On 27 September, 2000, Lauren Burns created history by becoming Australia’s very first Olympic Taekwondo Champion. In front of a deafening home crowd at the State Sports Centre, she defeated Cuba’s Urbia Meléndez Rodriguez for gold, 4-2.
Since her golden moment at Sydney 2000, 20 years ago, Burns has poured her focus into bettering the lives of elite athletes, through her PhD on athlete wellbeing and her career in naturopathy and nutrition.
Sydney 2000 was where Taekwondo made its official Olympic debut, after featuring as a demonstration sport at Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992.
By the time she won gold, Burns was already a US Open gold medallist, World Cup and World Championship bronze medallist and a 12-time National Champion, but her Taekwondo journey started in the family lounge room.
Never considering herself a sporty kid, the Melbournian was encouraged to give the sport a go by her brother, Michael and father, Ronnie.
“I was always active and played a lot of games, but was never really involved in competitive sport,” Burns said.
“But as a little kid, my brother was obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He’d practice fighting at home and did a flying side-kick through the lounge room window and that was the end of him practicing at home!” she laughed.
“My parents sent him down to the local martial arts club and he really enjoyed it, so my dad joined up too and I would go and watch them.
“Eventually they convinced me to do a class, but there wasn’t any lightning bolt of passion or feeling like I’d found my life’s purpose, I just thought to myself, ‘this is cool, I’ll come back next week’.”
That was when she was 14 years old.
Burns was your typical teenager and a self-professed “ratbag” and although she enjoyed Taekwondo as a fun hobby, her focus was more on socialising than competing.
“I was always really social as a kid, if you go back and look at my school reports, most of them say ‘Lauren loves to talk,’ ‘If Lauren could stop chatting with her friends so much in class...’
“I loved going out and I loved partying, I was just a free spirit,” she said.
It wasn’t until she competed in her first international competition, at the 1993 World Championships at Madison Square Gardens, New York, that she finally had her lightning bolt moment.
“I became more involved in competition as I got older and after I won selection to my first Worlds, I just thought to myself, ‘this is amazing, I want to do this forever.’ I loved it.”
From then on, Burns cut out the alcohol and partying and in the mid-late 90’s became one of Australia’s foremost Taekwondo athletes.
“When I found my passion in Taekwondo, it was a time where I became quite focused, disciplined and dedicated - it was the first time I’d found those qualities within myself,” Burns shared.
“I would never ask my parents to drive me to training, I always wanted to find my own way of getting there, whether that was walking from home or getting lifts with other teammates and when you have that inner drive, it’s an intrinsic motivator.
“I was never looking for external reward, no one was telling me I had to go and there were no penalties for not going either, I went because I was getting so much out of it.
“I didn’t mind missing out on the other things I was doing as a teenager, because instead, I had the thrill of making a team, going overseas, getting to that next championship and I really thrived on that.
“People always talk about sacrifice in sport and what I had to sacrifice to get to where I was, but I never really saw it that way,” Burns explained.
“It was the path I had chosen, and I loved what I was doing.”
While she trained in Taekwondo, she was also studying naturopathy and nutrition.
A vegetarian from the age of three, she was always passionate about food, cooking and wellness, but at the time, being a plant-based athlete was basically unheard of and difficult to cater to.
“I had a lot of resistance from doctors and dieticians saying, ‘you just can't do it, there's no way you can be vegetarian athlete’, but back then, there just wasn’t the research that there is now.
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“Being an athlete, you have to be really conscious about the food that you put into your body because it does fuel you, and it does make a big difference, so whether you're vegetarian or not, it's important to be educated and to have some good skills for meal prep and knowing how to get good sources of protein and heaps of veggies.
“I always talk about eating the rainbow which means that you get all these different phytonutrients and being really prepared and I think that was probably the key aspect for me in making it work as a vegetarian athlete back then.”
In 1994 it was announced that Taekwondo was to become an official Olympic sport at Sydney 2000.
It was the perfect opportunity for Burns to hone her newfound passion and discipline in front of a home crowd and winning gold was always part of the plan, so she put her studies on hold and chased the Olympic dream.
“I always knew I was going to qualify, so that was never my goal, my goal was to win gold,” she said.
“So, my preparation was all about setting the benchmark really high and making sure I didn’t get injured before the team was announced.”
Burns was able to achieve one of her two goals. She qualified for Sydney 2000 but was unable to escape injury.
