A long leg came shooting out and smashed into the blue “colpitore” with such force that I jumped. WHOMP! I was sitting several meters away and had been expecting the kick but the force and intensity startled me.
Italy’s Olympic silver-medal Taekwondo champion Mauro Sarmiento was warming up. He is 1,95 meters tall (nearly 6’ 5’’) and weights 85 kilos (187 pounds) and moves around his training pad with the grace of a ballet dancer.
He prances around the mat, twirls around and sends kicks flying over the head of his sparring partner. It looks like a scene from the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” But it is hardly fiction, this is reality. Mauro Sarmiento is aiming for gold in London.
When he is not sparring, it is hard to imagine his force. Mauro is tall, thin with big brown eyes, a sweet smile and gentle manner. In an interview I did with him today for AP Television he explained to me that he grew up in the Casoria area of Naples. It is a lower-class neighborhood where the Camorra Mafia has put down roots and jobs are not always easy to find. On the one hand the town has talent and prospects, it has a growing modern art museum called the CAM (Casoria Art Museum), but also has suffered from the Naples garbage crisis, and in 2005 the entire city council was dissolved because of Camorra Mafia infiltration.
Mauro told me that Taekwondo is more popular in Southern Italy particularly in the Campania region of Naples, Puglia, Calabria and Sicily. He said in these areas, unlike northern Italy, “there are less possibilities for work, and sports is a way to get ahead.”
Mauro, like many boys in Italy, dreamed of becoming a soccer star, and he certainly knew how to kick. But the combination of the power in his legs, grace, inner strength and a capacity for concentration pushed him towards another sport less popular in Italy, Taekwondo. He said his Mamma was against it, she was concerned the sport was “too violent” and when he started she thought her son was “being attacked”. Mauro explains that as a child he was shy and well-behaved (“timido” and “buono”) and his parents were worried that the sport would make him aggressive. But Mauro says they soon learned that, to the contrary, Taekwondo gave him a “culture of non-violence” and a “sense of ethics” which include “respect for your adversary and especially for your coach.”
Mauro spoke respectfully of American Taekwondo Champion Steven Lopez — and his talented Taekwondo champion sister who will be in London, as well as Iranian Hadi Saei (gold medal in Beijing) and the Azerbaijani and British Taekwondo champions.
Part of the difficulties and joys of working for a news agency is that you never know what your are going to be covering next. One day I am covering the Vatican, the next Berlusconi, the next an earthquake or a shipwreck. Often I find myself in new and exciting situations and often am completely ignorant of the subject I have to cover. That was the case today. When I walked into the training center today I had no previous knowledge of Taekwondo. It was a pleasure to learn more and see it practiced by one of the world’s best. As you can see from the photo taken by my colleague AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia below, I was mesmerized and slightly intimidated.
Taekwondo is an ancient Korean martial art practiced by noble warriors over centuries. It was added to the Olympic games in 2000. According to the World Taekwondo Federation, “It is a discipline that shows ways of enhancing our spirit and life through training our body and mind.” It adds, “When you do Taekwondo, you should make your mind peaceful and synchronize your mind with your movements, and extend this harmony to your life and society.”
By age 15 Mauro was already emerging as an important talent and at age 18 he moved to Rome to dedicate himself his training. Mauro says his parents realized by letting him pursue his dreams it could mean “oro” (gold) for them. “Oro” in terms of the gold medals he would win and “orgolio”, pride that they would feel in his achievements.
Mauro is engaged to another Taekwondo talent, Veronica Calabrese, she participated in the Beijing Olympics but did not qualify for London. Veronica lives with Mauro in the Olympic training center in Rome and will accompany him to London. He wears her black belt for training and will also wear it during the competition for goodluck.
Mauro explains to me that as a Neapolitan he and his family are “scaramantico” (superstitious). His parents will not be coming to London because they did not accompany him to Beijing Olympics, where he won the silver medal, instead they watched the match on TV. They think that must have brought him luck, so they will do the same in July.
I too will be watching, eager to see Mauro take on the world’s best with his mighty kicks and athletic grace.