London 2012: Britain's Aaron Cook targets taekwondo gold
In the latest part of our weekly #olympicthursday series profiling leading British hopes, BBC Olympic sports reporter Nick Hope speaks to taekwondo European Champion Aaron Cook.
It was as a tearful teenager that Aaron Cook first hit the nation's screens after controversial defeat in Beijing, but four years on he is certainly the man to beat.
And the reigning -80kg British Champion believes playing the role of a superhero in his mind has helped his rise to the top of the sport.
Patrice Remarck Aaron Cook's coach
“I look at him as a British knight trying to conquer the toughest competitors and when he is fighting it's incredible what he can do”
"I started taekwondo because of the Power Rangers, I was five years old and trying all of their moves with my brother," Cook told BBC Sport.
"Sometimes I visualise my opponents as if they're trying to destroy the world and I have to save the day, that helps me get through some of the matches."
Yet Cook has had to grow up during a turbulent Olympic cycle.
The Dorset-born fighter entered the 2011 World Championships in South Korea as the event favourite.
However, he suffered an "embarrasing" first-round elimination and just a month later sensationally quit the GB programme to "pursue his own development programme" and find the love for the sport he had as a youngster.
Results over the past 10 months suggest the move has worked.
"It's absolutely fantastic at the moment, I've won eight gold medals in the last year and I'm really happy with the team that I'm working with."
'Team Cook' consists of Luke, Aaron's brother, who films and researches opponents; strength and conditioning coach Mick Clegg, who formerly worked with Manchester United; and technical coach Patrice Remarck.
Leaving the British team meant Cook was forced to forego his UK Sport funding and, in addition to being made an honorary Power Ranger, he has enlisted the backing of nine commercial sponsors in order to pay his support staff.
"It's been extremely difficult since I've left as I'm completely self-funded," reflected Cook.
"There has been a lot of sacrifice. At times in the past my parents have been working two or three jobs just to help fund me, which has been amazing, but now I'd be lost without the support of my sponsors - I'd need a job to get me to the Olympics."
However, they demand time and after the highly publicised fall-out between Tom Daley and GB diving performance director Alexei Evangulov over the teenager's media commitments, Cook is well aware of the need for balance.
"It is quite difficult [managing requests] but I know the most important thing is training and competing.
"Obviously I've got to give something back to my sponsors though, because at the end of the day they're funding my Olympic Dream, and if I have time I can give to them then I will do."
Cook's career time-line:
- 1996 - started taekwondo age five
- 1998 - won first national title
- 1999 - won first international title (Holland)
- 2000 - switched to Olympic taekwondo (WTF)
- 2001 - Olympic International Open gold
- 2005 - European Cadet champion, Italy
- 2006 - Commonwealth Championships, Australia, U18 gold
- 2007 - Became European number one (-72kg)
- 2008 - Finished 5th at the Beijing Olympics
- 2009 - World Pro Tour, Mexico, gold
- 2010 - European Championship gold
- 2011 - Quit GB set-up after early exit at the World Championships
- 2011 - wins Olympic test event gold
- 2012 - wins three of his first four tournaments
To cut down on costs, Remarck, a former -80kg world champion himself who has trained both the US Armed Forces and Olympic medallists, is living with the Cook family in Manchester.
"It's been a tremendous experience developing a relationship - we're very close and have a lot of trust," said Remarck.
"He has a very simple life - his life is taekwondo. When he finishes he stays home, watches a video, sleeps, then trains in the morning, trains again in the evening.
"It's a dream for any coach to have an athlete who is so driven and that just wants to train."
Most of that work happens in the Cook family home and the small gym Aaron's father, Nigel, built in their back garden .
"It's a little wooden shed, which only has enough space for two people but it's all we need," says Cook.
"Everything's just around myself like a professional boxer, so every time it's just 100% all about me rather than being in a team set-up of 15 or 16 people."
And having worked so closely with Cook, Remarck is in no doubt of the fighter's potential.
Girlfriend Walkden on Cook
"It was devastating when we both lost at the World Championships, but we both support and help each other through the tough times.
"We spar sometimes together, I've hit him, he's hit me back, but he knocked me out once when I was holding the pad and he missed!"
Bianca Walkden, GB Taekwondo
"He's one of the greatest fighters, he is of world champion calibre and I expect him to win a gold medal at the Olympics."
Cook's next step towards achieving that goal is retaining his European crown, which would assure him a place in the GB taekwondo squad for the 2012 Games.
"I've proved that I can do it at all the open competitions, but to do it at a major is a different story," he admitted.
"That's why I'm putting so much time and effort into training, to turn that massive downer from the Worlds into a positive and hopefully win in front of a home crowd, then I can think about London."
Cook added: "It's always a dream to go after Steven Lopez's record [two Olympic gold medals] or Sir Steve Redgrave's record from this country and win five Olympic golds.
"What better way to start than by winning in your home country at 21 years of age - that would do nicely."
Can Aaron Cook win taekwondo gold at London 2012? Get involved by adding #OlympicThursday to your tweets.