In this week’s show, Julia talks her experiences as world taekwondo champion, including how she was able to win, the highlights and challenges she faced along the way, and how her own experience with depression has led her to advocate for mental health awareness.
Julia has trained in the art of Taekwon-Do for the last 30 years and has a 6th degree black belt. She is the only person in the world (male or female) to have six world titles. She also has 15 European titles under her belt and was inducted into the first ITF (International Taekwondo Federation) Hall of fame at the World Championships in Quebec in 2007 then again at the World Championships in Finland 2016 for Outstanding Personality. Julia now runs the South Queensferry School of Taekwon-Do and is beginning work with See Me Scotland, an organization working to end mental health stigma and discrimination.
How she started
- 11 years old, slightly overweight and bullied a bit.
- Dad wanted her to build self confidence.
- Started competing at 12. Sparred with a black belt boy and lost.
- From that day forward did every competition she could, always had a drive to get better.
I’ve always been feisty, strong-willed and the attention span of a gnat, so taekwondo was good for me.”
Key moments in career
- Seeing so many black belt females at European championships – hadn’t seen many before.
- Traveling to North Korea – complete new world – meeting people from all over the world. She still keeps in touch with some, 20+ years later.
- Winning first world title in 1999. Only Scottish competitor and someone mentioned that it was great she had come to take part. She clarified that she was there to win.
I didn’t come to take part, I came to win.
Contributors to success / what makes her different
When I have a goal in mind, I never give up until I achieve it.
- Decided she was going to be a world champion. Put a plan in place. Trained relentlessly.
- Listened to advice, fixed things.
- Got sponsorships and saved money so she could do this full-time, traveled all over to get experience.
- She changes her mind a lot in life, couldn’t decide what she wanted to do – this was the first thing she really wanted to stick with and achieve.
- Once she achieved it once, she wanted to keep doing it.
Challenges / Lowlights
- Didn’t always win. Sometimes self-confidence down.
- In one fight she thought she wouldn’t win before she started. She was physically. ready but lost. Had to work on the mental side.
- Months of work don’t matter if you don’t have the belief in yourself.
Injury leading to retirement
- Discovered lots of problems in her hip.
- Had hip surgery and then won the European championships eight weeks later. Had to change her style to protect it and no one expected the changes.
- Decided to do one more competition. Did more damage – doctor did not know how she was even able to walk.
- Had hip replacement. Next goal was to rehab it as well as possible.
- Didn’t want to stop competing, but knew it was hurting her family to see her go through the pain.
- Took several years for her to really realize that we wasn’t going to compete again.
Life after realizing she needed to retire
- It was awful. First focused on recovery, then on opening her job, then didn’t know what to focus on.
- Sank into a really bad depression, didn’t tell anyone for a year.
- Knew she had so much to be thankful for – titles new gym, pain-free – but was on the edge of despair.
Recovering from depression
- Partner at the time suggested she get help.
- She was embarrassed and ashamed.
How could I have allowed this to happen to me?
- Wrote a list of everything that she was feeling – handed it to doctor. He made her aware this was normal for athletes after stopping suddenly. Nothing to be ashamed of.
- Went on medication and started working with a counselor. Worked through it stage by stage.
- Didn’t tell anyone for awhile. Told parents and they were distraught because they hadn’t seen it, since she had been hiding it.
- Did more mental work. Had to work back towards her champion mindset – channel it towards getting better.
Hardest thing I found was asking others for help, because I had never done that before.
- Over the years have gotten better about sharing what she’s going through, asking for help, not being ashamed.
- Determined she had probably been depressed for 10-15 years but had masked it with the highs and lows of competing.
I’m a much stronger person for having suffered because I can empathize so much more with people in all walks of life.
See Me Scotland
- Begins work with them in January. Figuring out now how she will be able to help others.
- Organization goes into workplaces, schools, to show it’s ok to talk about depression.
- Julia will go talk to people, give them inspiration to get help. It’s easier to talk to someone who has been through it.
You CAN get better, you CAN get through this.
- Sheena Sutherland, her instructor for 30 years. Female role model and also a second mother figure. Was one of the first people she told about her depression.
- General Choy, Founder of Tae Kwon Do – Amazing man, got to meet him before he passed. Many great philosophies. Living by the five tenants of taekwondo can make you a better person (courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, indomitable spirit.)
Advice for others
- If you have a goal in life, you need to think about it, put a plan in place, work towards it, and then go for it without letting anyone stop you.
- Never be afraid to ask for help. People like to feel needed and want to be part of your journey.
- Surround yourself with positive people, people who will pick you up when you’re down.