important has the support of your family and coach been to you in pursuing your sporting ambitions?
“The support of my family is really important to me, I have a good wider support network of family members but especially my mum and dad. I appreciate that they have had to make sacrifices for me to be able to do my sport. I also appreciate the support of my club coach who has always believed in my talent and all the coaches who have helped in my development and played a part in my journey.”
What will you do to #SupportTheNext generation of British sporting heroes? SportsAid needs your help to ensure talented athletes like Aaliyah can continue receiving the backing they rely on. You can make a regular donation to the charity and have a significant impact on the country’s sporting future.