Jade Jones celebrates after winning her second Olympic gold medal in Rio
Never mind Jade Jones’ taekwondo opponents – spare a thought for those who faced her across a Monopoly board as an eight-year-old.
"She was competitive and she still is, madly," recalls her grandad, and biggest supporter, Martin Foulkes. "She has got to win, whatever you are doing, you’ve got to keep playing until Jade wins.”
And, ultimately, that is precisely what Jones does – wins. Britain’s first taekwondo Olympic champion at London 2012 then became the only taekwondo fighter, male or female, to retain an Olympic title at Rio 2016.
Now comes Tokyo, and the chance to become both the sport’s first triple Olympic champion and the first British female to win gold at three successive Games.
Pressure can do funny things to people, but Jones, who would be considered British sporting royalty if she did not compete in a minority sport, has risen to the challenge each time.
"If you look at it in terms of medals, then she is the greatest. She’s the star, 100 per cent the most successful," Sarah Stevenson, winner of the nation’s first Olympic medal with bronze in 2008, tells Telegraph Sport. "Everyone just assumes that people like Jade, they just win. But you try and stay at the top for over 10 years. All the pressure is on you. It is a very hard, mental battle."
Thankfully, Jones has been well prepared for that fight. Growing up in a council block in the Welsh town of Flint, she tried all manner of sports from football and rugby to badminton and swimming.
Then one day in 2001, as she left the pool, she heard shouting coming from a nearby taekwondo class. She was immediately hooked – although her grandad held off buying her a taekwondo suit for a few weeks in case it proved to be just another whim.
It did not, and over the next eight years he helped ferry his granddaughter to multiple training sessions and competitions each week – first in Flint, then Cardiff and finally the 90-mile round trips to Manchester as Jones progressed to full contact taekwondo before joining the British Taekwondo Academy at the age of 16.
The car journeys were not without their own issues. When Jones lost a competition, there would be a deathly silence all the way home, and she would be left alone for a few days to cool off before Foulkes dared talk through the defeat.
"Jade says I’m her greatest fan and biggest critic and that’s about right," says the 66-year-old. "If I criticise her, she might have a bit of a sulk for a bit but she knows I’m not picking on her. It’s constructive criticism."
Jones (right) training at the National Taekwondo Centre
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Jones has spoken about starting to "go down the wrong path" when she was younger – there were issues at school and some brushes with the police. Foulkes insists Jade was “just a normal kid… we never had any major problems, just your normal teenage ones", although he freely admits that one time he did lose his temper with his granddaughter was when she was found smoking aged 10.
"It was her mother who told me she had been caught smoking so I hit the roof," he recalls. "I had a little word with her and she would never do it again, let’s put it that way."
Jade’s bond with her grandfather is still close. It is Foulkes who can tease her about her appalling memory – he recounts with glee the time, after London 2012, when she left her gold medal in a carrier bag under a seat at a hotel – and it is he who she will text before each fight, seeking reassurance about her opponent.
Left "absolutely gutted" by the ban on spectators for the Tokyo Olympics, he is expecting a few messages again from Japan. Her opening fight will be in the early hours on Sunday, with a potential final later that afternoon. The whole family will be gathered, watching "like lunatics" on a big screen, at Auntie Tina’s.
"The only thing she worries about is losing. She never worries about getting hurt," he says. "She does worry a lot before the fight but I think that’s good. If she was going in there thinking it’s going to be easy, that’s when you come unstuck."
Jones has always been fuelled by that nervous energy. Stevenson saw it at the 2010 World Junior Championships, where she coached her as a 17-year-old.
"We used to say she’d flap – like when you get a bit nervous about something and your arms start flapping," she says. "With how she was mentally, she needed a lot of support and a lot of reassurance. But as she got older, she realised it’s what drives her.
"She understands now that they are good things. But when you’re 15, 16, they can make you feel sick."
There have been setbacks along the way. Jones has talked of the low she felt after bursting through at London and how every opponent treated victory over her like their own Olympic win.
After Rio she gave herself a break, including appearing on Channel 4’s The Jump – the ill-fated show in which celebrities were taught how to ski jump, with predictably catastrophic results – despite the reservations of GB Taekwondo. But when it came to the sport she loved, her focus never wavered and in 2019 she finally landed the world title to complete the set of major medals.
"When you’ve won what most athletes dream to win when you’re 19, it’s very hard to find that motivation because you’ve already done it," says Stevenson. "What is your motivation to go to another Olympics and do the same? Becoming a legend of the sport or a superstar.
"People just think you’re ridiculously talented and you don’t have any problems. And that’s just not the case. If she wasn’t as mentally driven and strong and had that edge over people constantly for 10 years, then she wouldn’t be where she is."
Jones’ mentality is just as impressive to her team-mates. Bianca Walkden, the heavyweight world champion, has known Jones since 2010, when she took the youngster living away from home for the first time under her wing, teaching her how to cook and clean for herself but also helping to draw her out of her shell.
Walkden, chasing her own gold dream in Tokyo after winning bronze in Rio, describes them as "basically sisters", although their friendship also extends to training together, with no quarter given.
Walkden has been on the receiving end of Jones’s famed roundhouse headkick – her tendency to target that part of her opponent’s body earned her the nickname ‘The Headhunter’ – although it is her self-belief which Walkden finds most intimidating.
"When she was younger she just didn’t care, she went out there and won London, she just believes in herself so much,” she says. “And then into Rio she has mentally been so strong, staying on top and staying at that pinnacle level. She pours blood, sweat and tears into it all."
While these Games will be like no other given the backdrop of a pandemic, there is no underestimating the value of previous Olympic experience, and Jones knows what works.
"The pressure is definitely there but it’s more the pressure you put on yourself," she tells Telegraph Sport. "You just learn to get tunnel vision. If a decision doesn’t go your way, you’ve got to stick to the plan."
Easier said than done when someone has just kicked you in the head, no? "If you lose your head for literally a few seconds then they can rack up points and you’ve lost the fight," she replies firmly.
Preparation is also crucial. Ahead of London 2012, her coach would train against her by impersonating the different style of fighters she might encounter, while the entire British taekwondo team recently ran an Olympics session to simulate what a fight day would look like in Tokyo.
Jones has also been working on "new weapons" to surprise her opponents with.
"I take the confidence out of my preparations, I’ve prepped the best I can," she says. "Even now I still feel like I’ve got so much to learn and I can improve so much. If I win this time I’ll still think the same."