Shoko Ota: The Paralympic medallist who swapped skis for taekwondo
Shoko Ota, three times a Winter Paralympian in skiing events, is now making tracks to become a Summer Paralympian as she targets appearing at the Tokyo 2020 Games, where taekwondo is due to make its Paralympic debut.
Ota, 31, who was born with a defect to her left hand, retired from Para-sking in April 2014, having been flagbearer for Japan at the Sochi Winter Games.
Four years earlier in Vancouver she had won silver in the 1 kilometre sprint classic standing event in women’s cross-country skiing, adding to the bronze she had won in the women’s 12.5km standing biathlon at the 2006 Winter Paralympics in Turin, where she had become the youngest Japanese Paralympian.
But Ota’s Paralympic journey was not over.
She first encountered Para-taekwondo at a promotion for Para sports, and then, at a taekwondo training event in 2015, she met Yoriko Okamoto, the Sydney 2000 Olympic bronze medallist.
That same year it was announced that Para-taekwondo would make its Paralympic debut in Tokyo at the Games scheduled for 2020 - and now due to take place this summer.
When she heard that there was no female Para-taekwondo player in Japan at that time, Ota decided to take up the sport, hoping to become a practice partner for new players aiming for the Tokyo Paralympics.
Though she participated in the Asian Para Taekwondo Championships in 2016 and won bronze her plan - to be a supporting player - did not change. In 2017, she did not compete.
But in January 2018 she had a change of heart and participated in the All-Japan Taekwondo Championships - winning gold.
In October that year Ota changed her job to one at SoftBank Corp, which allowed her to focus on her new sport.
Ota's hard training paid off when she won the Para title in the All-Japan Taekwondo Championships in February 2019.
This made her the only player designated as a national team member in women's Para-taekwondo.
At the 2019 World Para Taekwondo Championships in Antalya in Turkey, Ota won a bronze.
Now her eyes are set on Tokyo, and Para-taekwondo’s biggest-ever moment.
"I can finally play a game like taekwondo," she told World Taekwondo. "Will there be a medal?
"Now that I can practise well, I think it will follow if my strength improves… I think I should be able to get it."
Bopha Kong – the Paralympic hopeful who wants it all
At the start of 2018, Bopha Kong had already established himself as one of France's strongest medal contenders for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Aged 36, he had won three world titles in the under-61 kilograms K43 division, two European titles and an International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation World Games championship.
"My goal in 2018 is to win every tournament I compete in," he told World Taekwondo. "And I want to compete in them all."
This is exactly what he did – the highlight being a 29-22 victory over rising Japanese talent Kenta Awatari to claim the Pan American Championships title.
Forced to switch from boxing to Para-taekwondo after losing his hands in an accident with a home-made bomb at the age of 18, Kong turned to martial arts philosophy to help cope with the loss.
"Martial arts develops your self esteem," he said.
"It develops a respect for the world in you, a sense of community, and a feeling of empathy."
Having earned gold at the first Para Taekwondo World Championships, Kong is determined to win again as Para-taekwondo makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo.
"The one that wins is the best of the best," he said. "This achievement is my dream – to be the best in the world."
That towering ambition, of course, is now on hold to 2021 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kong was among a group of the world's leading Para-taekwondo athletes who demonstrated how they coped with the restrictive measures put in place due to cornoavirus.
The video was the first of World Taekwondo's online "Kicking It At Home" campaign and included footage of Kong – who was born in Vietnam but came to France aged three – at home.
Other notable Para-taekwondo athletes involved included Gamze Gurdal of Turkey, Peru's Angelica Espinoza, Lisa Gjessing of Denmark, Mexican Juan Diego Garcia Lopez, Veena Arora of India, Brazil's Nathan Torquato, Alejandro Vidal Alvarez of Spain and Italy's Antonio Bossolo.
When the lockdown halted competition, Kong could reflect on another highly successful season in 2019.
He made the podium at the one-day Tokyo 2020 test event in Chiba on September 28, fighting in the only men's competition, the K44 under-61kg category.
