It was one of the most arresting images of the Tokyo Olympics, at least from a Great Britain perspective: Bianca Cook – or Walkden, as she was then – absolutely bawling her eyes out in the Makuhari Messe Hall following a shock first-round defeat at the taekwondo. It was not even her defeat. Cook was reacting to housemate and best friend Jade Jones’s surprise unravelling at the hands of Kimia Alizadeh, a former Iranian athlete who was competing under the white flag of the refugee team.
Jones’s loss presaged an unfortunate Games for these two trailblazers of GB Taekwondo who had dominated their respective weight categories for the best part of a decade leading up to Tokyo.
Jones, who had won gold in London and Rio, had been bidding to become the first taekwondo fighter to win three titles on the biggest stage of all.
Cook, meanwhile, had already suffered Olympic heartache once when she narrowly missed out on reaching the gold medal match at Rio 2016. Tokyo would prove even more painful, a last-gasp defeat by South Korea’s Lee Da-bin in the +67kg semi-final.
Although she went on to collect a second bronze medal to go with her first from Rio, she was inconsolable afterwards, admitting she felt “dead inside”.
“Obviously, I sit back now and see that I have two Olympic bronze medals,” Cook says of those surreal Tokyo Games, played out to near-empty arenas in the midst of Covid chaos. “It’s still an achievement. I can see that. But I’ve always been open about my ambitions. I’m in it to win it. My life is all or nothing. And I was in Tokyo for the gold …”
Fortunately, she has one more shot at her dream. Paris 2024 looms large on the horizon, and Cook, needless to say, is desperate to make it third time lucky next year.
She knows she is in the last-chance saloon this time. At 32, the Liverpudlian – who last year married her long-term partner, Britain-born Moldovan taekwondo fighter Aaron Cook – jokes she is “getting on”.
“The body is starting to break down a bit,” she says, laughing. “I still have the ability to be where I need to be for the Olympics. But I’ve had a difficult last six months. I had really bad knee problems and actually had to have surgery in the end. I’ve only just come back now. But I’m going to give it everything I’ve got. One last dance and you’ll see me hopefully in Paris winning that gold.”
It would be some story if she could do it. Cook already had two anterior cruciate ligament reconstructions prior to Tokyo. She also experienced no end of indirect trauma with then boyfriend Aaron going through a long and ultimately unsuccessful battle of his own to achieve Olympic glory, a journey that first began to veer off track when he was controversially left out of the GB team for the 2012 Olympics in London despite being ranked No 1 in the world in the -80 kg division. He went on to represent the Isle of Man and then Moldova as he desperately sought a route to glory. But all to no avail.
“He’s retired now,” Cook says. “He’s actually a national coach for Saudi Arabia so goes back and forth to Riyadh a lot, which gives me a chance to move back in with Jade!”
‘This is my last dance. My one and all. And I’ll give it my soul’
Cook only moved out of Jones’s flat and in with her husband after they tied the knot in Italy last year, a “magical day” attended by about half the GB team.
She later sends me a photo of her in her wedding dress, squaring up to her new husband. But she assures me that she and Jones, two years her junior but for whom Paris is also likely to be a final shot at glory, are still “joined at the hip”.
“Oh, definitely. Aaron and I are only 10 minutes down the road, so I’m still over at Jade’s all the time! She can’t get rid of me. When Aaron was away recently, I think I slept at Jade’s for about two weeks straight. So, we’re still always there for each other. And we always will be. We’re not just team-mates. We’re family now. She was one of my bridesmaids.
“When we’re not together – for instance she’s away training at the moment in Croatia – I miss her every day. But we’re still together on the phone all the time, talking about training, pushing each other to make sure that we give it one hell of a final run and see if we can both come away with gold.”
Their combined impact on GB Taekwondo cannot be underestimated. Beth Munro, a para-fighter who won silver in Tokyo and is also going for gold in Paris next year, says both Cook and Jones are generous with their time and knowledge.
“As a fellow Liverpudlian I get on really well with Bianca,” says Munro, the 30-year-old who was born without part of her left arm and was scouted by Disability Sports Wales in her late twenties, having grown up playing able-bodied sport alongside twin sister Faye. “She’s a lovely person and she helps all the younger players. When she’s on the pads you can see how into it she is, passing her knowledge on.
“I actually think as a squad we’re in great shape. We’ve got youngsters who are nipping at the heels now. Once the big names have moved on, I believe they will be able to reach the same heights as they have.”
How high will those heights ultimately be? We are about to find out. Cook is about to make her comeback from surgery at the World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final, which this year happens to take place at “home” in Manchester, at the start of next month. For once, she is not placing too much pressure on herself.
“If I’m being honest, I’m going to be a little rusty,” she says. “Obviously, the ultimate goal is Paris, and as long as I’m 100 per cent on target for Paris, that’s the main target. But it doesn’t mean I can’t go out there and give everything I’ve got and do the job. I’m looking forward to being part of the best of the best again.”
After that, it is head down and blinkers on. Paris awaits. Even the honeymoon has had to be put on hold until after the serious business is out of the way. “We haven’t planned anything but I’d love to go on safari,” Cook says. “That’s on my bucket list. But it’s pretty expensive. If any holiday agent out there wants to sponsor me, get in touch! But yeah, that can wait.
“This is my last dance. My one and all. And I’ll give it my soul. I want to end where I want to be: on the top step. Like I said before, I’m an all-or-nothing type of person so I’m going to give it my all. Hopefully this last dance is the fairy tale I’ve dreamt of.”