Taekwondo champ talks trials and tribulations

Twenty-year-old Ciara Fitzsimons is a world champion in her sport. She tells The Liberty about her journey from white to black belt, and all the way to the top, competing abroad with the Irish senior team. 

The word taekwondo is Korean for “the art of hand and foot”.

There are versions of the Korean martial art that put the emphasis differently. World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), is predominantly kicking-based. International Taekwondo Foundation (ITF) uses both hands and feet.  

While top prospects often begin their training around the ages of six to eight years old, Swords-based Ciara Fitzsimons began practising ITF style taekwondo at age 11 after seeing her sister in a practice session.

Her parents, she says, saw it as both sport and self-defence. 

“I was kind of jumping the gun and then I was gone. Belt, belt, belt, belt, you know?” 

Taekwondo Champion Ciara fitzsimons

“It was very physical, and it challenged us in so many ways as kids, that’s what we loved about it. Challenge wasn’t usual for us at that age.

“My parents were pushing us to do something that was going to make us as girls safe – they thought it was important that we be able to protect ourselves. Taekwondo gave us that.” 

Training takes a practitioner from a beginner’s white belt up to black, through five in total: white, yellow, green, blue, red and then black. It’s a process that usually takes eight years, but for Fitzsimons it took only four.  

“I was kind of jumping the gun and then I was gone. Belt, belt, belt, belt, you know?” 

Now 20 years old, Fitzsimons says her schedule was turned upside down by the pandemic – in regards to training and her advancement in the European and international scenes.

“I teach kids. I originally started because of Covid – before that I was assisting my coach for four years.” The direct teaching came when her coach was in need of someone tech-savvy for the online classes of the pandemic era.  

“It’s difficult for the kids, to learn from a distance. It’s mentally hard to motivate themselves and it’s difficult to teach without being with them personally – but it’s manageable.” 

As for her own training, Fitzsimons has been unable to train properly with her team or coach, at the Rivervalley club in Swords and for the Irish national team, since nearly the beginning of the first lockdown in March of 2020.

“During summer we were able to have some outdoor sessions as restrictions loosened, but that was as close as we got to normal training.” 

Since then, herself and the other national team members have been training as much as they can at home through sprints and other activities to push themselves. “None of us trained. We were doing our own bit from home but nothing really taekwondo related. 

“Covid has taken away all the external motivators for people so I can understand how hard it is to keep going despite that.” Fitzsimons says she is lucky she has a supportive and active family to motivate her and to train with. 

 Pictured: Ciara Fitzsimons, 5th from left, centre row. Photo Courtesy of the ITA Facebook page.

Her rise through the European and global ranks was fast.

“I competed internationally at age 13, but there is obviously national team competing and then there’s just international competitions you can go to. I started attending international competitions at 13 and 14.” 

She has won world junior titles, and won the European Senior Championships in the 50kg category in 2019, adding the medal to her already immense collection.

She’s competed in countries such as Scotland, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Budapest, Germany and Holland.

“I think my favourite would have to be Italy, because of the heat and because of the food – it was by far my favourite set of venues too.

“It’s very well organised there, so my competitions went smoothly.

“My favourite discipline is sparring, which is the fighting element to the disciplines, and this can be done in individual events or team events.” 

The Irish Taekwondo Federation has a plan in place for slowly building back up the national team, but Fitzsimons is unsure how they’ll fare internationally against teams who haven’t faced the same restrictions as here. 

“It’s been really strict here, training wise and competition wise. I have friends in Poland and the Ukraine who can train almost as normal with PPE in place. 

“It’s especially difficult to be hopeful regarding the sport’s future here considering we got best team in the world in 2017 and we hosted it. But now, we haven’t even been able to train for over a year. 

“It’s very difficult to compete and travel abroad. I have a job to help pay for it. 

“It would be nice for the Government to give some recognition and maybe funding to the sport. Even if we aren’t technically professionals for a sport like this, we certainly train like them. It can be €1,000 plus per trip with gear, hotels, flights etcetera.” 

The ITA will be hosting the ITF World Cup in 2024 in Citywest, Dublin.

Despite the financial difficulties that are part and parcel of a minority sport, Fitzsimons loves it.

“I love recognition from my family and teammates. I think because my sport is so unusual, people outside the closer groups we have don’t really appreciate what we do and how we do it.”

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