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Interview with Brigitte Yagüe (Part 1): “The Olympic silver was the final touch on my career”

Interview with Brigitte Yagüe (Part 1): “The Olympic silver was the final touch on my career”

Brigitte Yagüe (Majorca, Spain, 1981) saw the dream of a whole life dedicated to Taekwondo come true at the London Olympics: winning an Olympic medal. The silver taken by the Majorcan fighter was not only the first Olympic medal for Women’s Taekwondo in Spain’s history but also the final touch on a career which has been marked with success from the start. During her 15 years in Taekwondo’s elite, Brigitte has won 3 World Championships (Garmisch-Partenkirchen 2003, Beijing 2007 and Copenhaguen 2009) and 4 European titles (Eindhoven 98, Samsun 2002, Lillehammer 2004 and Rome 2008). A brilliant trajectory which was only missing the Olympic glory. WTM talks to her to review her latest achievement and to know about her plans for the future.
Q. You were already World and European champion when you couldn’t qualify for the Beijing Olympics because of a hand injury. Since then, winning an Olympic medal in London became an obsession?
A. After Beijing I took a break because I had to recover my hand properly, but I also needed to rest to recover myself from a mental prospective. It was very tough for me to get injured just before the Olympic qualifiers because I was in a very good shape at that moment and had real chances of taking a medal in Beijing. I had lost in the first round in Athens and since then I became obsessed with winning a medal in Beijing, I could only think about that medal. After Athens, I won the World Championship and the European title, but I didn’t enjoy winning them because my mind was only thinking about that Olympic medal. That’s what made it so tough for me not being able to compete in Beijing. I had to stay away from the tatami and everything related to Taekwondo because I couldn´t find the motivation for it, I was furious with Taekwondo. I couldn’t understand why I had to say goodbye to the Olympics in the last moment after 4 superb years.
Q. Did something similar happen to you while you were training for London or you learned that lesson?
A. My training was clearly focused on trying to reach my best shape for London, but I learned from the past that one must enjoy every title because it isn’t easy at all to win them. Then, if I was finally able to qualify for London, I would just try to enjoy what it means to be in the Olympics as much as possible. And not only the competition, but also the Village and the time before the competition starts. My mental training was really different from Athens.
Q. Are the Olympics really that special in comparison with a World or European Championship?
A. The Olympics are really different from those competitions basically because of their media exposure. Winning a medal in a World Championship is much more difficult, but an Olympic medal makes you popular worldwide, which is something one always likes. In my case, as I was already 3-time World champion and 4-time European champion before winning the Olympic medal, I’ve noticed that difference even more. There was something missing on mi CV, the Olympic silver is the final touch on my career.

Brigitte, Wu, Zaninovic and Sonkham at London 2012 medal ceremony

Q. It seems that the London Olympics will be a turning point for Taekwondo because of the great success of the competition and the amazing atmosphere lived at the ExCel Centre during the 4 competition days. Did you notice something special compared to Athens?
A. Yes, I did. I noticed that from the very first moment. When I entered the stadium for my first combat and saw so many people in the stands and so many Spanish flags, I really felt emotional. In Athens there was almost no one in the stands, everything was really cold. London was exactly the opposite, with the tickets sold out for all competition days. When it comes to compete, that makes you feel better, it gives you power to fight, specially when you hear all the crowd shouting every time you score.
Q. In Athens there were not seeded fighters in the draw. Having seeded fighters in London’s draw was an important factor for you?
A. It was pretty important. People have to take into account that our competition system is head or tails. We just can’t assume a single error, and when there are no seeded players in the draw it could happen that the best five athletes are in the same side of it. I think it’s been a step forward for Taekwondo to have a World Ranking which accumulates all the points you take during the year so that you can be in a better position for the Olympics’ draw. I had a good draw in London, but I had to fight for it during four years and then I also had to win the combats, because in the Olympics there you can only face good and really good fighters.
Q. How did you feel in your debut against the Panamanian Carstens, really nervous?
A. I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself as I had done in the past, I just wanted to enjoy and do what I had been training and studying during the last four years, which was a lot. If I was able to do so, then normally I would have to win the matches. What I did not want at all was losing because of being nervous. I had also learned Athens’ lesson, so I changed a bit my competition tactics. In the past, I basically had two really good moves and I almost focused my style on using them to win, until I got my kick blocked in the first round of Athens 2004 and realized I needed to do something about it. Now I know how to use both legs and I am able to defend as well, which I didn’t do in the past.
Q. After two apparently comfortable rounds, you faced the Thai Sonkham in the semifinal. She started better than you and forced you to do an outstanding comeback to make your way to the final. Did you think the match was lost at some point?
A. Nowadays in Taekwondo you don’t know whether you are going to lose or win until the last second. It is true that in the two first matches (against Carstens and the Mexican Alegría) I was able to dominate the combat because I scored two head kicks at the beginning of both, which enabled me to control the situation by having 3 points of advantage in the score. Against the Thai I knew it was going to be a really tough fight and that I would have to struggle. I was aware of it and ready for it. I knew she was going to hit me with a head kick because that is her favorite way of scoring, and you just can’t defend at your best level during the whole match to stop all her attempts. And so she did, she hit me twice in the face at the beginning of the fight. The first one was clearly my fault because I knew she was going to do it, but even when I was losing by 3 or 4 points I always thought I could turn it around with a head kick plus a kyongo or a tuit chagui. But then I realized that every time I was able to score, she had scored too, and as there was not much time left I started to get a bit exasperated. I started to attack without thinking on the defense and that was dangerous. So at some point I realized of the situation and took advantage of my experience to stop the combat. These kind of things you only learn through experience. When a combat looks really bad, sometimes you need some time to relax and think a bit. So that’s what I did and that’s what made it possible for me turn the score around and be in the final.

Brigitte at CAR Taekwondo training room

Q. So what did you feel when you realized the Olympic medal was already yours?
A. Because of the way I won the semifinal and what I had suffered in the previous years I couldn’t do anything but collapse into tears. It was not something planned, but as I had suffered so much during the combat, even with some stiff muscles, I couldn’t control myself. I accumulated so much tension during the fight that it simply had to go out in some way. Then, when I arrived to the warm-up room, I had no power in me.
Q. Do you think this situation took its toll on you in the final against Wu from China?
A. Despite of having experienced so many emotions not long before, I felt I was ready for the fight. I started at my top of motivation and I wasn’t considering nothing else but winning. I wasn’t looking for a no points match or just a close match and see if I could score in the last seconds. I tried to fight as I had always done, but she hit me in the face really quickly and that made it really difficult for me from the start.
Q. How does it feel to be the only Female’s Taekwondo medallist in Spain’s history?
A. It feels great, but I wouldn’t mind if any of my compatriots had won a medal in the previous Games. But if feels great, of course, I’m really happy. Specially for my family and for the people that have been supporting me all these years. With special mention to Juan Antonio (Brigitte’s husband, 2-time taekwondo world champion and 2-time fifth qualified in the Olympics), who was about to win a medal in Athens and Beijing. In the moment I guaranteed the silver medal I just felt too many emotions… I think not even the gold would have made me feel like that.
Q. Could you tell me an anecdote from your experience at the Olympic Village?
A. The atmosphere at the Olympic Village was unbelievable, it was great. But the moment I remember the best is when Joel and I arrived at the Village after having won the medals. It was 3 in the morning and after going through a lot of pressure and tension during the whole day, we looked at each other and both thought the same: “Let’s go to McDonald’s!” And that’s what we did. We had a great meal there (laughs).
*The second part of the interview will be posted tomorrow
Pau Aguilar
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