Joe Kellaway is sitting in his temporary dojo, where he trains and leads online coaching sessions, when he answers my FaceTime call. The 22 year old is part of Team GB Karate and is currently gunning for a spot at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. We’ve all had to adapt our routine to fit the demands of the recent lockdown and restrictions of COVID-19, but for Joe it’s been even more serious – the pandemic has jeopardised his chances of competing on the biggest stage of all. Unfortunately, karate did not win its appeal to be included in the 2024 Paris Olympics or at Los Angeles 2028, so by the time the sport could return back to the games, Joe may have passed his athletic peak. This could be his only shot to achieve his dream of becoming an Olympic athlete.
We spoke about the pressure that comes with being a figurehead in UK Karate, how he’s adapted during the pandemic and his plans for the year running into 2021.
It is clear that Joe is a dedicated athlete, but it hasn’t come without sacrifice. Joe told me “I have not really had much of a childhood. Of course I’ve gone and played football with my mates and that, but I have probably been to about two house parties in my life and that was in the off-season.” Joe has definitely had more kicks to the head than he has Coronas, but this is a path that he has forged himself. Karate isn’t considered a mainstream sport in the UK, and according to Joe, he “didn’t personally have, in England, anyone really to look up to, apart from Jordan.” Jordan Thomas won the world title for karate in 2016, at 24 years old. Being slightly older and in a different weight category, Jordan has been a primary influence for Joe. The two are now leading lights for the sport of karate in England.
“When he won his world title, it was unheard of that anyone from England would win it; we hadn’t had one since 2004.” Joe continued to tell me, “I feel like if I left and Jordan left, there would be no one for anyone to look up to.” Joe understands the responsibility that comes with being at the top, putting everything he can into achieving his Olympic dream and inspiring the next generation. “We just love the sport, and we just want that British Olympic dream to become true.” Joe was understandably pleased with his placement in his last tournament, achieving his PB by coming 5th at the Austrian K1 finals just before the lockdown started, “I finished off well, so I’ve got a good bookmark for when we get back”.
When talking about his current situation and dreams for next summer’s games, Joe highlighted that there may be some silver linings in the fact that the games in Tokyo has been postponed. “It’s for the best it’s been pushed back, everyone’s health is priority. But it’s another year for preparation really, it gives me another year to sharpen my tools and gain more experience and knowledge, it might be a good thing for myself.”
There is still no clear date of when organised karate competitions are going to return and unsure of whether he will be able to fight competitively in 2020, Joe is waiting eagerly for a competition date. From then onwards, he can begin his six week training program, jokingly referred to as “Hell Camp”, designed to get him to his prime fitness and body weight. For many this sounds like a nightmare, but over the phone Joe sounded excited to get back to his best. He has been broadening his skillset by training in taekwondo and wrestling, ensuring he has perfected his technique ahead of the Olympics. “I’m just going to keep on doing what I’m doing” he said, “keep on pushing myself”.
As the world creeps back into some sense of normality, Joe has returned to Silsden, Yorkshire and is commuting into Manchester for daily training at the British Taekwondo and Karate training facility. He spoke fondly of his first time back in the gym with his teammates; “It was brilliant to see everyone, of course we’ve just been hitting air for 13 weeks. To actually be able to hit someone in the face – as horrible as it is, it’s a great feeling”. To be able to hit a moving target and get feedback on his technique is the rush Joe and his teammates had been craving.
“To actually be able to hit someone in the face, as horrible as it sounds, it’s a great feeling”
It was truly inspiring to hear Joe’s story and how he’s adapted to the restrictions of COVID-19; still training everyday and still pushing himself. Taking it upon himself to adapt his coaching sessions during COVID-19, Joe has been conducting weekly sessions on Zoom: “Teaching on Zoom has been pretty good to be fair, I mean it’s hard because you can’t correct anyone, you can only describe what they are doing wrong… to be honest though it improves your teaching, as you have to give out more detailed instructions.” He plans to continue his Zoom sessions even after lockdown, as they have proved to be incredibly successful.
Clearly the pandemic has not shaken Joe’s motivation, if anything he has been using that energy to push himself even harder. An example of someone who’s faced challenges, and rather than give up, adapts and keeps on fighting. We wish Joe the best of luck with his challenges ahead, and will be keeping a close eye on his progression as he chases his olympic dream.