photograph by Giulio Sciorio
When Terrence Jennings signed up for his first taekwondo lesson at age 10, being an Olympic athlete wasn’t really on his radar; he had other goals. Mostly, he was focused on becoming like his heroes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was a video of the iconic cartoon crime fighters at a Landmark Mall kiosk promoting a new taekwondo school in Alexandria, that caught Jennings’ eye and so, with his mother’s approval, he enrolled in classes to learn the martial art. Within months, former Olympian Patrice Remarck arrived at the school and recruited Jennings for Olympic-style taekwondo classes. That was nearly 15 years ago. This summer, the 25-year-old Alexandria native will compete at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
The road to London has been long, and has taken Jennings up and down the East Coast and beyond America’s shores. Of course, he admits, “It’s not cheap—travel to national tournaments, qualifiers, little tournaments, international tournaments—that was all funded by my parents.” Fortunately, his parents, a retired supermarket clerk and a metro bus driver, were willing to make some sacrifices for their son—under one condition: “My mom always told me, ‘You made a decision to start this, you’re going to finish it.’” The 2004 T.C. Williams High School grad now sees the Olympics as a chance to hold up his end of the deal, and give back to his parents. “Just to be able to show them that all this time has paid off, for them to be able to say, ‘My son is an Olympian,’ that means so much. I owe them my world.”
Jennings’ first real breakthrough came in 2003 when, as a Junior National Team member, he won a silver medal at the Junior Pan American Games in Rio. That was when the Olympics became more than just a small dot on a distant horizon. By that time, he says, “I knew the process. I knew how the qualifiers worked and what I had to do. When I was younger [and thought about the Olympics] it was more like, ‘Oh I wish.’ In ’03 it was like, ‘I see this.’” However, the 2004 Olympic Games didn’t include the bantamweight division—the weight class he was fighting in at the time. Jennings would have to wait four years and grow into the featherweight division (for athletes under 149.9 pounds) for an opportunity to compete on his sport’s biggest stage.
After graduating from high school, Jennings attended Northern Virginia Community College and balanced schoolwork with odd jobs to fund his training, while keeping his sights set on Beijing. But at the beginning of 2008 Jennings suffered a knee injury—a torn meniscus—before the first Olympic trials. He returned from surgery and rehab to compete in the second Olympic trials at the end of the year, but another torn meniscus—this time in his other knee—ended any hopes of competing in China.
However, Jennings was not about to leave the sport to which he had committed most of his life. Instead, he remembers, “I was more aggressive with my recovery the second time. I knew exactly the amount of time it would take, exactly the rehab techniques, exactly the pain I was going to feel, and my mindset was sort of, ‘If I can recover from this once, I can do it again.’” Two injuries in one year, multiple surgeries and months of rehab did affect his fighting. He found that after 2008, he could no longer rely solely on raw power and athleticism to compete at a world-class level. Instead, he says, “I had to learn, for instance, when to slow the pace of a fight down, when to speed it up. In a weird way, those injuries kind of advanced me [technique-wise] in the sport.”
Last year, Jennings moved to Miami to train full-time with members of the U.S. National and Junior National Taekwondo teams, supported in part by USA Taekwondo. Today, he’s on top of his game, and his goal is to climb to the top of the podium come August. “I always feel like I have something to prove. The guy I beat to qualify [Texas native Mark Lopez] got silver last time, so he set the bar pretty high. Now I want no less than gold.”
Expectations aside, London 2012 won’t be the finale for Jennings; instead, he views it as just another test. Once the 2012 games conclude, his training will continue. “Whatever day my coach says to be back in the gym, I’ll be back. And good or bad, I’ll forget everything and start preparing for 2016."
UPDATE: Jennings won a bronze medal in the featherweight class. He lost his first round fight 8-6 to world number one Servet Tazegul, from Turkey, who went on to win the gold medal, but beat Ukraine's Hryhorii Husarov 3-2 and Brazil's Diogo Silva 8-5 to take bronze. Congratulations Terrence!