A young Tom Burns dreamed of growing up to be a ninja.
It’s fair to say he’s pretty close – the 20-year-old taekwondo athlete will be New Zealand’s sole representative for the sport at the 2021 Olympic Games.
His love of taekwondo started when he was six, when he bugged his parents to learn a martial art.
He’s been training and competing ever since, but the tipping point for Burns came during the 2016 Junior World Championships, held in Burnaby, Canada.
Kiwi Tom Burns competing at the 2016 Junior World Championships.
“I sacrificed most of Year 12 for that – I didn’t sit any of my exams, I got derived grades for them. I said to my parents, ‘My goal is to go there and win one fight. If that’s all that happens, I’ll stop taekwondo next year and focus on school a bit more’.”
“I went there and won three fights.”
He made the top five at the championships, a feat no New Zealander had achieved before. School was taking a back seat for a bit longer.
He knew he needed to head overseas to develop his skills and in 2018, took up a scholarship to study sports, majoring in taekwondo, at the Korea Nazarene University in Cheonan.
His efforts paid off: Earlier this year, Burns flew to Queensland to compete in the Oceania Olympic qualification tournament. He won his category and the New Zealand Olympic Committee said they’d be in touch to let him know if he would be selected for the Olympics.
Tom Burns has been studying and living in South Korea for the last two years, to develop his taekwondo skills. Photo: Tom Burns/Supplied
Before heading back to his studies in South Korea, he flew to his family in Christchurch on March 1, where he waited to hear if he’d made the cut.
But globally, the pandemic was spreading, and the virus was booming in South Korea.
“I was checking the Air New Zealand app on my phone and I said to my dad, ‘My flight to South Korea from Auckland has disappeared’.”
A quick call to the airline confirmed they had halted certain flights.
Olympic-wise, things were still up in the air for Burns. He still hadn’t had a call from the NZOC, despite the end of the promised notification period drawing near.
“We were saying if I didn’t get selected, I’ll stay in New Zealand a bit longer. Then on the 10th [of March], I got a phone call saying, ‘you're in, you're going to Tokyo.’”
Tom Burns, middle row far right, majors in taekwondo at Korea Nazarene University. Photo: Tom Burns/Supplied
He needed to get back to his training, which meant getting back to South Korea.
He scrambled to find an alternative route, managing to nab a seat on a Singapore Airlines flight, and winged his way out of New Zealand two days before the lockdown started.
With the Olympics postponed Burns has found himself in temporary limbo.
“If COVID wasn’t happening right now, the nerves would be kicking in, realising I was off to Tokyo. But instead, it’s killed most international competition.”
He normally travels to China twice a year to compete, as well as to other countries close to South Korea. It’s a regime that demands strict dieting to make weight and a tough training schedule.
“Because [the Games] were postponed, it still hasn't sunk in that I’ll be walking out in that opening ceremony. When I receive my Olympic uniform, I'll probably sit there and look at it like, ‘wow, this is really happening’.”
- Asia Media Centre