Burns won the medal on the same day Taekwondo made its debut in the Olympic Games, (Taekwondo was a demonstration sport in 1988 Seoul and 1992 Barcelona, but not an official Olympic sport). Already a 12-time national champion, Burns’ remarkable journey towards Sydney was built on resilience and a burning passion to master all her disciplines.
Daughter of the ‘70s pop superstar Ronnie Burns, she grew up watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with her brother. This Taekwondo obsession was bubbling away from a young age and she often accompanied him to classes. Burns, who admits she was a rebellious teen found a focus in Taekwondo. Striving to be the best Taekwondo exponent became her passion.
Burns was awarded a scholarship to the Victorian Institute of Sport. The people she encountered and the services she had access to, had a profound impact on her career. She credits Dee Anderson, the head of the Athlete Career and Education program at the time, for changing her life and helping her balance the chaotic challenge of being a professional athlete and a student.
Strenuous training camps in Korea gave Burns a monumental culture shift in the early 1990s and an even greater appreciation for chosen sport. Her experience was a shock to the system for a naive teenager, often training in minus 15-degree temperatures and being beaten with a bamboo cane. “They would hit you really hard” she laughed “After that first trip to Korea, I still had welts on my backside two weeks later…we would wake up at 3am for training…bus hours into the mountains on the outskirts of Seoul, to a martial arts university. Some days it was so cold, our scarves would turn into ice”.
The bruising and the welts were quite demoralising for Burns who never wanted to go back to Korea. Ironically, she found herself back in Korea again and again. “I was really scared to go back…I ended up going back 12 times. I loved every one…training and matching it with those Korean girls gave me great self-belief”. On her second trip to Korea, she ended up winning a tournament. It was an event put on by the IOC to showcase taekwondo as a potential Olympic sport. Buoyed by this victory and increased self-belief, Burns realised she was not just making up the numbers in the sport and was a real medal contender.
Image: Lauren Burns claimed Australia's first taekwondo gold medal.
Her long-term goal was slowly becoming a reality. With an incredibly demanding travel and competition schedule in the years leading up to the Sydney Games, she utilised the support from both the VIS and the Taekwondo High Performance Program. Her coaches, strength and conditioning coach Tony Hewitt, sport psychologists Jeff Simons and Noel Blundell were all integral to her performance.
She arrived in Sydney at the peak of her powers. The Taekwondo athletes divided their accommodation between the Olympic Village and the AIS, which enabled Burns and her teammates to use their facilities and spar with international athletes. Burns was determined to not be distracted by anything. The best laid plans can sometimes be blown away when you receive a kiss on the cheek from possibly the world’s greatest athlete, Muhammad Ali.
Burns was sitting in the food hall eating her steamed broccoli, when a limo arrived and out popped the man himself, “We laughed, wondering who needed security in the Olympic Village, we thought it was the USA basketball team”. She quickly finished her food and ran over with other athletes for a chat and a photo. Ali planted a kiss on Burns' cheek which led her teammate, the late Paul Lyons to express “that was the winning kiss Loz! You’re going to win Gold!”
“I didn’t have sporting heroes as such…I loved athletes who showed passion, integrity, and a strong work ethic…but I was impressed with Ali’s clever use of language…and his conviction and passion for his ideals” says Burns. She laughs as she remembers looking back to see him kissing all the other girls on the cheek too!
In the lead up to the Games, Burns was given the chance to showcase her amazing skills, with self-defence presentations for the public with her teammate Warren Hansen, involving guns and knives. “Warren was fantastic, he played a great bad guy”. Burns and her teammates were training and average of 7 hours a day. Often at the end of the final gruelling session she would practice the self-defence routine with Hansen. “We had a big presentation in Sydney the next day. We were both exhausted but needed to run through the routine. When he attacked with the first punch, I said the word ‘duck’ but I didn’t duck!” Hansen ‘lightly’ connected and “knocked my nose to the other side of my face”. She went to emergency but still needed to go to Sydney to complete the presentation. After she returned, she had her nose re-set, only to have it broken again a week later
Image: Burns training with some of her teammates in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics.
