Ailsa Harvey & Harry McArthur
Martial arts are a variety of different sports that contain codified systems of combat. Originating in Asia and particularly prominent in China, Korea and Japan, the sport was practised to teach self-defence. As time has progressed it is used for military and law enforcement, mental and spiritual development and, most importantly for us, sport.
A lot of the techniques learned in one martial art can be transferrable with another, and there are no two more transferrable than kickboxing to taekwondo. Kickboxing is martial art that combines boxing with elements of karate, in particular, barefoot kicking. Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that emphasises kicking; this can be head height kicks, spinning-kicks, as well as other fast-kicking techniques.
We at PACE News caught up with GB Taekwondo’s Joel Walsh, who successfully made the transfer between kickboxing to taekwondo and Dean Apicella, who was a very successful kickboxer growing up and is trying to break in to the GB team.
Cardiff-born Joel is 21 years old and joined team GB earlier this year when his skills were spotted on social media. “I was talent scouted by team GB after they saw some of my footage on Instagram,” he explains. “After a successful scouting, trial and medical process I was signed.”
Having been a kickboxer since the age of four, Joel began the transition to competing in taekwondo just over a year ago. “I took up kickboxing for self-defence and changed over to taekwondo to get myself onto the Olympic pathway,” he says.
“As a junior kickboxer I won almost every title in Britain several times; Welsh, English & British champion a few times over. Taekwondo was the best option of sports that I could transfer my kickboxing skills over to.”
Last year, Joel became the British Taekwondo in the 63kg division, but although this is one of his proudest moments, he explains that in general, “representing Great Britain at international competition is something [he] will always be proud of.”
While Joel says his transition was “inspired by a few of the members of the GB team who came from a kickboxing background as well as Great Britain’s increasing success in taekwondo in the last few Olympic Games.” he adds, “I guess I just like to fight.”
Someone else who has proved his love for fighting is Dean Apicella. The 21-year-old from Port Seton, just outside Edinburgh, has done kickboxing since he was twelve years old. During this time, he has been the Scottish champion over 30 times, British champion four times, European champion twice and world champion four times, but now he is focusing on Taekwondo. Also getting into Taekwondo through a talent portal on Instagram, Dean hopes to be chosen for the GB team as he awaits his fate.
“I was at a competition in February, down in Birmingham, where I was competing in the British championships,” he explains. “Derek Morgan, who is the talent scout for GB Taekwondo, was there and put together some footage of me fighting. He followed me up to Aberdeen in March; he took more footage of me fighting. I didn’t even know he was watching me, but essentially, he’s made a compilation of me fighting and sent it to the GB coaches.”
The coaches decided they wanted to see more of Dean’s taekwondo skills and invited him to a two-day trial in Manchester. “I am currently waiting to hear back from them,” Dean says. “If I get in the team it’ll be a full time move to Manchester and a full-time training programme; it’d be a complete change in life for me.”
After taking part in a ‘taster session’ with team GB, Dean was left in awe. “Once you’ve done a sport for eight years you think you know everything in the book but within 20 minutes into the session I was learning different ways to kick, different ways to angle my body; using your hips to extend to get reach and stuff,” he says. “The GB guys were just different class. You think you are a good kicker then you go down there, and you see a good kicker.
“They know nothing else but to win, to excel, to not be beat. To be in that environment was the most refreshing thing for me. I know if I was to get in and go down there it would feel natural, being amongst people who are in the same headspace as me.”
Having focused so much time on fighting, both Dean and Joel recognise the sacrifices they have had to make.
Dean explains, “I used to give up weekends for it; it would be getting up early in the morning on a Saturday and going through to Glasgow to train, as I was training virtually every day. I was constantly on a strict diet, and I never used to drink. I wouldn’t say it was no life, as it was the life I wanted.”
Currently working at his job at Standard Life as well as training, Dean says he has entered a cycle of “work, train, sleep”, but he says, “It’s something that I’ve always wanted, and I want it that much, that it has always been worth the sacrifice.”
Being on team GB, Joel has also witnessed the pressure. “Sometimes it does get tough and you have to make sacrifices,” he says. “However, it’s a mental test of how well you prioritise things as an athlete and I get a lot of help from the support staff at GB.”
Now living and training in Manchester, Joel occasionally manages to find time to travel back to Wales and socialise with old friends there. “When I’m back home in Cardiff, I regularly play football with my school friends. They do help keep me fit, however I can confirm I am much better at kicking people than footballs!”
Competing at such a high level, Joel is surrounded by inspiration, but when asked to choose his role model, he says, “World GP Gold medallist Mahama Cho is my biggest role model within taekwondo. The energy and positivity he brings to the gym and wisdom he regularly passes down to me is second to none. Outside of the sport my original coach Jeff Copp has guided me for nearly two decades.”
For Dean, he hopes to apply his old tactics to become better than the athletes he currently looks up to. “There’s a guy from Korea who is number one in the world at my weight, so I want to beat him essentially. He’s top of the game,” he explains. “That’s how I done it when I was in kickboxing. I looked at the guys who were top of the game in my weight division- beat them. Looked at the guys who were top of the weight division up- beat them. I suppose I will just look to replicate that in taekwondo. If I can have half the success in taekwondo that I’ve had in kickboxing, I’ll be alright.”
For the future, like many athletes, Dean is aiming high for the Olympics: “It would be amazing if I could do the taekwondo thing; be part of the Olympic team; so, getting my foot in the door, starting to win fights and getting in for the Olympics, that’d be the dream.”
Joel sees Paris 2024 as his realistic Olympic goal and also has high hopes within the next year of his career. “In the future I am hoping to grow and develop as a taekwondo player,” he says. “I am still adapting to the sport and being on the professional circuit, I am taking it one year at a time. 2019 is all about medalling internationally as well as the world championships I am hoping to compete in.”
While taekwondo and kickboxing may be similar, the two athletes are progressing quickly in their new sports. Having taken the step into taekwondo, they are keen for others to experience their passions.
Dean focuses on the potential lifestyle benefits, explaining, “You feel better about yourself; fitter, stronger, faster. You’ve got a reason to do something; better eating habits as you know it’ll help you perform better. I reckon if anyone took up Martial Arts whilst taking it seriously it will better their lifestyle as a whole.”
Joel adds, “Taekwondo is great for self-defence, stress relief and confidence as well as being great fun and a great way to stay in shape. Anyone can contact British Taekwondo for information about getting involved locally.”
Dean ended our conversation telling us about his biggest sporting achievement to date, “I have won the most prestigious martial arts tournament in the world, the Irish Open, and I have won that twice- once as part of a team and once individually. I lost twice in the final there, both on the same day, which was probably the worst day of my life.
“My dad was the one to push me to the next level, as he seen how badly I always wanted to win and we worked to the goals that I set. Eventually the goal was the Irish open, and after we won that and I heard the buzzer I just ran over and gave my dad a cuddle because for me that’s the biggest thing I’ve done.
He finished, “I set a goal and failed at it, then failed at it again. Then the third time; I nailed it! Failed it, failed it; nailed it!”