Tom Smith would probably now be a university student had he not graduated from the Fighting Chance ‘Battle4Brazil’ initiative to become a full-time taekwondo player.
Instead, the London teenager is part of the largest squad ever assembled by GB Taekwondo for an overseas tournament.
This weekend Smith and 25 others are in action at the Luxor Open in Egypt, the first of three Middle East hosted competitions taking place over the next three weeks.
Understandably, the 19-year-old from Poplar is excited by an opportunity to fight alongside Olympic champion Jade Jones plus World Grand Prix gold medallists, Lutalo Muhammad and Mahama Cho.
“It’s a great chance to show what I can do against top level competition,” said Smith who marked his WTF taekwondo debut with a gold medal at the recent Nottingham Open.
“When I first moved to the Academy it was surreal talking to and training with the likes of Jade and Lutalo. But now I know them it is pretty normal.”
“I think I have adjusted really well and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else now.”
Until he impressed the Fighting Chance selection panel last year, Smith, a self confessed Spurs fan, was taking a gym instructors’ course at Canterbury College. He previously gained a B Tech Level 3 distinction in sport.
“It was either get into the Academy or go to University. Thankfully, I got through,” added Smith who applied for the inaugural Fighting Chance programme in 2009 only to be rejected for being too young.
Smith, formerly a top ITF taekwondo exponent, now fighting at -80kg, became a full-time GB player last September at the same time as Mancunian Dominic Brookes.
Chemistry graduate Brookes was already well known to GB bosses, competing across Europe and at the 2012 European Championships staged in Manchester.
However, since finishing his studies the 24-year-old has already seen the benefits of regular training. He didn’t win a medal at the inaugural World Grand Prix last December.
But victory over Korean world champion, Tae Moon Cha, was one of the highlights of the three-day meeting. Now, with valuable ranking points at stake in Luxor and at the next event in Fujairah, Brookes aims to show that result wasn’t a fluke.
“It’s hard not to think about that win but you have got to move on,” he agreed. “However, it did fill me with confidence because if I can beat Cha I can beat anyone.”
“Since the Grand Prix came on the calendar it is all about getting points towards selection for Rio 2016 and I have noticed a lot of the big names are being consistent in every single tournament.”
“So, standard wise in Egypt I am expecting similar to the European tournaments. I am excited just from the pure aspect of never having been to this part of the world before.”
“However, because it is a new competition I have been warned to expect anything.”
Also included in GB Taekwondo’s mammoth squad is Smith’s fellow Londoner, Gurpreet Singh-the newest Academy addition of all.
For London 2012 golden girl Jones and Olympic bronze medallist, Muhammad, Luxor marks their first competition of 2014.
Liverpudlian Martin Stamper, who narrowly missed a podium finish at the London Games, drops down from his Olympic weight of -68kg to fight alongside 2011 world silver medallist, Michael Harvey and Jordan Gayle at -63kg.
Order of Play for Luxor Open, Egypt:
Saturday (Feb 15):
-58kg: Dominic Brookes (Manchester), Darren Chapman (Northampton), Gurpreet Singh (Forest Gate, London).
-57kg: Rachelle Booth (Wigan), Nicole Huntington (Ipswich), Jade Jones (Flint).
Sunday (Feb 16):
-63kg: Jordan Gayle (Manchester), Michael Harvey (Manchester), Martin Stamper (Liverpool)
-68kg: Ben Haines (Portsmouth), Ruebyn Richards (Nottingham), Tony Stephenson (Bury)
-74kg: Andrew Deer (Tamworth), George Lee (Lewisham, London).
-49kg: Georgia Barnes (Southampton).
Monday (Feb 17):
-80kg: Daniel Dowling (Exeter), Lutalo Muhammad (Walthamstow, London), Damon Sansum (Elgin), Tom Smith (Poplar, London)
+87kg: Mahama Cho (Abidjan), Murdo Mackenzie (Inverness), Lyle Walker (Law, Lanarkshire).
-67kg: India Isles (Perth), Taylor Shaw (Scarborough).
+73kg: Stephanie Allen (Battersea), Bianca Walkden (Liverpool).