Bolorerdene Ganbat of Mongolia was the victor in the men's event, defeating Antonino Bossolo of Italy 16-12 in the final.
Kong completed the podium along with Mitsuya Tanaka of Japan, winning bronze.
On June 16, Kong won his 11th consecutive tournament in the men's under-61kg K43 class as he took another Pan Am Open title in Portland.
In his previous tournament, Kong had successfully defended his world title at the Championships held in Antalya, Turkey, in February – although he had been made to work hard in the final before beating Israel's Asaf Yasur 24-22.
Kong is a phenomenon – and Tokyo remains in his sights…
Viktoriia Marchuk: The Ukrainian orphan who refuses to give in
Disability did not prevent a Ukrainian girl from overcoming a tragic past and winning gold at the 2012 Aruba World Para-Taekwondo Championships. But her joy was short-lived. As her coach Yuliya Volkova writes, she needed help.
"My name is Yuliya Volkova. I am 33-years-old, and I am a Ukrainian athlete and coach. I love taekwondo, a sport I had dreamed of since I was seven, but I was not able to start practicing until I was 21.
"Even so, I have been fortunate to compete in a number of tournaments, and won a bronze medal at the European Championships in 2010.
"My coach is my husband, Yuriy Babak, who was the national female team coach from 2001-2007. He is currently secretary general of the Ukraine Taekwondo Federation. As I am a graduate of Zaporizhzhya University in sport, we coach together.
"Three years ago, not far from our dojang, we met a boy with a disability: He only had one arm. His name is Anton, and he was 12. We asked him and his mother if he would like to take up taekwondo. He agreed, and is now a blue belt, who competes across Ukraine.
"He was our dojang's first Para-athlete. We decided to look for more such children, and offer them taekwondo. This made us the first - and so far, the only - dojang offering taekwondo training to the disabled in the country. Now we have seven such children, aged from six to 14, training with us.
"We also have one senior. Her name is Vika. She is our champion and this is her story.
"In December 2011, Viktor Shavlo, a sport teacher at Zaporizhzhya , told us of a girl he knew who was disabled, but seemed a promising potential taekwondo student. That is how we met Vika, or, to give her full name, Viktoriia Marchuk.
"When we first talked to her she was very quiet and shy and was not sure whether she wanted to take up taekwondo - a sport she had never even seen. So we invited her to a New Year's party at the dojang, and showed her some pictures and video from the World Para-Taekwondo Championships. She took some time to think about it.
"In January 2012, she decided to accept our offer. I was immediately impressed by her leg strength and flexibility: She was a natural! As I taught her the kicks and footwork, I really found myself enjoying the teaching. And her talent was not just physical, it was mental, too. From the first, Vika told me that she was there to be a winner. We told her about the upcoming Para-Championship in Aruba in 2012. She said she would do any necessary training to become a champion.
"Perhaps her determination was rooted in her past - for Vika's past is a heart-breaking story. After being born with disabilities in Kiev in 1990 - she has Holt-Oram syndrome and only one arm - the baby Vika was abandoned by her parents. She spent her childhood in an orphanage, a place with terrible facilities.
"Today, Vika does not like to remember or even talk about her lost childhood. She is currently a student at Zaporizhzhya College and is planning to go to Zaporizhzhya National University this summer in order to become a coach in her future. Before coming to taekwondo, she specialised in track and field.
"We knew that she had had a heart operation, and that before she started training, she was under medical supervision. We checked with her doctors; they said that everything was okay. When she started, she was doing taekwondo three times weekly, two hours each session. Then she upped her training to six times a week. Soon, she was training twice a day, for two hours per session. In June 2012, she took part in the first-ever Ukrainian Para-taekwondo Championships, an initiative of my husband.
"In August, we held a training camp in the mountains on the Black Sea coast. It was hard, but Vika did her best. She was motivated to be a champion - a world champion. She spent that summer in our house. I noticed that she did not sleep well. The problem was her shoulder. In September - just two months before the Championships - she had an operation. Within two weeks, although heavily bandaged, she was back in training. This was true force of character.
