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.
Moreno, a three-time Olympian and two-time medal winner who also coached the 2008 Olympic team, said Jennings is one of the most gifted athletes he’s ever encountered.
“He has the athletic ability to do certain things I’ve never seen before,” Moreno said. “Sometimes he does things, and I just go, ‘What?! I didn’t see that coming at all.’ . . . That, to me, is a special athlete.”
‘This is where I want to be’
The only reason the taekwondo display at Landmark Mall caught Jennings’s eye was because of the video playing that depicted the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Jennings, then 10, loved the anthropomorphic crime fighters, so he stopped to watch. A person manning the kiosk to announce the opening of a new taekwondo school approached him and his mother, offering a free trial lesson.
Within days, Jennings had signed up for classes, only after agreeing to his mother’s one requirement: If he started the activity, he must finish it.
From the beginning, Jennings enjoyed a martial art that rewarded the ability to throw not only powerful punches but also kicks and flying kicks. Less than a year after he began, Remarck arrived at the school and recruited Jennings for a serious class in Olympic-style taekwondo.
“I have a very high standard,” Remarck said by phone from London, where he was coaching some African Olympic hopefuls as part of an International Olympic Committee coaching exchange. “From the beginning, I had to push him, to be very hard on him. You need 10,000 hours to make an Olympian. The more training, the better you will be.
“He’s very demanding on himself. He’s not a quitter. The more I push him, the more he gave.”
Results came quickly. The first time Jennings got on a plane, he traveled to Hawaii in 2000 for a junior black-belt tournament. At the time, he was just 13 and hadn’t even earned his black belt. Yet he won his weight class.
“He’s very, very agile, and very fast,” Remarck said. “You could see right from the beginning he has good motor skills. When I correct him, he pick up technique very fast. He could have done any other sport.”
A breakthrough came at the 2003 junior Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, where, as a member of his first junior national team, he won a silver medal.
“I knew then, this is where I want to be,” Jennings said, “representing my country in front of the world.”
Yet his dream was delayed. After his graduation from T.C. Williams, the same high school his mother attended, he found it difficult to focus on collegiate classes while training and working odd jobs to fund the training. Then, as the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing approached, injuries to both knees wiped out his Olympic hopes.
Not long after the 2012 Olympic selection process got underway late in 2010, Jennings moved south and began training at Moreno’s tiny gym, a well-padded, windowless facility housed in a warehouse invisible from the street, and unmarked by signs. Moreno depends on word of mouth to attract serious athletes like Jennings, who excited Moreno from the start. His only flaw seemed to be his inability to keep his cool when calls, penalties or other elements of fighting did not go his way.
Even during practices, Jennings would occasionally come undone; the propensity, Moreno said, “drove me nuts.”
“The only thing that stops T.J. is the psychology . . . the ability to clear out distractions in a match,” Moreno said. “I’ve worked extremely hard on that part of it. I tell him, ‘Nothing else bothers you except the guy in front of you.’ ”
A younger Jennings might have unraveled in his two matches against Lopez at the trials. Lopez beat him in the first match in overtime, but Jennings felt he had been a victim of bad calls. Yet in the deciding match, he scored the go-ahead point on a furious kick with just 15 seconds remaining.
“I’m not the same person,” Jennings said. “At the trials, for a lot of reasons, I could have so-called ‘lost it.’ Lost my composure, lost my complete focus on the match. . . . I didn’t.”