Interview: Julia Cross, former taekwon-do champion

Taekwon-do's biggest female star, Julia Cross, tells how she's come to terms with hip op that's ended her career

THE trophy shelves in Julia Cross's home heave under the weight of her triumphs – proof she's one of the best female taekwon-do competitors in the world.

Since her first ever martial arts class when she was just 11, to becoming the sport's world champion six times over, she's rarely suffered defeat.

Now, however, her glittering career has come to an abrupt and painful end. Julia, a spectacular winner in the martial arts arena, has finally been beaten – by her own body.

Without an urgent hip replacement operation – she goes under the knife tomorrow – her bones could simply collapse.

"It's been absolutely awful," says Julia, 35, whose delicate features and slim figure disguise a powerhouse of fitness and strength honed over almost 20 years of top-flight competition. "The whole thing has been a massive shock. It's taken a while to get my head around what's happened and it's still hard to talk about it."

She adds with a shake of the head: "People don't understand what a huge thing this is for me. It's been awful.

"But I've accepted that it's going to happen. I'm retiring from competition and I'll just have to get on with what happens next."

Drastic problems with her left hip emerged during a straightforward examination aimed at fixing a niggling but apparently simple "wear and tear" problem.

She'd gone to hospital to have some slight damage sustained during a competition treated – the kind of thing many athletes experience during their sporting careers.

But she left her surgeon's consultation room devastated, her future bleak.

An X-ray revealed a previously undetected growth defect. It was nothing to do with her sport or training, just a tiny but devastating blip of nature.

"I had a couple of tears – I was in a competition, someone kicked me and wrenched my leg up. It wasn't serious at all and I only went to hospital to see about getting it cleaned out.

"The surgeon looked at the X-ray and said there were six tears, a laceration in the hip joint, cysts and that I had a growth defect and lumps on scar tissue. Then he said, 'and you need a new hip'."

The news floored 4th degree black belt Julia in a way few of her rivals could ever have hoped to manage. "I said 'what are you talking about? I can't need a new hip', and he said he was as shocked as I was.

"I'm the only person in the world to have six world titles, I was the first to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Quebec.

"I used to train twice a day, every single day. Now I can't walk for more than ten minutes before my hip seizes up. I can't run, simple things like bending are sore."

It turned out that as a teenager Julia's left thigh began to grow with a tilt. "The result is that the hip is not totally flush," she explains.

"It's absolutely nothing to do with taekwon-do. I would always have needed a hip replacement at some point. But doing an impact sport has certainly got me to this stage much quicker than it might have. So I need a replacement now as opposed to needing it in 30 years' time."

Julia underwent surgery two years ago to remove scar tissue and ease some of her discomfort, but she kept news of what awaited her a tightly guarded secret from her competitors. Incredibly, she battled through excruciating pain with coach Heath Denholm to alter her unbeatable fighting style in a bid to ease some of the pressure on her joint and carry on competing.

"In 2008 I couldn't do box splits, I was losing all flexibility. I asked the surgeon why that was happening and he explained that I had no fluid left in my joint. But I was determined to keep pushing and pushing. If someone tells me I can't do something, I tend to say 'yes, I can'.

"Maybe I'm stupid, but I kept on competing: I wasn't ready to retire."

Changing her fighting style was physically gruelling but actually helped, she adds. "I used to kick, kick, kick but I've had to calm that down. It wasn't a bad thing because my opponents were expecting me to do one thing and there I was doing something completely different.

"The people I competed against had no idea, but I've been in constant agony for two years. All anyone knew was that I'd had a fairly straightforward operation, not that I was waiting for a hip replacement."

She had hoped to continue competing for at least two more years, but a recent X-ray left Julia reeling. "I got a huge fright," she admits. "The bone is rock solid on my joint. The x-ray showed how much of the bone has gone, it's riddled with arthritis. So there's no alternative but get the replacement done."

Her surgeon at Glasgow's Gartnaval hospital has reassured her that the operation will have her fighting fit again, but Julia has decided not to risk it and has announced her retirement from the sport to concentrate on expanding her own taekwon-do school.

"He keeps saying I'll have the hip of a 35-year-old athlete and that he's pretty sure that if I wanted to, I could go back competing.

"But I'm too scared that something might go wrong and I'll end up in a wheelchair or not being able to walk."

As it is, she's haunted by the prospect of the operation: "I have dreams that my leg is going to be cut off.

"I had one of the best kicking legs of any girl in the world, then all of a sudden this has happened."

It's a devastating conclusion to what began aged 11 when her dad, Clark, took her to Master Sheena Sutherland's TKD class in Linlithgow.

Today, Julia's achievements are unparalleled in International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF) history.

As far as her gongs go, she has been world champion in her category six times, a European champion an incredible 15 times and earned countless other national honours.

Regardless of that, however, she has struggled to find sponsorship and support in Scotland and had to juggle her sports career around work commitments.

"I'd go abroad and be treated like a star, people would ask for my autograph. Here, though, no-one seems that interested. I gave up asking for sponsorship a long time ago because I got sick of the knock-backs. But it was hard trying to train twice a day and work and pay for flights and competitions.

"Still, I've had an amazing time," nods Julia, who lives in Bathgate with former Hibs' player Graeme Love, now manager of Bathgate Thistle. "I've travelled the world, been to North Korea, Argentina, Russia, throughout Europe. I've had an amazing time and met fantastic people."

Julia will receive a plastic hip – a better option for an athlete, apparently – and faces six weeks on crutches and several more weeks' recovery time. She plans to spend it working on plans to expand her South Queensferry School of Taekwon-do into new premises where she is already training the next breed of TKD stars.

"I'm trying to be positive – after all if this had emerged at the start of my career that would have been it. I can't help feeling I could have continued for a couple more years and that's been taken away from me. But I'm trying to look forward to a whole new chapter – and to getting back into the gym."

For further details of Julia Cross's TKD classes, go to www.southqueensferrytkd.info

WORLD TITLE HAUL EARNED HALL OF FAME BERTH

JULIA Cross began taekwon-do aged 11, training with 8th degree black belt Sheena Sutherland.

She was inducted into the TKD Hall of Fame in Canada in 2007 in recognition of her being the only person – male or female – to achieve six world titles. The IFT World championships are held every two years.

While Julia opted not to attend last month's European championships in Sweden, pupils from her TKD school in South Queensferry took part. Brother and sister Gilles and Rheannan Brown and Sean Wheelan represented Scotland at the event.