“I remember when the team was announced at the High-Performance Training Centre in South Melbourne and we took photos,” she said.
“During that week, I’d broken my nose, twice, so I’ve got this photo celebrating my qualification with a broken nose.”
She also had a niggling knee injury which she needed to keep in check, or risk losing her spot before the Games.
20 Years Today ✨ Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. So much excitement. I’m this first photo with @kerripottharst and @natcook_official we’re wearing plastic ponchos to hide our Opening Ceremony outfits for the big reveal! 🙌 #mysydney2000 #olympicgames #sydney2000 @ausolympicteam #olympicgold @andrewgaze10 @sportaushof @vicinstsport @lisacudaok @hallstaekwondo Thank you @tanyapixel for the photos!!
“I had knee problems, where it would pop out and I couldn’t let that happen because they had the shadow team member right there, ready to step in.”
In the lead up to Sydney 2000, Burns was training 5-7 hours a day and also mastering her craft in Korea where welts, bruises and discipline by bamboo sticks were commonplace.
She also dropped from her natural weight of 54kg to 49kg.
“I look back at my Taekwondo career, training in Korea in the snow and the ice and being beaten with bamboo sticks along with other terrible things that happened, and those experiences weren’t ideal,” she said.
“But a lot of really amazing things happened so it was rich in experience. There were parts of my journey that I hope no athlete has to go through, but it gave me a lot of mental fortitude and made me realise that I could overcome anything.”
When Burns stepped out on the mat on September 27, 2000 thoughts of winning gold were far from her mind. Instead, she was focused on following the process and ‘playing the game.’
“When you’re competing, if you think too much about the end result, you're not in the moment,” she explained.
“I thought about the gold medal and standing on the podium at other times, but on the day, it was just about scoring more points than my opponent, because that was all I needed to focus on.
“Your presence in the ring is also really important, particularly back then because we didn't have electronic scoring or sensors, which meant positioning and showmanship were key, as well as being really clear, so the judges can see your point.
“You didn’t want to be in a corner, where you kick and score a point, but the judges didn't see it properly,” she continued.
“You had to make sure that you were positioning your opponent in a way that, when you hit the chest guard, everyone could see it and the whole stadium knew it was a point.
“Being on that stage and taking control of that whole space was really, really important and I knew that if I did everything right, the medal would be there at the end.”
And her game plan paid off. During the gold medal match against Melendez, the scores were 3-2 with Burns in the lead.
She looked to have picked up a shin injury but overcame her discomfort and landed the winning blow to Melendez, pushing her lead to 4-2 by the end of the second round and winning the gold medal.
It was the third individual gold won by an Australian woman at Sydney 2000.
“The first thought that came over me was, ‘Yep, I did it,’ because I was so focused on that process,” Burns said.
“I just knew I was going to win because I had put in my heart, soul and every bit of my being, every ounce of my concentration and it had all come together.
“Being in the moment, reacting in the moment and just trusting that I was going to make the right decisions was so powerful, but it was all about the process and playing the game.
“I spoke to my sports psychologist and he said to me, ‘you are just doing an ordinary thing on an extraordinary day,’ so that was the mindset I went in with and it wasn’t until the referee gave the decision and I went over to my coach that it started to sink in.
“Someone handed me the Australian flag, and I found my family and friends then I ran around the stadium, being swept up in the moment.”
But it wasn’t until she was out of the eye of the crowd that the gravity of what she achieved really started to sink in.
“I walked down the corridor and the drug testing staff member started reading me my rights and as she was talking to me, I started hyperventilating,” Burns shared.
“I sat down on the floor just thinking ‘I’ve won a gold medal,’ and that was when it really actually hit me.
“When I was still out on the mat and running around the stadium I was so caught up in the joy of the moment, but it wasn’t until I was behind closed doors that it really dawned on me.”
She said the roar of the home crowd was like something she had never experienced before, but it was also something she needed to both manage and harness.
“I’d never experienced a crowd like that, in actual fact, I found that the crowd in the State Sports Centre was even louder than going out at the Opening Ceremony,” she explained.
“The main stadium was designed in a way that the acoustics travelled outwards, whereas the State Sports Centre was quite an old complex.
“There were 10,000 people packed in there and the sound was reverberating around the stadium and it was just deafening.”
Burns said that as part of her training, she even had to prepare for the crowd and the influence it could have on her.
“I did a lot of planning and preparation, so I was really prepared for that crowd,” she said.
