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Sarah's training for gold kicks in

One of Britain's most successful taekwondo fighters has been backed by Loughborough College in her bid for a medal at this summer's Olympic Games.

Sarah Stevenson, 24, who is studying through the college's distance learning programme for an advanced apprenticeship in sporting excellence, has been awarded a pound;500 scholarship to support her training at the national centre for taekwondo in Manchester.

Taekwondo is a Korean form of unarmed combat that combines elements of karate and kung fu. Sarah made a name for herself at 15 by becoming the first Briton to win the junior world championships, competing against older teenagers.

With the backing of the national lottery-funded taekwondo centre and the scholarship, she hopes to help Great Britain win medals in Beijing.

Loughborough's distance learning scheme, which brought Sarah back into education after she left at 16, offers her the chance to gain a qualification without interrupting her taekwondo training. Preparations for the high-speed full-contact combat sport are onerous, with four to five hours a day spent on technique, tactics and conditioning.

Sarah said the sporting excellence course has helped her to improve her training. "Our coach has obviously been telling us things about how to improve for a while," she said, "but now I realise what it all means and understand it so much better because I'm studying it myself, all the things like nutrition, what times to train hard and push yourself and when to rest."

Using mainly kicks, with blocks, punches and open-handed strikes, taekwondo competitors aim to land blows on the opponent's torso for one point or the head for two.

"Taekwondo is a really fast sport," Sarah said. "You get people being knocked out a lot more in competitions because it's two points for the head now.

"I've had a couple of bad injuries which put me out for a while, but you're in the wrong sport if you're worried about getting hurt. You get bruises every day.

"When I was younger my coach was always pushing me to improve, putting me against bigger and older opponents, and I didn't even think about it. He'd say, `Get in there, Sarah, and just fight.'"

Sarah was one of 10 elite young athletes to be awarded scholarships by Loughborough College. Jim Mutton, the college principal, said: "What these people have already achieved should not be taken lightly, they should be looked on as our elite of the elite. And we want to encourage more and more elite sports people to join us and combine improving their sport with education."

Other recipients include Rachael Hall, a 19-year-old now ranked among the top 30 women tennis players in the country, Great Britain volleyball player Lauren Williams and England hockey international Maddie Hinch. Women's Premier League footballers and England players Dani Bird and Steph Houghton were also awarded scholarships. Further scholarships went to gymnasts, swimmers, biathletes and an up-and-coming motor sports star, Chris Dymond.

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