Champion fought on in face of cancer tragedies

Diana and Roy Stevenson with Sarah. Picture: Ross Parry Agency
Diana and Roy Stevenson with Sarah. Picture: Ross Parry Agency
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Eagle-eyed viewers watching Doncaster’s Sarah Stevenson in the taekwondo ring yesterday, where her gold medal hopes were dashed, may have been able to make out a tattoo on her wrist bearing three simple words: “because of you”.

The tattoo is a reminder of the athlete’s own inspiration and the personal tragedy she has overcome.

The taekwondo star lost both of her parents to cancer in just a few weeks of each other last year. The resultant emotional turmoil would have been enough to derail the training of most athletes but from an early age Stevenson has shown a grit and determination worthy of any champion.

She first attended the Doncaster Allstars club at the age of seven with her elder brother Simon after growing tired of being targeted by bullies. Although she initially just wanted to be able to protect herself she soon found she had a remarkable talent for the sport.

By 1998 she was crowned Junior World Champion and setting her sights on the next level.

Just two years later, she had drawn the attention of martial arts superstar and actor Jackie Chan while he was in the UK promoting his film Shanghai Noon.

Chan was so impressed with the South Yorkshire athlete’s skill that he sponsored her to participate in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Aged just 17 she placed fourth overall, drawing plaudits from the world over. The next year her success continued to grow and she went on to become the first British taekwondo World Champion in 2001.

Although she had a disappointing Olympics in Athens in 2004 she continued to win awards in Taekwondo all over the world.

However her ensuing successes and triumphs were almost always met with adversity and difficulty.

At the last Olympics in Beijing she was the victim of an appalling judging error when a high kick was not registered.

The error led to her being eliminated amid much controversy. Her corner team appealed and she was reinstated, giving her less than half and hour to prepare for the semi-final. During the warm up she twisted her ankle and would eventually be defeated by a Mexican martial artist.

Despite her injuries she would go on to claim the bronze medal in the repechage heat to determine third place and become the only British Taekwondo medallist at the Games.

The mistake led to an apology from the Chinese game organisers and a shift in the culture of the sport, with electronic scoring equipment now commonly used in tournaments, including the current Games.

British, European and World titles followed but the sportswoman was still to suffer a huge personal tragedy.

Both of her parents had been diagnosed with serious illnesses and Stevenson took time out from her career to nurse them both.

After agonising about competing in the World Championships in May 2011 she eventually decided to go ahead, taking the title for a third time.

Stevenson emotionally dedicated her success to her family in the aftermath, proclaiming them both to be “her inspiration”.

Sadly neither parent would be able to watch their daughter compete in London. Her father Roy died from a brain tumour in July 2011 while her mother Diane lost her battle to cancer four months later.

Earlier this year she said: “I’ve got to just learn to live with the fact that they’re not going to be physically here but maybe I can use it as an advantage and say, ‘You know what, no one else’s parents can actually be with them on the ring, and hopefully they can be’.”

Her determination in the face of adversity cemented her status as one of Great Britain’s sporting ambassadors, a fact underscored by London 2012 organisers selecting her to read out the Olympic oath on behalf of all the athletes at the opening ceremony.