A chance stop at a taekwondo kiosk at Landmark Mall on Duke Street when he was 10 ignited the quest that ended with a thrilling victory in mid-March at the U.S. Olympic trials in Colorado Springs. There, Jennings defeated the reigning Olympic silver medal winner, Mark Lopez, in the deciding match to earn his Olympic bid in the 150-pound class. The victory sidetracked taekwondo’s first family; Lopez’s brother Steven and sister Diana earned Olympic team slots; only Mark was left behind.
Three people approached Jennings while he ate to offer congratulations, and the woman behind the counter refused to let him pay for his meal. His trek to the U.S. Olympic team, however, did not go smoothly. He couldn’t compete at the 2008 Olympic trials because of a pair of knee injuries. The 2004 Olympic program did not include his weight class. The taekwondo selection process for the 2012 Olympic team extended over several events and about 18 months.
“My goal is for the gold medal,” said Jennings, a graduate of T.C. Williams High who attended Northern Virginia Community College. “That would be the top of the top, icing on the cake. I don’t think there could be anything better than standing on top of the podium hearing my national anthem being played. . . . I don’t believe in crying, but I don’t think I’d be able to stop myself. Just thinking about it gives me chills.”
‘Ultimate thank you’
His mother, Peggy, a retired supermarket clerk, has been emotional since her son defeated Mark Lopez. She and her husband, James, a retired Metro bus driver, did not attend the trials, but they are hoping to gather the money for a trip to London this summer.
“We’re just overwhelmed,” she said by phone from their home in Dumfries. “We’re just ecstatic. Just to know that, oh my God, he finally made it. There were so many struggles along the way, and he never gave up.”
For years, the family faithfully road-tripped to tournaments all over the East Coast. One or both parents showed up to every one of their son’s daily practices, including the eight-hour marathon sessions on Saturdays and Sundays at Remarck Sport Taekwondo in Alexandria, where Jennings learned the trade under former Ivory Coast Olympian Patrice Remarck.
“The whole Olympic thing, it’s literally the only way I can pay back my parents,” said Jennings, who also goes by “T.J.” “For me to be able to medal would be saying the ultimate thank you to them.”
Last year, Jennings moved to Miami to train under U.S. Olympic team Coach Juan Moreno, who operates a facility with more than a dozen athletes from the U.S. national and junior national teams. Though it was difficult, Jennings said, to leave his parents, a sister and two half-siblings, he was convinced relocating offered the best chance for him to make the Olympic team.