She’s torn a hamstring, shattered her wrist twice, broken her arm and generally been beaten from pillar to post in a life dedicated to taekwondo. But 67kg Carmen Marton, the daughter of Polish immigrants, this week begins her third Olympic campaign with a singular focus; gold.
“Missing out in London was so tough. To come away with nothing, after so much work, was horrible and heartbreaking. My sister, Caroline, was my training partner and we just hugged and cried and cried. But it gave me focus.” That focus delivered Marton a taekwondo world championship the following year, the first ever for an Australian.
Now, it’s all about gold. “I feel like I have matured a lot as an athlete since London and my debut in Beijing. It’s not about the village, it’s not about the fun, the fanfare. I made a conscious decision to delay my entry into Brazil by a few days, and to miss the opening ceremony, because this is business time and I am purely focused on my event,” said Marton, who competes in the less than 67kg division.
Marton also has family by her side in Rio; lots of family. Her fiancé, 30-year-old Safwan Khalil, is representing Australia in taekwondo at his second Games and her sister, Caroline Marton, 32, will make her Olympic debut in a different weight division. Khalil’s brother, Ali, is a selector and coach of the men’s team and Marton’s younger brother, Jack, is in Rio as a reserve. The couple’s close friend, Hayder Shkara, makes up the team.
“I joke that it’s been our master plan all along to get our entire family to the Olympics!” Marton laughed. “It is certainly amazing to be able to share this with them. We’ve been able to travel the world together and now we’re all chasing our Olympic dream together.”
It all began with her father, Andrzej Marton, who fled Poland with his then friend and later, wife Alicja. “My dad just fell in love with taekwondo in Poland and he knew, having made it to Australia after being a refugee in Europe, that anything was possible for his kids, including his daughters.”
“As long as I can remember, I have been around taekwondo. My dad had a black belt and I remember watching him train; he was so passionate about it. There was something about it being an individual sport, and getting back exactly what you put in. He introduced us kids to it as soon as we were old enough. My sister was 10, I was eight and our brother about three," Marton said. She described taekwondo as “a full contact sport, which is like fencing with your feet”.
“To be honest, I didn’t love it immediately. Of all of us, I probably liked it the least, and I would try to do anything to get out of it. I would say I was sick or that I had a piano lesson at the same time, or even pretend to be asleep, but my dad insisted.”
Her father’s “Easter bloc ethos” meant training wasn’t restricted to the gym, she said. “Oh, we trained hard. If we weren’t training in class, we were doing extra at home. There was always a technique to be worked on, something to be perfected, repeating something 10 or 20 times. I think that’s why I dreaded it so much, it was too, too much.”
But after the tedium of repetitive skills-based classes, came the “fighting side” – and 172cm Marton was hooked on the Korean martial art. “I got my black belt when I was 12 and once I had the focus on the fighting side, everything changed. I love the physical side; the kick, punches and the moves, but the mental side is just as important, if not more important,” she said.
Marton soon understood that being picked in representative teams meant travel and new experiences.
“When I was 14, I got the chance to travel to Korea and I realised ‘this is where my sport can take me, to the other side of the world’ and I knew from that moment on, I wanted to do it for as long as I could. I made amazing friends and amazing memories.”
At 16, she met a boy named Safwan at a junior world championship in Greece. “We started off as friends, and of course being passionate about taekwondo was a huge bonding thing. Safwan was born in Lebanon and has really done the hard yards to reach where he has in the sport and I am so proud of him.”
Having a partner who shares her passion is a catch-22, Marton said. “He understands what it takes; the travel and time away from home and that training always takes priority. He gets that. But at the same time, our programs don’t always match up and we had to live apart in the lead-up to these Games, with me in Melbourne and him in Sydney, so that can put a strain on the relationship. We both have to make sacrifices for each other, it can be difficult at times, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.
The sacrifices have also been financial, with the couple receiving little, if any, government support throughout their careers. “I am definitely not sitting on my yacht!” Marton joked.
“We’ve always had to fundraise and get financial support from different places, like our childhood clubs, our parents and of course our own pocket. Leading into London, we had absolutely no support, so we had to make a financial choice to chase our dreams, unlike other athletes in other sports, who get much greater support,” she said.
Pre-Rio, the Australian Olympic Committee provided some assistance, Marton said. “We still have a very, very long way to go. In some countries, an athlete who medals in taekwondo at the Olympics would get a wage for the next four years, to get to the next Olympics, or in somewhere like Korea, a pension for the rest of their life. I think I recall hearing about an Iranian athlete who got given an island for winning a gold medal!”
Marton said the recent introduction of electronic sensors inside competitors’ body shields – to detect hits, rather than relying on a subjective review by an official – had changed the sport for the better.
“The sport is absolutely still tough, but having the sensors means the hits don’t have to be as hard. They get detected and points awarded. It has really levelled the playing field and taken out the potential for people to say a referee might be biased. It means it’s not just the powerhouse countries, with a reputation for being strong in the sport, who can medal.”
Marton doesn’t have a hit list of who she has to beat to get her hands on a medal at Rio. “I just have to be prepared for all of my fights. It will all come down to the draw, who gets seeded where. I need to be in the moment and have an awareness of my opponents’ strengths. Ideally, I want to work on my own strengths too, of course. So much of fighting is about outsmarting your opponent; having good decision-making and using the right tactics at the right time,” she said.
As much as taekwondo looks brutal, it’s a mind game, Marton said. “Your brain is working just as hard as your feet. I have to be in that fighting state … and I am. I’m ready.”