“At the beginning of the Games, I remember hearing Ian Thorpe in particular, but a lot of the other swimmers talking about the crowd, because they were first up, and they’d talk about how it influenced them.
“I remember thinking, ‘how can the crowd influence you that much, surely not,’ but another friend of mine who was competing, said that they were chanting her name so much that it put her off, and she ended up losing to someone she had beaten many times before and I thought, ‘well, that is really influential’.
“I went along to one of the swimming events and sat in the crowd, and closed my eyes while thinking to myself, ‘how am I going to respond when it’s my turn?’
“It was just that sense of being able to breathe it in and use the momentum of the crowd, because you can't shut it out.
“On the day of the gold medal match, the crowd was so loud. They were chanting my name and every time I kicked, they would cheer because they thought I’d scored, or when my score didn’t go on the board, they would boo,” she laughed.
“But I couldn't be influenced by that, if I didn't score, I had to move on. My coach could protest a decision, but I just had to stay focused and not let that into my space too much.”
After her history-making Olympic gold, Burns went on to start a family and complete her naturopathy and nutrition studies, but her PhD research found her leaning more into athlete wellbeing, specifically with the AIS Gold Medal Ready program.
“When I started studying, I wasn't really planning on doing a lot around athletes,” she said.
“I was looking at doing a study on organic food, also with athletes, but athletes weren’t my main focus.
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“Research is a funny beast, it often changes and the main content of my research became around lifestyles and mindset and part of this was asking, what elite athletes do to manage their own,” Burns explained.
“We sampled a variety of athletes from different sports, teams and levels of experience, both Olympic and Paralympic and asked them questions like what are the things you do to let off steam, what are your recovery practices etc.
“It was no surprise that psychological attributes came out as the key determining factor of what athletes attribute their success, but also, this relationships piece came out as something that I didn't really expect.”
One of the findings of Burns’ study was that;
"Interpersonal relationships that allow athletes to laugh and have time out from the pressures of the high-stakes competition were particularly valued and came in many forms including with friends and teammates or with experts such as masseurs, physiotherapists or coaches, who expand on a purely technical or professional relationship.
“Our findings revealed that high-performance athletes felt more supported by coaches who related to them in an empathetic way, for example, shared a meal or asked about their day, than coaches who merely communicated technical knowledge.
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“Once I looked into the research a lot more and I unpacked the data that we had, it showed how important interpersonal relationships are.
“If you're about to go into an Olympic final and you've got a great relationship with someone, whether it's the masseur or the physio, the coach, manager, nutritionist, other teammates, whoever it might be, that can have really positive effects.
“Just being near them is enough, it doesn't mean they have to say any magic words or the right thing at the right time but being near to and feeling connected with those people can have really powerful effects.
“Conversely, if you've got a really fraught relationship and things are really difficult or you don't have someone in your life that you have that connection with then that can affect you in a negative way as well.
“Unfortunately, in sport, you do see a lot of power dynamics, bullying, ostracism and all these different things that happen as you go along the athlete pathway, so that was a real focus of my research.
“I wrote a piece for the British Journal of Sports Medicine and am doing more research in that area because I find it absolutely fascinating and it goes beyond sport as well.
“Having good relationships is one of the social determinants of health, and right now, loneliness is exceeding heart disease in terms of morbidity, so we need to really value our relationships, especially during COVID and isolation, we need to make sure we keep those connections.”
The advice Burns wants to give athletes is to be flexible and seek knowledge and support outside of your immediate circle.
“One of the best lessons I learned from sport is being flexible and just rolling with it,” she said.
“We talk about it in the Gold Medal Ready program that you’ve just got to keep focused on what you're doing and not getting emotionally invested in every little thing that goes wrong, because there's one thing I can guarantee, and that’s that stuff is going to go wrong.
“It so important to be able to adapt in those situations by being really prepared, doing your own research and finding people to support you, finding experts who will give you the information that you need and leaving no stone unturned because you can’t just expect that things are going to be handed to you,” Burns continued.
“I think moving outside of your given network is also really important.
“As an athlete, you know yourself better than anyone so it’s about finding things that are going to help support and challenge you. Things that will make you grow and give you the skills you need which, sometimes, you won’t even know what they are, until you look outside of your immediate circle.
“Be a knowledge seeker, someone who goes out and finds these people and looks for different information. Just leave no stone unturned in your pursuits.”