“You just won an Olympic bronze medal!” yelled Luke Ford, his friend and training partner. “You’re an Olympic medalist, sir!”
If it was only that simple. Winning bronze at the Olympics turned out to require more than the blurry fury of kicks that his friends and family back home in Northern Virginia saw on television. Mostly, there was a lot of waiting.
Jennings had to wait for Day 13 of Olympic competition before it was his turn to compete in the 68kg weight class. Then after losing his first fight of the tournament and watching his gold medal hopes disappear, he had to wait an entire afternoon to see whether he’d have another Olympic bout. And then in the bronze medal match, time had expired and officials were reviewing video of a kick Jennings had launched as the final seconds ticked off the clock. The score was tied and if officials decided the kick was clean, Jennings would win.
So he waited some more.
Jennings exploded into a howl when officials awarded him a three-point kick, giving him an 8-5 win over Brazil’s Diogo Silva to claim one of the two bronze medals.
“It doesn’t get any closer than that,” Jennings said.
He had lost his first fight of the day to Russia’s Servet Tazegul. Jennings knew the only way to re-enter the tournament was through the repechage group, and he needed Tazegul to win his next two fights. Taekwondo is a single-elimination tournament, but any fighter who loses to one of the two eventual finalists moves into one of two repechage groups. The repechage group winners then square off for the two bronze medals.
Jennings left the arena and returned to a nearby hotel. Juan Moreno, his coach, had actually prepared Jennings for every scenario. They did a practice run at their Miami gym not long ago, arriving at 7:30 a.m. for the morning round, starting the next session at 3 p.m. and then staging the gold medal match later at night.
“And then we did another trial run,” Moreno said, “thinking, ‘What if we lose? What do we do then?’”
So on Thursday while the Olympics continued without him, Jennings ate, napped and watched the taekwondo tournament on a laptop. Mostly, he waited.
“He was actually very calm,” said Moreno. “He knew it was out of his control and he just had to let it happen.”
Eventually, Tazegul, the world’s top-ranked fighter, won his fights and Jennings was back in the tournament, needing two victories in order to secure bronze.
“Once they finally raised his hand, I was ready to come back and start all over again,” Jennings said.
In his first bout, Jennings scored a workmanlike 3-2 win over Ukraine’s Hryhorii Husarov, which meant only only Silva stood between the American and an Olympic medal.
After a slow start, Jennings skimmed the Brazilian with a spinning four-point hook kick in the final seconds of the opening round , which gave him the fight’s first points.
“The risk is high, but the reward is big,” Jennings said of the maneuver, which could’ve left him vulnerable to an attack if it didn’t hit.
Jennings held a 5-2 edge after two and was able to stave off Silva until late in the third. In the fight’s final minute, Silva requested a video review of what the Brazilian hoped would be a four-point kick, which would have given him a slim one-point lead. He was not awarded the points, but when fighting resumed, Silva was able to tie the score with a flurry of fighting in the final 30 seconds.
Jennings was kicking, too, at the end and thought he made contact with Silva's head as time expired. The scoreboard indicated a 5-5 tie and there was no time on the clock, but Moreno decided to request a review of Jennings’s final kick.
“I had no idea if it was before or after time ran out,” Moreno said. “I just knew it was pretty darn close.”
After studying the video footage, officials ruled the kick was clean, breaking the tie and giving Jennings the win.
Thrilled to leave London with a medal, Jennings said the win is somewhat “bittersweet” because he wanted gold. His coach says Jennings will have another opportunity.
“To come here, to get a medal, this sets him up big time for the next four years,” Moreno said. “He’s young. His body is phenomenal. He’s still mastering his mind, his emotions. When he does that, he’s going to be one tough cookie to beat.
“Listen, Rio is right around the corner and I think he’ll be primed to win a gold medal there.”