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John McKissockJohn McKissock, Fifth Dan black belt in Taekwon-Do
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Karen Skinner - flying above the Costa Brava
"The rugged coastline is so beautiful from the air"
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Toby and Sarah Ginger sparring
"I used to be able to beat my son Toby up, but now he can beat me up!"
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Andrew Baggaley with the Club Borges team
"We are a very dangerous team, and on our day can beat any team in the world."
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Karen Skinner, champion paramotorist
"I desperately want to join the Spanish national team."
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John McKissock, Fifth Dan black belt, Taekwon-Do
"The greatest motivation is winning for the people who take my classes, for my family, for my children."
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"I miss the adrenalin of competition, but I don't miss the nerves and the dieting for months beforehand."
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Andrew Baggaley, current English table tennis champion
"Coming to Spain has really improved my game, as the standard here is very high."
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Sarah Ginger, Catalan and Spanish Taekwon-Do champion in her age
"I'm not an aggressive person, but I love Taekwon-Do"
Many people who move to Catalunya take up sports in order to keep fit, make friends or just for fun. For a select few however, their talent and determination can lead to silverware and international recognition. To get there though, in addition to the gruelling physical aspects of their sports, foreign residents must overcome the cultural and linguistic differences they find here. We spoke to five champion sportsmen and women about their achievements.
John McKissock has an impressive collection of trophies and medals to vouch for his success in the Korean martial art of Taekwon-Do. Among them is a gold from the 2005 World Championships in Benidorm, which he won representing Catalunya.
The Fifth Dan black belt moved to the region from Scotland in 2003 with barely a word of Castilian or Catalan, but he has since established himself as a major force in the world of Taekwon-Do in Spain, and runs four clubs around Catalunya teaching 120 students aged between four and 64.
“I was very proud to represent Catalunya in the World Championships,” said John, 37. “My wife Eulalia is from Barcelona, both our children were born here, and I speak fluent Catalan. But the greatest motivation is winning for the people who take my classes, for my family, for my children. That is a much bigger motivation than competing for any flag.”
Originally from Forres near Inverness in the Highlands, John fell in love with Taekwon-Do at the age of 13 when he saw a demonstration of the martial art. When he was 21, doctors suggested he give up the sport after diagnosing a serious bone condition. But he refused and went on to represent Scotland for many years, winning third place in the World Championships in Saint Petersburg in 1997.
John, who was previously a cigar salesman in the UK, moved to Spain six years ago after falling in love with Eulalia when they met on holiday on the Isle of Skye. They now live in Viladrau, in the comarca of Osona, with their children Grace, five, and Willie, three-and-a-half.
John retired from competition in 2006 when he was appointed Spanish technical director of the International Taekwon-Do Federation. Since then he has dedicated his time to teaching, although not just the martial art: he also gives classes in classical guitar, mandolin and violin at the Conservatory of Music in Vic.
In the Taekwon-Do classes, children up to 12 years old are taught in English, because the parents like them to learn a language while they train, and the rest of the classes are in Catalan.
“We’re having a lot of success using British training techniques,” explained John, “which are a lot more developed than they are here. There is a much older culture of Taekwon-Do in the UK, and there is more of a culture of training hard.
“I miss the adrenalin of competition, but I don’t miss the nerves and the dieting for months beforehand.”
Karen Skinner was enjoying a day on the beach with her husband Jason at Sant Antoni de Calonge when she first spotted somebody flying a paramotor—a motorised paraglider. She had dreamed of flying since the age of six when her uncle took her up in a small private plane, but had always been put off by the cost.
The couple began taking paragliding lessons in Berga in the Pyrenees, then progressed on to the paramotor. Since then she has been flying around three times a week.
In 2006, Karen became the first person ever to cross Catalunya in a paramotor, flying 260 kilometres from Fraga to Roses in five hours and 30 minutes. That same year she became the British Paramotoring Champion.
“I have flown all over Spain and in the UK and France, but my favourite places to fly are still the Costa Brava and the Pyrenees,” said Karen. “The rugged coastline is so beautiful from the air, and flying over the mountains from Berga is spectacular.”
Karen, 41, from London, moved to Spain 22 years ago and met her husband Jason, who had lived here since he was 14. Today they live in Calonge. Karen is now trying to cut through red tape to join the Spanish national paramotoring team. “I desperately want to join the Spanish national team, but at the moment they won’t accept me because I still have British nationality. It’s frustrating, but hopefully I can overcome it.”
Paramotor competitions involve navigating, map reading, precision tasks (kicking over sticks strategically placed in the ground) and thermal tasks (staying in the air as long as possible on a limited amount of fuel).
“It is very physically demanding,” said Karen “as you have to run along to take off, with up to 55 kilogrammes of machinery and fuel strapped to your back. That is possibly why there are not many women doing the sport.”
It was Andrew Baggaley’s passion for table tennis that brought him to Spain. Now widely regarded as Britain’s top player and the current English champion, Andrew moved to Catalunya to take his game to a new level.
The 25 year old plays for Borges Grup Vall in Les Borges Blanques, Lleida. It’s one of Europe’s leading clubs, and Andrew regularly plays in front of 1,000 spectators.
“Borges is a small town of around 5,000 people, and the whole town is very proud of the table tennis team,” said Andrew. “Coming to Spain has really improved my game, as the standard here is very high. We play in the Spanish Superleague, which is arguably the best in Europe. The game is still amateur in the UK, so most of the best players move abroad. Borges is a friendly, positive club, which is so important.”
Andrew first picked up a bat when he was five, playing with his mum on an old table in the back garden of their home in Milton Keynes. He turned professional aged just 13, moving to Belgium and then Germany and Sweden to earn a living.
The double Commonwealth Games gold medallist spends 30 hours a week training either at the table, in the gym or running, in order to develop his leg, forearm and chest muscles.
He moved to Borges two years ago, and shares a house there with the club’s two other professional players and his brother Steven, who is also his coach.
“One of the other pros is from China, and it’s intriguing for the club to have two foreigners in the team,” commented Andrew. “But they have really adopted me as one of their own. We speak English to each other, and we have very different styles of play.
“We are a very dangerous team, and on our day can beat any team in the world.”
SARAH AND TOBY GINGER
Not many mothers can say they enjoy sparring with their teenage sons. But Sarah Ginger and 16-year-old Toby are both Taekwon-Do champions and black belts in the martial art.
Sarah, 39, is the Catalan and Spanish national champion in her age group, and Toby is national champion in his. Sarah was also named sportswoman of the year in her hometown of Sant Feliu de Guíxols in 2005.
“I used to be able to beat Toby up, but now he can beat me up!” said Sarah. “He’s five feet 11 inches tall and I’m only five feet two inches, so he has the advantage these days. I was sparring with him this week and my shins are black with bruises as a result.”
Sarah started the sport as a teenager and took it up again 10 years ago, winning eight British championships. When she moved to Spain with her husband Jonathan five years ago, she began competing in Catalan and Spanish competitions.
The Second Dan black belt said: “It was odd representing Catalunya at first, but I really enjoy it now. Lots of people who had previously seen me wearing an English suit now see me in a Catalan suit, which must look strange to them.”
Sarah teaches Taekwon-Do in schools and clubs around Sant Feliu, and also looks after holiday properties. She continued training, but not sparring, while pregnant with her daughter Tilly, who is now nine months old. Sarah said, “I’m really looking forward to Tilly taking it up, if she wants to, of course.”
“I’m not an aggressive person but I love Taekwon-Do,” she added. “It has done so much for me—I am virtually fluent in Catalan thanks to Taekwon-Do.”