"By now, Aruba was looming. There is no Governmental support in Ukraine for Para-taekwndo. The trip would be expensive: We needed around $5,000. I looked for sponsors for two months - nothing, not even any interest. Mercifully, we have friends, who gave us some money for flight tickets. Even so, it was not enough.
"Fortunately, I had a friend in Germany. In July I had been invited to Germany for two training camps to help the female athlete Sümeyye Manz to prepare for the Olympics. At that time, I spoke with her uncle, Özer Gülec, about my training of children with disabilities. He said then, that if I needed help, to ask him. So I did...
"And in November, I competed at the Swiss Open, where I was fortunate enough to win a bronze. Athletes from Nuremburg Taekwondo Club Özer, hearing Vika's story, generously donated some of their own money.
"With all this assistance from friends and fellow athletes, our Aruba dream could be realised.
"The flight was a long one - and the first overseas trip for Vika. I worried about her shoulder, but she looked confident. Aruba proved beautiful. The hotel was excellent, all the people were very kind. Next morning we had training, then weigh-in and registration. I was very nervous, but tried not to show it to Vika. I had a bad night...
"The big day arrived. Vika seemed even more focused than usual. The Opening Ceremony was hot and loud. I could hear Vika whispering to herself, 'I must win, win'.
"Her first match was easy enough and by 3pm, she was ready for the final. Then we heard that her match had been put back: It would be the last bout of the day. Finally, the hour arrived. Vika stepped onto the mat. Could a girl with only nine months of training fight at this level of competition?
"She rose to the occasion. Gold! The disabled girl who had been abandoned at birth was at last a champion.
"It was Ukraine's first-ever medal in Para-taekwondo, and the first-ever medal for Ukraine in a Senior World Championship. We were ecstatic and all our friends shared our delight. I had never seen Vika looking joyful. Now, at last, I did. Sport - in this case, taekwondo - truly has the power to realise dreams and to change lives.
Ukarine's Viktoriia Marchuk (left) has overcome real adversity in her short life, including being abandoned as a baby, to become a world champion ©WTF
"Back home, the euphoria soon evaporated. In Ukraine, we were told that it was a 'random gold medal'. Moreover, the Ministry told us there were few athletes and few countries competing in Aruba. So no. There would be no prize money. No training grants. No financial support for the next world championships.
"We were unhappy, but got back into training. That is when even worse news hit us. Vika's shoulder was in pain. We found that her operation had been unsuccessful. Her condition deteriorated; she has cysts on her shoulder and is in constant pain. Ukrainian doctors are unable to help her.
Sheila Radziewicz: "The Impossible Only Takes a Little Longer"
Diagnosed at birth with thrombocytopenia-absent radius, known as TAR syndrome, the Massachusetts-born Radziewicz learned from an early age that she had to be independent if she was going to have the quality of life she craved.
"I grew up with the phrase, 'The impossible only takes a little longer,'" she told her local newspaper, Salem News.
Appropriately, that was the title of the book she released in November 2014.
"'The Impossible Only Takes a Little Longer: One Women's Story of Determination', is more than just a book," said the publishers in a press release. "It is a message about ability. It is one example about how living with a disability can be amazing despite society's challenges. One must purchase this book and experience her undaunted way of achieving so much despite the odds and obstacles society has put before her."
Working as a local advocate coordinator for Healing Abuse Working for Change, a charity that helps victims of domestic abuse, Radziewicz never misses training at Bruce McCorry's Martial Arts school. "She is a very motivating person for myself," said the owner, while her instructor Sandra LaRosa added: "She never feels sorry for herself."
It just goes to show that anyone can be happy, successful and lead a fulfilling life. Good luck to Sheila Radziewicz. We salute you.
Sharon Akewi: A man who dreams of being as big as Lionel Messi
"To all my disabled friends all over the world, taekwondo is beautiful, taekwondo is sweet," said Sharon Akewi, 30." If you are a disabled person like me, don't sit in your room, don't lock the door, come into taekwondo, you will have a great opportunity."
Akewi lost two fingers of his right hand at the age of 25, but that did not keep him from the sport he has loved since the age of 12.
