By Ian Gordon
Lauren Williams says she does not feel under added pressure to retain her European Taekwondo Championships title in Russia on Saturday.
The Blackwood teenager claimed her first major senior gold medal at the Europeans in Switzerland two years ago.
Now two years on, she heads to Kazan one of the favourites in the -67kg category in what is a major stepping stone on the road to Tokyo 2020.
“It was quite unexpected,” 19-year-old Williams, speaking to Dai Sport at taekwondo’s GB Academy in Manchester, said of that triumph in Montreux.
“I had only just transitioned to the senior programme so I didn’t have any expectation going into that competition.
“It was ‘I am going to go there and do my best’ and I came away with the gold.
“This time there is that added pressure with people expecting me to medal.
“But I will just focus on what I have to do on the day. I am not putting that extra pressure on myself.
“The road to Tokyo began for me the day I stepped into the academy in Manchester.
“Every step now is a step towards Tokyo. Every competition counts, but the Europeans are a major step to my own goal.”
Williams had won multiple world and European championships as a kick boxer before making the switch.
And countryman and double Olympic champ Jade Jones played a key role in the switch of martial arts for Williams.
She added: “I didn’t know about taekwondo until I watched it.
“I was on holiday in a little touring caravan in the south of England and the London Olympics came on.
“We didn’t know anything about it and we only watched it as we saw a GB athlete. At the time I did kick-boxing.
“It looked similar as it was another martial art then Jade started getting these points and it was getting the audience involved and it got me involved.
“I was screaming for her and she won. My Dad looked at me and said if it was something I wanted to do.
“At the time I was ‘what are you talking about’.”
Williams was only 14 then and too young to live in the academy housing in Manchester.
But knowing it was too good an opportunity to miss, her family made the sacrifices she hopes to repay in Tokyo 2020.
“My Mum moved up here to Manchester and we lived in a caravan for 18 months while my Dad and my sister stayed in Wales,” said Williams.
“She travelled 150 miles a day taking me back and forth to training and when I was 16 I moved into academy housing.
“It’s gone from there. I have got a lot to make up for as they have done a lot for me but hopefully an Olympic medal will do that.”
Williams had made the switch just too late to qualify for the last Olympics in Rio 2016.
But her promise was such that she went as reserve to Bianca Walkden who will defend her European title in Russia on Sunday.
She added: “I expected coming into the academy and with the way the rankings system works that I wouldn’t get enough points to get me into the to six to qualify.
“But I didn’t expect to go as a reserve so when that experience came around it was phenomenal.
“I didn’t think ‘I am here and I am so close’. But it was hard to watch my weight category on the day as I felt I had the ability to do something at the Olympics.
“But that time wasn’t then. But I did use the experience to my advantage and gained as much as I could from it and hopefully that will help me in the build-up to Tokyo
“Both Jade and Bianca are massive role models, their intensity and commitment to the training sessions is still as strong as when they first started.
“For me that’s amazing to see and to be training with them is the best preparation I could have.
“I know some athletes would be like ‘I’ll retire now as I’ve done everything’, but Jade’s mentality is amazing.
“I want to achieve as much as Jade has.”