Li-Lian Ahlskog-Hou screamed “aiya” when she was invited to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to attend a taekwondo get together. She thought it was a novelty. Only later did she realize she would be representing China at one of the world’s largest taekwondo championships.
The 23-year-old Beiing-based journalism student, and taekwondo red belt, is no stranger to competitions having competed many times in her home country of Sweden. So when the subject of a match in DPRK was raised, she was thrilled at the opportunity. “Obviously my initial reaction was to say ‘definitely”.”
It was only about a week after agreeing to participate when the penny dropped. She was about to fight in one of the world’s most prestigious competitions.
“My Chinese language skills are fairly basic and my coaches don’t speak much English so I didn’t understand what there were asking me. Only after one evening when one of them took out his phone to translate the name of the competition for me did I actually get it.”
“When I saw the words, ‘world championships’ appear on the screen I started screaming in the middle of the street. It was a bit of a shock.”
Born to a Swedish mother and a Chinese father, who migrated to Sweden in the 1970s, Ahlskog-Hou has lived in Europe her whole life before coming to China in September 2009 to begin a masters in multimedia journalism.
Even though she is not a Chinese citizen, Ahlskog-Hou is able to represent China because of technicalities related to how taekwondo governing bodies administer competitions.
As a result, the team from China, although representing the country, was not an official squad sent by the Chinese government to participate in the tournament, and therefore restrictions on nationality do not apply.
“For me the idea of being part of any national team is something which you couldn’t even describe as a dream,” she says.
“I always thought it was too impossible to be even worth thinking about. Going to the world championships is definitely one of those ‘only-in-China’ things.”
Ahlskog-Hou is the archetypal sports addict. Her home is filled with snowboards, skateboards and punching pads, and exercise, in some form, is an integral part of her daily routine.
She finally hit upon taekwondo after trying out various different martial arts in Sweden.
The Korean sport, whose name literally means the way of foot and fist, focuses on attacking through punching and kicking, and is credited with offering the most comprehensive exercise regime of all the martial arts.
“As soon as I had settled down in Beijing I began looking for a gym to practice in, but it took me about six months before I found a suitable one. In China adults and children train together, and in many of the clubs I tried I would be the only adult.
“It’s hard to train seriously when most of your opponents are under 12.”
After eventually finding a decent club at Beijing Foreign Studies University, Ahlskog-Hou once again began regular training under the guidance of two coaches, themselves former world championship participants.
By her own admission, Ahlskog-Hou is really not up to international standards in taekwondo.
“I know people back in Sweden who are a lot better than me, and they aren’t even on the national team.”
In order to raise the bar Ahlskog-Hou was put through a grueling training process, which aimed to cover in only eight weeks what an average student would learn in a year.
“I’ve basically turned into an animal that just eats, sleeps and trains,” she says.
Along with training sessions, which were daily 2-3 hour affairs, Ahlskog-Hou was ordered to run for 40 minutes every morning, do 100 sit-ups, and lose more than 3kg.
This led to some drastic dietary changes.
Ahlskog-Hou took to eating four extra eggs a day in an attempt to increase her protein intake, allowing her to lose weight while keeping her energy levels up.