"My master came to visit me in the hospital and motivated me to never give up, to keep practicing." After one year of rehabilitation, he did exactly that. "If you love it, no predicament is going to make you stop what you love to do," he added.
Now a taekwondo coach himself, Akewi has been helping friend John Bodu, 25. Bodu lost his right arm in an accident at age 14, but took up disabled football and cycling before being introduced to taekwondo by Akewi. The two attended their first Para-taekwondo Championships in Moscow 2014 and hope it will be the start of something special.
"I know the sky will not be the limit," said Bodu, who has medaled for Ghana in other Para-sports. "I want to do the same for taekwondo, I want to be the world's best!"
They have their sights high, which they hope to win not just for Ghana, but for "Africa as a whole." They also have aspirational sporting benchmarks, which they hope will elevate their chosen game into the big leagues.
"Just like you have world-class players - [Lionel] Messi or [Cristiano] Ronaldo in football, Ghanaian Athlete Urges Disabled: [Manny] Pacquiao or [Floyd] Mayweather in boxing - we hope taekwondo is going to be lifted up to that level," said Akewi. "When you hear about world champions, you will hear about Sharon Akewi and John Bodu. You make the name, you make the fame, you make the money."
Even so, however hard they fight on the mats, the two know they face another struggle back home - the struggle against prejudice. "In Ghana, it is not easy to have this hand and say you want to train someone," said Akewi.
And they both note a lack of financial support - they are "financially disabled" as Akewi puts it - and suffer from a dearth of training equipment, such as uniforms and protective gear. Both made pleas for philanthropists to step in an assist the sport in their country and across the African continent. "Disabled sports is like able-bodied sports," said Bodu.
Lydia Masole Pitso and Phoofolo Mokhethi: Enthusiastic newcomers from Lesotho
This is the challenge facing Lydia Masole Pitso, 18, and Phoofolo Mokhethi, 16, who both hail from the southern African country of Lesotho, when they took part in the 5th WTF World Para-Taekwondo Championships in Moscow in 2014.
The two teenagers both suffer from dual upper limb disabilities, and both attend the country's Saint Angelo's School. It is there that they were scouted by coach John Moorasama Nkesi, who told them about what taekwondo means.
"I told them they should not be ashamed of themselves, that they are training to defend themselves, and that they should have a high standard of discipline," he said. "If you are equipped with this skill, you can beat all the challenges in the world."
The two were won over. "I was so happy to be involved in taekwondo, I did not think that one day I would be among it," said Mokhethi.
The athletes, whose air tickets to Moscow were sponsored by the World Taekwondo Federation, were on their first trip abroad.
In the future, Mokhethi hopes to become a taekwondo coach, while Pitso harbours ambitions of being a soldier. But first, they face a trial by fire:
Yadav Kunwar: No mountain is too high for the man from Nepal
"I injured my hand, I lost two fingers in an industrial accident," said Yadav Kunwar, 41, from Nepal, recalling the incident that changed his life while working in South Korea. "When I had that accident, I felt like I lost my life."
Kunwar, a 25-year taekwondo veteran who competed in the 5th WTF World Para-Taekwondo Championships in Moscow in 2014, recalls how devastating the blow was: For two years, nursing his mutilated hand, he did not practice.
Then - hope.
"I heard about Para-taekwondo," said the trim, tatooed athlete. "When I heard about it, I hoped for a new life in taekwondo."
Indeed, the kick-centric sport is particularly suited for those suffering from upper limb injuries. he said. "Taekwondo plays with the foot, and uses the hand to protect," he said. "I feel like I am not 100 per cent, but that is no problem."
His motivation reborn, Kunwar dived back into his beloved sport and grabbed a bronze in the sparring category at the 4th WTF World Para-Taekwondo Championships held in Lausanne in 2013. That result made him one of Nepal's highest profile sporting heroes.
Back home in Nepal, taekwondo is well developed. It is the nation's most popular sport, and Kunwar himself is widely featured in national media. Now he is giving back to the sport as a coach, teaching the disabled around the country. In doing so, he hopes that he will no longer be a force of one. "I am the only Nepalese athlete here," he said of the Nepalese contingent in Moscow. "Next time, there will be more."
