Just inches away from the finish line of his long road to the Olympics, Terrence Jennings appeared on the brink of another letdown.
The 2004 Games eluded the taekwondo athlete when it didn’t offer his weight class. The 2008 Olympics went by the wayside after he injured both knees.
This time, on March 10 at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Colorado Springs, the London Games seemed to be slipping away during the final fight of his grueling, 18-month qualification process.
Jennings, needing only to win one of two fights against his final opponent to qualify for the Olympics, had lost the first match, and the momentum looked to be running away from him as the second one got underway. His opponent, 2008 Olympic silver medalist Mark Lopez, smelled blood.
At that moment, the 25-year-old Alexandria native had every right to be nervous. But that’s not how Jennings responds to adversity.
“I was more confident in the second fight than I was in the first fight,” Jennings said. “The first fight I was a little nervous and I felt a little uneasy, but the second fight I just went out there, and for some reason I was prepared for it to go to two fights. I knew if it came down to that, I was ready for it.”
With less than a minute to go in that final fight, Jennings’s leg cut through the air with merciless speed to deliver the clinching blow. Suddenly, he found himself on the other side of the finish line, smiling down in disbelief as mounds of built-up pressure crumbled at his feet.
“For me it was more along the lines of a relief factor,” Jennings said. “It’s a lot of pressure knowing that after all the stuff you’ve gone through over the last year to qualify in that division that you might not be the one going to the Olympic Games.”
Repeated struggles with injury rendered Jennings’ ascendence to the pinnacle of his sport an unlikely outcome in the eyes of some observers. Indeed, his mother hardly could have seen anything resembling future Olympic glory when Jennings first caught wind of taekwondo at age 10 at the Landmark Mall in Alexandria. That day, Jennings stopped to stare at a TV screen depicting the Ninja Turtles, prompting a man at a nearby taekwondo kiosk to offer the boy a free martial arts lesson.
Eight years later, Jennings graduated from T.C. Williams High School as a taekwondo prodigy, having won numerous tournaments in addition to garnering a silver medal at the 2003 Pan-American Championships in Brazil. But his high school classmates never really understood what the whole taekwondo thing meant until this year.
“They didn’t really know what it was because they couldn’t identify with it,” Jennings said. “But once you tell someone you’re going to the Olympics, it doesn’t matter what sport you play. You could go for hopscotch and they just know you’re an Olympian.”
Jennings found difficulty balancing training and odd jobs with his school work at Northern Virginia Community College, and the weight classes at the 2004 Games ensured he wouldn’t be going to Athens anyway. He trained harder than ever before to ready himself for his next target, the 2008 Games in Beijing. Those aspirations were delayed when he tore his left meniscus during his first Olympic trials. After surgery and rehab, he returned in time for the second trials, only to tear his right meniscus just before they began.
“It was definitely a long road to get back to where I was, and then once I felt good enough to train again, hurting my knee the second time was just kind of like, ‘Man, I’ve got to do this all again,’” Jennings said. “So I just tried to keep myself focused one day at a time and understand that it wasn’t the end of the world, even though at times it was hard to understand why I was back in that situation again.”
Although his perseverance comes naturally, much of it was ingrained from a young age by one of the most prominent taekwondo instructors in the world, Patrice Remarck. The world champion taekwondo master just happened to run an Alexandria-based school, where Jennings learned how to battle through eight-hour training sessions that pushed strength and nerve to the brink.
Jennings is quick to acknowledge how fortunate he was to be taken in by a teacher as wise as Remarck, who also has trained three athletes from Great Britain, Mali and Senegal that will compete in London. Having excelled at other sports such as football and track, Jennings always possessed raw athletic ability. Remarck — a former Ivory Coast Olympian — molded that talent with lessons about mental fortitude, showing Jennings how to out-think opponents in critical moments.
“Some of the stories about [Remarck] are legendary; his strength, his power,” said USA national team coach Juan Moreno, who has coached Jennings during the past year at his training center in Miami. “But his intellect as a coach has really helped develop TJ since he was a young kid. So I think some of those things that Patrice instilled in TJ are very evident in him today. His athleticism is natural, but Patrice definitely enhanced it at a very young age.”
Now Jennings must harness everything that’s been thrown his way during the past 15 years to achieve the ultimate prize.
“I have a couple other little things that I want to do, like win a world championship and win a world cup,” Jennings said. “But at the same time, to be able to say that you’ve won an Olympic gold medal, you can’t put that into words.”