Life can be lonely in a combat sport. It is always one fighter against another. One winner. One loser. Nowhere to hide.
But Taekwondo brothers Tom and Will Afonczenko got as close as anyone has to sharing with someone else the experience of stepping on to a mat and staring down an opponent.
Growing up in the small country town of Romsey, Tom was 10 years of age when a childhood friend piqued his interest in taekwondo. Tom was immediately struck by the dynamism of the sport.
A week later, Will and their father were also at the gym for a look.
“The three of us followed that journey together. Our Dad used to watch a lot of martial arts and Bruce Lee movies, so we kind of already had that touch,” said Tom.
Tom says that Will, four years younger, was “instantly good”.
“I was 6 years old at the time when I tagged along with Dad and Tom. (I was) never forced to do it, I just really liked it and started getting better,” said Will.
And so, two journeys – different but together - began.
“Training 5-6 days per week, usually accounted to 10-12 sessions,” explained Will, as if to say that when things got tough they at least had the other to share the suffering.
“Something that has been beneficial for us, is that we have always trained together from the age of 14. We know how to get the best out of one another,” said Tom.
Despite efforts to avoid each other’s weight division, in their last year they faced each other twice in competitions. Having fought thousands of times in practice, it did not prepare either for the unease they felt having to do it for real, in competition.
“In competitions it’s much harder as there is so much more on the line. Both times those emotions came through afterwards and I broke down,” said Tom.
Will joined the VIS in 2018, carrying a serious groin injury that sidelined him for 18 months.
“The medical, physio and massage staff, everybody worked really well together. Without that support I think that would have been the end of my career,” said Will.
“The VIS have such great staff, the whole connectedness, between coaches, doctors and physios working as one team is something that has been really helpful,” said Tom.
One of their training partners, Leon Sejranovic, won a bronze medal at the 2023 world championships, the first won by an Australian male in almost 25 years. Judo athletes Aoife Coughlan and Katharina Haecker have also been excellent international performers in recent years.
“Since the combat centre has been formed, our results as a team have gone through the roof, and that’s a big credit to the VIS,” said Tom.
Tom and Will speak of the “constant juggling act” to manage their sporting, personal and professional lives to explain why they have chosen to retire. They ended their careers as they began them, together.
“Over the years it’s been difficult, finding our hours that work for us,” Will said
Will’s realisation that it was unlikely he would achieve his dream of competing in the Olympics led him to take up coaching and, hopefully, help others to achieve their dreams.
He is currently the Head Coach at the Maribyrnong Sports Academy and was recently appointed Head Taekwondo Coach for Tongmyong University in Busan, Korea.
Will also devotes much of his time to his photography business Will Afon Photography. He has been working as a full-time freelancer since 2019.
Tom will continue as a mentor for VIS taekwondo athletes and devote more time to his personal training business, The Den Strength and Conditioning. Like Will, coaching or the physical conditioning of Taekwondo athletes is a possibility.
The final chapter of the Tom and Will Afonczenko story may not yet have been written.