Taekwondo, which requires neither equipment nor stadium, is well suited to Nepal, he believes. "For taekwondo you don't need a cricket pitch, you can play it in a small room," he said. "It is very easy to play."
Nepal's soaring landscapes might just be the perfect breeding ground for taekwondo athletes, Kunwar reckons. "We are lightweight, high-altitude people," he said; his countrymen's physical combination of agility and leg strength is appropriate for the kick-based combat sport.
He hopes that one day there may be an even bigger event for those who practice Para-taekwondo. "I want to get gold at the Paralympics," he said."I want to be a medalist."
Nyshan Omirali: Former footballer reaches his goal in Moscow
"I felt joy, excitement and fulfillment," said the athlete. "The first person I contacted was my mother!"
The 22-year-old had every reason to feel on top of the world: He had just been crowned world champion in the K42, over 75 kilogram category after a series of tough fights, notably against opposition from Azerbaijan.
Omirali had previously played football, before being introduced to taekwondo by his coach, Almas Abdikairov. In the run-up to the World Championships, Omirali was put through a grueling work-up: cross-training, overall physical conditioning and match-specific training.
The preparation was particularly important for Omirali, as Moscow marked the first time he had stepped onto the mats of a World Championship. "It was my first experience at the top level," Omirali said.
Once he landed in the Russian capital, Omirali would find that it was not just the intense physical preparation that would carry him toward gold. As the fraught action in the Dinamo Sports Palace got underway, he would be favoured by the rules. With head kicks disallowed for the safety of the Para-athletes, the WTF had put a premium on spinning kicks to the body, which scored three points, compared to one point for normal kicks. And Omirali's favorite technique is his scorching spinning back kick.
The back-kick is a standout technique of taekwondo. A crowd-pleasing move, delivered with a full body spin and often also a jump, it is used largely in counter attacks. Known in martial arts and combat sports circles as one of the most powerful blows the human body can deliver, it smashes into the opponent's body protector.
This, then, would be the move that Omirali unleashed time and again. "My favourite technique is the back kick," he recalled. "I am glad it worked for me."
With the action over, Omirali had done what he had set out to do. "My ultimate goal was only gold, and only first place!" he said.
Hiroki Sugita: Foot-focused fighting style appeals to Japanese martial arts fan
Although the sport's Korean name translates to "the way of foot and fist," it has always focused most heavily on leg techniques. While taekwondo cannot compete with boxing in terms of punching or fencing in terms of sword-fighting, when it comes to kicking, taekwondo reigns supreme.
This emphasis is what drew Japan's Hiroki Sugita, 28, to taekwondo after a devastating accident.
"When I was 20 years old, I had a car accident: I was sitting next to the driver, a friend of mine," he recalls. The car crashed, leaving him with a serious disability.
Japan boasts a wealth of domestic martial arts and combat sports, including judo, karate and kendo. But judo requires a strong hand grip and kendo needs two hands to hold the bamboo sword. For a young man with Sugita's disability, a striking style was most appropriate. The choice came down to karate or its close cousin, taekwondo.
"Karate is more forceful, taekwondo is more agile," he said. "And my left arm is very problematic, so I wanted to find a sport that uses only the legs."
In the run-up to the 5th WTF World Para-taekwondo Championships in Moscow, Sugita did physical and tactical training, but his core workouts were focused on taekwondo's signature footwork. "My main training has been stretching and the basic kicks," he said.
Given the disabilities affecting most of its contestants, Para-taekwondo permits punches to the body, but will not award points for them, further strengthening its kick-centricity.
This emphasis is in line with Para- taekwondo's current stage of development and the athletes it attracts, said a senior official with the sport's world governing body.
"It is important that we broaden our base, we have to be inclusive," said Jacobus Engelbrecht, who heads the World Taekwondo Federation's Para-Taekwondo Committee. "It is about making sure opportunities are created."
But, Engelbrecht claimed it is also important to focus on the sport's core strengths in the here and now. "Let us develop one area properly," he said. "At the moment it is mainly for upper body amputees and limb deficiencies."
