By Samuel Irvine
The Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS) Taekwondo athlete is one of the toughest and most talented combat athletes in the country and not someone prepared to let her pursuit of qualification for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris be derailed.
But the high-on-life joy that could charm birds from trees doesn’t tell you any of that.
It doesn’t convey the strength it took for Tambyrajah to uproot her life for Taekwondo five years ago, at the age of 18, and relocate from Perth to Melbourne. Or why, for now, her science degree at Melbourne University is on hold.
“I really had to take a chance. There isn't much of a Taekwondo scene in Perth, and if I was going to give this a proper crack, I had to do it in Melbourne. This is where all the action is,” she says with a sense of purpose that perhaps her opponents best understand.
Tambyrajah produced a gold medal performance against fierce international competition at the Polish Open in Warsaw in September. During October, Tambyrajah faced challenging opposition at the World Taekwondo Grand Prix in Taiyuan. She will continue her pursuit to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics in the coming months.
In 2022 she claimed back-to-back gold medals at the Oceania Presidents Cup and Oceania Championships.
When pulling a shift at the VIS reception desk or chatting enthusiastically about the culinary delights she can only sparingly treat herself – like jockeys, most combat athletes are constantly trying to ‘make weight’ - a smile rarely leaves Tambyrajah’s face.
But talk of competition brings something else to the fore.
“This is all passion, and that’s what it takes to be good at this sport,” she says.
“We don’t earn an income [from Taekwondo]. I’m giving up years of my life that I could be studying or working to be here. You have to be a little crazy to get into the ring and be willing to do that.”
The competitive Tambyrajah was, in part, forged by the limits of the Perth Taekwondo scene that was small to the point that until the age of 16 she sparred with males.
“I think that really built me into the competitor I am today. The boys were really tough and really competitive, but I think I've taken a lot of that into the mentality I train with today,” she says.
“Every time I train, I'm always trying to push myself as hard as I can, and I think that comes from how I was raised in my Taekwondo journey.”
Of course, dedication involves sacrifice.
Putting her tertiary studies and professional ambitions to one side for the moment and giving up years with her close family in Perth, she concedes, has taken some rationalising.
“But if I'm to commit to anything, I have a belief that some things have to give,” she says.
When asked where her motivation to wholeheartedly commit to Taekwondo stems from, Tambyrajah cites two influences; a positive upbringing and a casual slight from an old coach that became a challenge.
"My family are very relaxed and never put any pressure on me to have to achieve anything, but I think in some way that made me want to prove myself to them and to myself that I could do this,” she says.
As for the prick of an unintended barb, it was as a 16-year-old that she was told by a coach that if she wasn’t already winning world championships the Olympics were a pipe dream.
“I took that as motivation. That was really the moment where I was like ‘right, if I want to be good at this, I've got to get out of here,” she says, with her signature smile momentarily lost.
“I had a lot of friends who were really talented who got the same advice, and I really feel for them now, because a lot of them gave it up and never got the chance to go to international competitions.”
In the long absences from the family home, Tambyrajah has been able to make something of a second family out of the warmth of the VIS, which is home to over 450 athletes and 50 sports.
“I’ve formed relationships with a lot of people I don’t even deal with through Taekwondo, people who genuinely care,” she says.
“It’s ridiculous how much I've improved since coming here [VIS]. I came here with potential, but I didn’t have the coaching or the guidance. I needed someone to point me in the right direction. I had the tools, I just needed someone to show me how to use them.
“It’s really special to feel like you have a support network of people who will bend over backwards for you.”