Adam Shelley: If I could compete in the Olympics in the sport I love, that would be the ultimate

Adam Shelley is the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) 70kg world champion; a three-time European champion and a three-time winner at the Irish Open.

Adam Shelley

Adam Shelley is a world and European taekwondo champion from Dublin, but his name won’t resonate with many sports fans. After all, he competes in the minority branch of a niche sport, but the 23-year-old has nonetheless made a name for himself internationally. Today he’s opening his campaign at the ITF European Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Q: What attracted you to taekwondo?

A: It’s the buzz. For the last few weeks, every day has brought me closer to the Europeans and the adrenaline flows every time I think about it. 

I took up the sport when I was seven, did my first international when I was 15 and I’ve always liked the idea of combat sport – it’s just you and another person.

Q: How do you train?

A: I train mostly with my brother, who’s 20 and also fighting at the Europeans. We’re up at 5.30am on most weekday mornings and I’ll be in the gym doing strength and conditioning by 6:30, then college starts at 9. 

In the evening, it’s usually club-based training – lots of drills, pads, then one or two nights a week we’d be sparring.

Q: How difficult is that to combine with life as a full-time student?

A: It gets tricky. I’m studying sports science in DCU, and luckily I’m on a scholarship so they’re accommodating with deadlines. 

There are days where I’m going from the gym to college back to the club, where I teach taekwondo. After that I’ll be training myself, so I might be out of the house from 6am to 10pm.

Q: Is there any room for a social life?

A: Not coming up to competitions. I drank once this year. You’ve got to make up your mind – it’s one or the other. In the off-season I enjoy myself, but in-season I rule it out. My girlfriend competes in taekwondo too, which helps – you need someone who understands.

Q: Have you ever had to use your martial arts skills in a social setting?

A: Luckily no. It’s not often we work on self-defence, but when we do the main thing we’re taught is to avoid the situation. I’ll always try to stay away from a situation, and nine times out of 10 you can see it developing, so when that happens I just get out of there.

Q: How strictly do you monitor your diet?

A: It’s such an import aspect because I’m tall – 6ft 2 and fighting at 70kg – so I try my best to stay close to that weight. I weigh all my food, track carbs, protein and fats. 

I try to periodise my nutrition, just like training, so on a heavy training day I consume a lot of carbohydrates but on rest days I could cut that in half.

No day is the same, but breakfast might be porridge and eggs, lunch would be chicken, rice, vegetables and a little bit of sauce. 

Dinner might be salmon, pasta, broccoli, onions, carrots, and for snacks I’ll have protein powder after the gym, lots of fruits, nuts, and try to stay away from junk food.

Q: What’s your long-term goal?

A: Definitely the UFC. I’ve been asked to MMA clubs to spar and I really feel the taekwondo style works. After the world championships it’s something I’m going to explore. 

If I can just learn a bit of ground fighting, it could take me places. Conor McGregor opened the door for Irish MMA fighters and people want to see the Irish because of him.

Q: Are you a fan of his?

A: I am. He’s done so much for MMA in Ireland and across the world. You love him or hate him, but whether you’re watching to see him win or to see him lose, you’re watching. 

MMA is more aggressive than taekwondo, but it’s not just two animals getting in a cage; there’s respect there and he’s highlighted that.

Q: As someone who’s combined boxing with martial arts, what’s your prediction if he takes on Floyd Mayweather?

A: Mayweather is the safe bet, but McGregor has reach, he’s got 36 minutes to land one clean punch and he’s proven time and again he can land it. That straight left is a serious punch, so I wouldn’t rule him out completely, but the best have tried and failed against Mayweather. 

A lot of people wouldn’t like his style, but in my opinion he’s the best boxer ever to grace the ring. They always say the science of boxing is to hit and not get hit and he’s mastered that.

Q: You compete in the ITF branch of taekwondo; how does that differ from WTF?

A: There used to be one, but when the Korean war happened there was a split. North Korea practises ITF and South Korea WTF. It’s mainly a political thing why WTF is in the Olympics.

WTF is 90 per cent kicking, 10 per cent boxing, whereas ITF is more 60/40, so to me ITF is more entertaining. Hopefully ITF gets into the Olympics one day. If I could compete in the Olympics in the sport I love, that would be the ultimate.

Q: Given your branch of the sport receives no funding, how difficult is it to finance everything?

A: It can be tough, especially competing against Russians, Polish, Ukrainians and Germans who are all funded. We rely on sponsorship or club fundraising. For example, I think I could win a title at the World Kickboxing Championships in Brazil later this year, but am not sure I’ll be able to go because of the cost.

For the Europeans, Bank of Ireland in DCU and Artane Credit Union gave me sponsorship, and my parents are also hugely supportive. Dad is hugely beneficial because he says what he sees.

There’s no bullshit; he tells you if it’s bad and I love people like that. My Mam too is great with meal preparation and lifts whenever I need them.

Q: We’re now six months out from the World Championships. How big an event will that be for you?

A: Having travelled around the world for the last eight years and had family and friends always asking about my fights, for them to see us do our thing in Dublin is huge.

I’m hoping to defend my title. My motivation, my fire, is to prove to myself that I can.

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