In other words, Taekwondo's famed kicks are, right now, being as heavily emphasised in the Para-sport as they are in the regular sport.
This, however, is not to say that taekwondo is simply about fast and forceful kicking; like all sports, it is equally about fair and friendly competition.
Sugita is currently a rarity among Para-athletes in his country. "In Japan, there are not that many Para-sparring athletes, though there are some Japanese Para-athletes who choose taekwondo for its foot-focused fighting style are some poomsae athletes," he said; "I want to exchange and meet and make friends. I want more interactions."
Haşim Celik: Inspired to take up taekwondo by an Olympic champion
In his K44 under 75 kg match against Boris Chepurenkov at the 5th WTF World Para-Taekwondo Championships in Moscow in 2014, the 23-year-old from Turkey adopted a wide stance, weight forward, stalking his opponent. Switching feet fluently, he controlled the distance, firing fluid round kicks off both forward and back legs, varied with a front pushing kick.
Although he was unable to fully deploy the point-winning jumping back spinning kick he had landed three times in his first match against Russian Makhdi Amarov - Chepurenkov jammed the kicks - Celik's rear-leg round kick, fired from the clinch-break, made an audible "thwack" as it knifed in under Chepurenkov's guard.
Final result: 5-1. That victory, following his earlier win, put Celik comfortably through to the quarter-finals.
Off the mats, Celik analyzed the match. "My coach ordered me to control the fight and to watch the opponent - to see his power, his speed, his empty spot," he explained. "After that, he ordered me to fire my techniques into the open spot. It got good results."
But things did not do either Celik or his coach's way in his semi-final match against Russia's Magomedzagir Isaldibirov.
Although Celik dropped his opponent twice, the hits were not registered on the PSS and the pacey Isaldibirov returned fire with a flurry of kicks, moving ahead in the scoring.
With the clock ticking, Celik unleashed a full arsenal of high-scoring techniques - jump spinning round kicks and jump spinning back kicks - keeping his opponent under pressure right up to the bell. But the final score was still 5-2 to the home-crowd favourite - who eventually took silver. That left Celik with a deserved bronze in one of the Championships' most competitive categories.
Looking downcast in the stands after his loss, Celik managed to summon up a smile and a shrug for those giving their condolences. "Maybe next time," he said.
Soft spoken and with a thoughtful demeanor, Celik, who was born with missing fingers and toes, was always shy: "When I was a child, I was so embarrassed because of my disability."
His father forced him socialise with other children and registered him on a football team, but the young Celik used to hide his hands behind his back - which did little for his play. His father, seeing this, offered him a financial reward for every goal he scored. The tactic worked, and his football improved.
Celik, currently based in Germany, started taekwondo after watching one of the sport's superstars, Servet Tazegül, at the Bavarian Championships in 2006. "I saw Servet doing all these tremendous kicks, these fancy looking techniques, I asked him how he did them and he told me to come and learn too," Celik recalls. "So I did."
The two train in the same club and became very close - to the point where Celik was the witness at Tazegul's wedding. (Tazegul was on his honeymoon during the Championships in Moscow, but still messaged Celik to wish him luck. "Even on his honeymoon, Servet is thinking about taekwondo!" Celik said.)
Celik had a formidable talent for the sport. This, married with a daily, after-school training programme, won him silver at the European Championships in Bucharest in 2013 and a gold at the World Para-Taekwondo Championships in Lausanne in the same year, making him one of sport's top players.
"His big advantage is he can attack with both his front and his back leg and his distancing is very good," said Turkish Coach Yilmaz Polat. "And he always listens to my orders during matches."
Coaching may be one of the reasons for Celik's pre-match calm. While he admits that he is nervous before matches - he does deep breathing exercises on match-day mornings - he claims he does not focus on who his upcoming opponents are, letting his coach take care of that. During events, he manages stress by talking with his team mates about anything but taekwondo.
Aside from taekwondo, Celik's goal is to finish university - he is a student at Germany's Friedrich Alexander University - and become a lawyer or a judge. But he also hopes his chosen sport will enter the Paralympics.
