It was one of the most arresting images of the Tokyo Olympics, at least from Britain’s point of view: Bianca Cook – or Walkden, as she was then – bawling her eyes out in the Makuhari Messe Hall after after a shock victory in the first round at taekwondo. He was not even defeated. Cook was reacting to the surprise of his housemate and best friend Jade Jones as he reconciled with Kimia Alizadeh, a former athlete from Iran who competed under the white flag of the refugee team.
Jones’ loss meant that these two GB Taekwondo fans who had been dominant in their respective weight categories for the best part of the years leading up to Tokyo would have a miserable Games.
Jones, who won gold in London and Rio, was bidding to become the first Taekwondo fighter to win three titles on the biggest stage of all.
Meanwhile, Cook had already suffered Olympic heartache once when she narrowly missed out on the gold medal match at Rio 2016. Tokyo would be even more painful, Lee Da-bin’s final defeat in the South Korea in the semi +67kg. final.
Although she collected a second bronze medal to take her out of Rio, she was inconsolable afterwards, admitting she felt “dead inside”.
“Of course, I sit back now and see that I have two Olympic bronze medals,” Cook says of those surreal Tokyo Games, which played out to near-empty stadiums amid the chaos of Covid. “It’s still an achievement. I can see that. But I have always been open about my ambitions. I’m there to win it. It’s my whole life or nothing. And I was in Tokyo for the gold…”
Luckily, she has one more shot at her dream. Paris 2024 is looming large, and it goes without saying that Cook is hoping for third time lucky next year.
She knows she is in the last chance salon this time. At 32, the Liverpudlian – who is married to her long-term partner, British-born Moldovan taekwondo fighter Aaron Cook – jokes that she is “coming up”.
“The body is breaking down a bit,” she says, laughing. “I still have the ability to be where I need to be for the Olympics. But I’ve had a difficult six months. I had real knee problems and ended up having to have surgery. I have only just come back now. But I’m going to give it everything I’ve got. One last dance and you’ll see me in Paris winning that gold.”
It would be quite a story if she could do it. Cook had two previous cruciate ligament reconstructions before Tokyo. She also experienced no end to indirect trauma as her boyfriend Aaron went through a long and ultimately unsuccessful battle to achieve Olympic glory, a journey that first began to stall when he was controversially dropped from the team Great Britain for the year 2012. Olympic Games in London despite being ranked as No. 1 in the world in the -80 kg division. He went on to represent the Isle of Man and then Moldova as he desperately sought a way to glory. But all to no avail.
“He’s retired now,” says Cook. “He’s the national coach for Saudi Arabia and goes back and forth to Riyadh a lot, which gives me the opportunity to move back with Jade!”
‘This is my last dance. My head and all. And I will give it my soul’
Cook only moved out of Jones’ flat and in with her husband after they tied the knot in Italy last year, a “magical day” attended by around half the Great Britain team.
She later sends me a photo in her wedding dress, squaring up to her new husband. But she assures me that she and Jones, two years her junior but whose Paris is likely to be her last shot at glory, are still “connected at the hip”.
“Oh, sure. Aaron and I are only 10 minutes down the road, so I’m still over at Jade’s all the time! She can’t get rid of me. When Aaron was away recently, I think I slept at Jade’s for two weeks straight. So we are still always there for each other. And we always will. We are not just team members. We are a family now. She was one of my bridesmaids.
“When we’re not together – for example she’s away training in Croatia at the moment – I miss her every day. But we’re still on the phone all the time, talking about training, pushing each other to make sure we give it one hell of a final run and see if we can both come away with gold.”
Their overall impact on GB Taekwondo cannot be underestimated. Beth Munro, a para-fighter who won silver in Tokyo and is going for gold in Paris next year, says both Cook and Jones are generous with their time and knowledge.
“As fellow Librarians I get on really well with Bianca,” says Munro, the 30-year-old who was born without part of her left arm and was coached by Disability Sports Wales in her late twenties, after she grew up. playing an able-bodied sport with Faye’s twin sisters. “She is a lovely person and helps all the young players. When she is on the pads you can see how she is, passing on her knowledge.
“I really think as a squad we’re in great shape. We have young people who are now kicking their heels. Once the big names have moved on, I believe they will be able to reach the same heights as they have.”
How high will those heights eventually be? We are about to find out. Cook is set to return from surgery in the World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final, which this year happens to be held in “home” in Manchester, at the beginning of next month. For once, she’s not putting too much pressure on herself.
“If I’m honest, I’m a bit rusty,” she says. “Obviously Paris is the ultimate goal, and as long as I’m 100 percent on the goal for Paris, that’s the main goal. But it doesn’t mean I can’t go out there and give everything I’ve got and get the job done. I look forward to being part of the elite again.”
After that, it’s head down and blinkers on. Paris awaits. Even the honeymoon had to be put on hold until the serious business was out of the way. “We don’t have anything planned but I would love to go on safari,” says Cook. “That’s on my bucket list. But it is quite expensive. If there are any holiday agents out there looking to sponsor me, please get in touch! But yeah, that can wait.
“This is my last dance. My head and all. And I will give it my soul. I want to end up where I want to be: on the highest stage. As I said before, I’m an all-or-nothing person so I’m going to give mine. I hope this last dance is the fairy tale I dreamed of.”