Five weeks away from the biggest moment in her life, she used this second hurdle to simplify everything going on inside her head. She found clarity and was able to manifest a sense of control that allowed her to shape her future by controlling her actions. “As you move towards something that means a lot to you, you can start to let the chatter in, you want to prepare and do everything you can. But, you need to remember you’ve done all the training and preparation. This event has been years in the making.”
Lauren’s life changed forever on the 27th of September 2000.
The atmosphere was electric inside the State Sports Centre. “Usually at a taekwondo competition there are eight different courts running simultaneously…but this time it was different, there was only one court…every single eye was on me.” Burns had competed multiple times in that exact stadium, she knew it well.
Jeff Simons gave her terrific advice: “You’re just doing an ordinary thing on an extraordinary day”. Burns’ 12-year destination had arrived when she walked out and faced Cuban rival Urbia Melendez.
With the scores 3-2, the two fighters traded kicks and screams as they both left everything on the mat. Burns looked to have hurt her shin, reaching for it in discomfort, then channelled all her energy to lay a text-book kick to Melendez’s head, the crowd was ecstatic. This kick would have made every grandmaster around the world proud. A scream of pure joy soon followed as she pushed her commanding lead to 4-2 by the end of the second round. Near the end of the last round the cheered her name as she bowed to her opponent and created not just Olympic history, but world Taekwondo history, winning Gold.
In an interview with ABC Journalist Rebecca Barrett after her amazing victory, Burns spoke of the pure esteem for the sport she loved stating, “I hope that people see what a fantastic sport it is, it's fast, it's dynamic, it's powerful and that anyone can do it… I really hope that people see that and they get involved in the sport.” (Taekwondo participation soared 70% nation-wide).
Video: Highlights from Lauren Burns final at Sydney in 2000
Whilst in the studio post celebrations with Roy & HG, Burns quipped all she wanted now was beer and pizza. Unfortunately for Burns, every Pizza shop around the block was closed, so her friends rushed to the Supermarket and made her a homemade pizza. Months of cutting weight for the -49kg weight division, Burns' stomach had shrunk, and she was able to only enjoy one slice.
Burns announced her retirement after striding up to the podium to collect her gold medal. Deep down she knew her body was spent and would not be able to get back to her expected level of fitness for the next Olympics, four years later.
Naturopathy, which had been bubbling around in her background whilst she trained and competed, finally became her sole focus. Her four-year degree took her 12 years to complete at Endeavour College of Natural Medicine. After juggling study, travel, training, competition, and trying to live a normal life, Burns is a wonderful source of inspiration for many aspiring athletes who long to develop their careers and follow their passions post-retirement. Whilst a scholarship holder at the VIS, Burns was heavily involved in the ‘Sportspersons in Schools Program’ accross Victoria. Teaching clinics gave her “A fantastic experience in public speaking”.
Burns has not stopped there; she penned her autobiography in 2001 and self-published a cookbook in 2010. More recently, she has thrown all her time and energy into giving back to athletes across the world with her PhD, where she is looking at the lifestyles and mindsets of elite athletes and how they impact performance “I said I’d never go back to study, but I’m loving it”. This delves into personal support and psychological health which is a strong building block into successful performances.
Image: Australia's Taekwondo athletes dressed in uniform for the Opening Ceremony.
To top it off Burns is a critically acclaimed public speaker, speaking to over 300,000 people since retirement. She still gives back so much to the community with her various commitments. She is involved in the Gold Medal Ready program through the AIS, preparing athletes for Tokyo and Paris, she sits on the Sports Australia Hall of Fame Scholarship Committee, and conducts one-on-one performance and wellness coaching sessions with clients. But her greatest accolade she claims, is producing two fabulous children that she loves to hang out with.
She truly is a master of all her disciplines.
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