If it does, he could become a rich man.
"Olympic sports are very well supported by the Turkish Government," said fellow Turk and World Taekwondo Federation auditor Ali Sagirkaya, who estimates that Tazegül was awarded around $1 million for his Olympic gold medal at London 2012. But currently, taekwondo is not in the Paralympics, meaning that there is little cash available in the sport - even in a country as taekwondo-crazy as Turkey.
However, for Celik, none of this is important. "I don't do this for the money, I am in love with this sport," he said. "If I raise the Turkish flag over the arena, that is my reward; it is worth millions to me."
Lisa Gjessing: Once an elite performer, now a Para-taekwondo world champion
The 35-year old from Denmark boasts the svelte physique of an elite-level athlete and the sculpted Nordic facial features that modelling agencies would kill for. She is successful both professionally - she is a State prosecutor - and personally – she is married with two children, aged five and eight.
But cancer is no respecter of looks or position. In 2009, Gjessing was diagnosed with the disease.
"It was a big shock," she said. Gjessing underwent various treatments and in 2012, her lower left arm was amputated. The trauma forced some introspection, and she decided to return to an old love.
Before her illness, Gjessing had practiced taekwondo, competing at the 2001 and 2003 World Championships. But in 2004, she had given up the practice, partly due to family and educational commitments, and partly due to failing to qualify for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Fast forward to 2012, and while she was in rehabilitation, she saw something that inspired.
"I saw the Paralympics in London a few months after my amputation, and I thought, 'How can I feel sorry for myself, when they can do all this?'" she recalled.
She contacted her former coach Bjarne Johansen. After an eight-year layoff, Gjessing got back into training. "Johansen had an elite taekwondo centre and his guys were on a high level," she said. "But I found I could still kick."
Just a month-and-a-half later, she entered the able-bodied Danish National Championships and won in her class. "That felt really good," she admitted, and started intensive training for the 2013 World Para-Taekwondo Championships in Lausanne.
There, she took home the gold. That win, plus her previous experience in able-bodied taekwondo, gives her a unique vantage point from which to judge the two formats.
Para-taekwondo has removed the crowd-pleasing head kicks which tend to be lateral, this makes it more linear, with more back-and-forth movement, she said. She was also surprised that, at least in the women's categories, there was as wide a pool of opponents as in able-bodied. She will stick with the Para-format.
"From now on, I'm only doing Para- taekwondo, I am not going back to able-bodied," she said. "With work and kids, I don't want to fight with head contact."
At the 2014 World Championships in Moscow, having trained six days a week for months in the run-up she was in tigerish condition to defend her title.
Her first two matches were a cruise. Against relatively inexperienced opposition, she won 16-0 and 12-0; both fights were - prudently - stopped by the judges. The situation presented Gjessing with an issue. "I felt I should have been more gentle with them, I want them to be up and coming as I want more competitors," she said. "It is a dilemma."
Plunged into near-mortal combat, Gjessing was unable to crack Aynur's water-tight guard. "She was really good, she covered up and did her thing," said Gjessing, who, for the first two rounds, was behind on points. What she did not realise, as her opponent came out for the final round, was how exhausted she was. "I was really tired, and my concentration slipped," said Aynur. "The last 30 seconds decided the match."
Needing a high-risk, high-scoring technique, Gjessing unleashed a spinning back kick. It landed and put her ahead. When the smoke cleared, she was holding gold in the women's under 58 kilogram K44 class with a score of 5-3.
Aynur's dismay was evident when she stood on the silver rostrum: Tears streamed down her face. Yet the two are not to-the-death rivals. "We only fight on the mats; off them, we are good friends," said Aynur.
For Gjessing, though, family is the most important thing.
"My family is very supportive, but I can't do this all year round," she said. "I have not followed the kids to school since May and I hardly pick them up, so now, I am ready for some family time."
In the aftermath of cancer, the combination of Para-taekwondo and victory has proven effective life therapy. "I love doing taekwondo, I love the sport, I love the kicking, I love the people," she said. "Doing something you like and winning a world championship fills a center in your brain. I think I am happier than before."
