It was in 2016 when Jordan Thomas won a karate world championship in Austria, that he knew his destiny was firmly in his hands long before he put them to devastating use.
“Early in 2016 my first status on Facebook was: ‘This is a year of business’,” he says. “I won the European bronze medal in May. Then I put a post up that said: ‘I am coming.’ I felt it, that it was meant to be, everything was coming together. For me it was not if, it was when.”
The 27-year-old competes in the 67kg class in the kumite discipline – the fighting and sparring branch of karate, which is making its debut at the Tokyo Olympics next year.
In 2014 Thomas was the first British karateka to become European champion for eight years. He was the national champion at 12 and British champion when he was 13. When he took the men’s world title aged 24, it was Britain’s first for 12 years. England’s Natalie Williams was the last Briton to win a world honour, taking bronze at the 2010 championships in Belgrade. His background suggests that this inexorable march really had always been just a matter of “when”, but it had not been so straightforward.
Thomas was raised in Luton and not only grew up during what is considered karate’s golden age in Britain, but at its very heart. His father, William, was world champion in 1992 and won multiple medals, including European gold in 1986.
His father was not alone, as Thomas also had his “uncles”. There was Mervyn Etienne, who won four world championship gold medals and was European champion in 1991, and, of course, Wayne Otto, Britain’s most successful karateka with nine world titles. “My dad and his close friends were around me,” Thomas recalls. “I wanted to be like them. That influenced me, they were my role models and I thought: ‘How do I get to be like them?’”
Yet his journey was almost ended before it had begun after he was run over by a car as a two-year-old. “It snapped my femur in two and I was told that I could never walk again. I went into sport as part of recovery and karate was good for my rehab, I started healing and now I am a champion.”
Even then nothing was decided. Thomas showed great promise in other sports, including football, gymnastics, basketball and athletics. There was a trial offered with the Watford academy and it was not until that point, aged 14, that he had to choose.
Karate won out but years of struggle lay ahead. Unfunded he had to support himself, working unsociable hours as a part‑time gym instructor, a personal trainer and an assistant at a sports centre. These were the hard times that have honed his determined character. When Thomas speaks there is an unmistakable sense of how devastating his utter conviction must be when transformed into a barrage of blows. They are traits tempered by his personable character but the steely determination is beyond doubt.
“All the money I made went on my career. It was tough. I was always up against full-time athletes and it just made success sweeter. I would be getting up earlier than them, squeeze in training here and there and couldn’t go to as many competitions as them because of the money situation, but still going out and beating these guys.”
Indeed, his participation at the 2016 world championships was crowd‑funded and only afterwards was he able to turn fully professional. Now he has UK Sport funding and is working within the successful British taekwondo team as they build towards Tokyo in 2020. There are 10 places in each weight category at the Games, one will go to the home nation and the other to a wild card. Thomas, then, must make one of only eight spots but has started 2019 well, beating karateka in the top 10 in the world and recently in the Paris premier league, a world ranking event, was ninth.
This weekend he will compete in the European championships in Guadalajara, Spain, as he builds towards Tokyo. A future where he firmly believes the best is yet to come, with, of course, that assurance that leaves so little room for doubt that we will be watching this young man at the Games.
“For me tomorrow hasn’t been written yet. I make my own story. I can go forward and create my own my own history. Tokyo is the main objective. At my best I will be there. I am good enough to be there, now it’s about getting the job done.”