To attain an Extraordinary Blue is no mean feat, but 2nd Dan Black Belt Justine Potts is no ordinary girl; President of Oxford University TaeKwon-do, she juggles her martial arts with a classics degree, as well as rowing for her college and captaining Balliol’s cricket side. Furthermore, having begun TaeKwon-do at the age of seven and reached Black Belt before her twelfth birthday, she staunchly insists: ‘I don’t actually like fighting’ – extraordinary?
When her father took his seven-year-old daughter to a TaeKwon-do demonstration in the hope that she might be inspired to learn to defend herself, he could not have anticipated how readily she would take the bait. Thirteen years later with a varsity win, National and International medals and 5 years of teaching TaeKwon-do behind her, she has also cross-trained in a variety of martial arts. For Justine, TaeKwon-do is ‘a way of life, not just a sport.’ She explains: ‘it trains the mind as well as the body,’ and is keen to emphasise the sparring as part of training up, and not as an opportunity to smash another person in the face.
Oxford was the first TaeKwon-do club in Britain, and Justine is loyal to the style they practice (ITF), which she describes as faster and more elegant than that of their Light Blue rivals (WTF). ‘Varsity is a very big thing,’ Justine asserts; ‘because Cambridge practices the other variety, it becomes almost a defence of our style.’
Last year’s varsity victory was sweet for this dedicated Oxonian, but competitions are not at the centre of Justine’s martial arts philosophy. To compete, she says, ‘you really have to believe that you are superior to the person you are competing against, which is not something I like thinking.’ In earlier years she was accused by peers of hypocrisy for teaching and not competing herself, so she entered the TAGB British Championship at the age of 17. With the gold medal hanging around her neck, Justine successfully silenced her critics by proving that an aggressively competitive attitude is not necessary to train and be the best in TaeKwon-do.
After years of training and extensive reading in and around this field, it is not surprising that Justine has developed her own philosophies: ‘for me, TaeKwon-do is more an art than it is a sport. And I think it should be more of an art.’ The science and art inherent to martial arts may be accessed on both a physical and intellectual level, she claims, and quotes Bruce Lee, who described martial arts as an ‘expression of the human body.’ ‘It is a question of defending yourself and knowing the limits of your own power and aggression,’ she says; ‘when it comes to teaching I really insist on people having good experience of all martial arts. I teach practical self-defence, and often incorporate weapons training, with sticks of knife defence techniques. TaeKwon-do does not teach grappling, so I sometimes teach a class in that, inspired by other martial arts.’
Naming Bruce Lee’s ‘Jeet Kune Do’ as the other martial art she would be keen to train in because of its incorporation of different styles, it becomes clear that Justine’s success in TaeKwon-do is due not simply to her physical fitness and stamina, but is a matter of intelligence and attitude. Given this 19-year-old’s size and stature, her assurance that, ‘I really wouldn’t be put off by an 18 stone man attacking me’, seems preposterous. It is not by aggressive self-assertion, but with characteristically calm demeanour that Justine reveals her secret: ‘there are pressure points that will take someone down, no matter how big or small they are.’ What would a Blues boxer make of that, I wonder?
Have you ever had to defend yourself outside training?
“Luckily not. I have had to step in for people before, but often the key is to talk yourself out of the situation and when you’re in situation like a crowded bar, to position yourself correctly to protect yourself in case of trouble.”
What is the hardest thing you have had to do?
“In physical terms, my black belt grading was the most horrendous experience of my life. In one of the pre-grading sessions the motto was: ‘it isn’t real training if you don’t throw up.’ I remember turning around in the corridor to see the 40-year-old man behind me breaking down into tears because of the physical effort and extreme pressure on us. It sounds horrible, but it made me stronger, and taught me to never give up and to remain calm when facing difficulties.”
What is the most difficult break you have managed?
“Probably a jumping twisting kick, breaking three boards. I did it first time – I had to!”
Is there any situation in which you would be scared to defend yourself?
“Well, I would never even attempt to fight if someone had a syringe, and possibly not in the case of a gun. You see, with a knife you are likely to get cut, but there are techniques to ensure you are not cut in a place that will be fatal. This is not possible with a syringe. If it sticks in anywhere you could have AIDS and that’s it. It depends on the circumstances though – I’d always weight up the situation and try to talk my way out first.”