That is confirmed by her colleagues. "She is such a joy to be with," said Danish team head and President of the Danish Taekwondo Federation, Ejnar Skovgaard Mikkelson. "There is such a joy in her, and in this arena, too; you don't feel that so much in ordinary taekwondo."
Johansen puts it succinctly. Para-taekwondo, he says, is "gasoline for life".
And Gjessing plans to motor on. "I hope that this goes through to the Paralympics, that is the big dream," she said. "If it is in Tokyo in 2020, I can promise you: I'll be ready."
Viktoriia Marchuk: A Ukrainian national treasure
It will be intimidating for any athlete to step onto the competition mats of the 5th WTF World Para-taekwondo Championships, but it might help if you have the sport's star athlete on your team. And well, it might just be a bit inspirational, too.
Viktoriia Marchuk, who was born with severely disabled arms, was abandoned as a baby and raised in an orphanage, suffering a hard life before being discovered by taekwondo coach Yuliya Volkova, who was born with severely disabled arms, was abandoned as a baby and raised in an orphanage, suffering a hard life before being discovered by taekwondo coach Yuliya Volkova. Marchuk, then 22-years-old and previously a track and field athlete, was raised to Championship level by Volkova's patient coaching.
In 2012 it all came together. Marchuk – better known simply as Vika - grabbed gold at the 3rd WTF World Para-taekwondo Championships in Santa Cruz, Aruba, that year. In 2013, she repeated the feat at the 4th Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Marchuk's story - a combination of tough life, fairy godmother coach and bravura performance in elite global competition - captured the hearts of the global taekwondo community. So, what was the legacy of those Championship wins?
"I think my success in the World Championships showed other people that regardless of whether you are healthy or have a disability, you can have success if you work hard," said Marchuk, who also received an apartment and a small stipend from a grateful Government.
For Moscow 2014, Ukraine fielded a five-strong team, and some of the athletes admitted that the smiling team-mate they train alongside is an inspiration.
"I am in training together with Vika - the same dojang, the same coach," said 15-year-old Oksana Hrankina. "I see how big and how strong her spirit is; it is a big motivation for me to get stronger to get the same success."
It is not just athletes who learned of Vika's story and took action.
"In our country, people with disabilities are not like others, they are second- class citizens," said Team Ukraine's male team coach Serhiy Brushnitskyy. "I was thinking of working with such people after Vika's success. People with disabilities are strong enough; I am proud to work with people with disabilities in the Ukraine."
And however serious social prejudices against the disabled may be in Ukraine, being a world-class Para-athlete has granted many a sense of self-worth and dignity.
"I know that some people in our country consider the disabled second- class citizens, but I don't think I am," said Mykola Nabyt, 31. "I try to do my best to reach my goal, to be successful, to lead a full life.I find that sometimes I do better than able-bodied people!"
The Ukrainians wre competing against a background of political turmoil roiling their country, but did not letting that adjust their focus on the competition.
To return to Marchuk: How had she been preparing to defend her title?
In the run up to Moscow, she has added a new kick to her arsenal, trained power and stamina with field and track work, and been strengthening her key weapons – her legs – with weight training. "I am nervous, but that is usual for every athlete," she said. "I am going to win; I am confident enough."
Underpinning her confidence was not just skill and experience, but the influence of the mentor who introduced her to taekwondo – Yuliya Volkova.
"I am so happy that Yuliya found me a couple of years ago," Marchuk said. "It is very hard to work with disabled people, so I am very appreciative that she believes in me."
Other members of the team shared Marchuk's affection for their coach.
"Yuliya is like a second mom to me," said Lebyedyeva. "She supports me all the time, in every way and at every moment."
Volkova's position as the founding mother of Para-taekwondo in Ukraine has now been set in concrete. Two days before the kick-off of the Moscow Championship, a Ukrainian Para-taekwondo association was established with Volkova as secretary general. Therefore, it seemed entirely appropriately that in the Russian capital she won her third consecutive Para-Taekwondo World Championship title.