Grassroots to Glory - Bianca Walkden
"She does three-course meals, five-course meals, she plays piano, and she kicks people in the head."
Anna Haraini summarises her daughter’s skills thusly: “She does three-course meals, five-course meals, she plays piano, and she kicks people in the head.” Most parents would be gravely concerned by the final point, but no one else gave birth to three-time taekwondo world champion Bianca Walkden.
In 2017, Walkden banked a record-breaking £52,000—then the sport’s biggest-ever first prize—by defeating American Jackie Galloway at the World Taekwondo Grand Slam Series. Walkden’s latest global conquest, completed at the Manchester championships in 2019, installed her as the first Brit to win a world taekwondo treble. That same year, the Rio 2016 bronze medallist did what any sensible athlete would do with their winnings: invest them in a pizza joint.
“We’re Italian so we’ve always wanted a restaurant,” explained Walkden, 29. “I earned some prize money from the World Championship and instead of blowing it like normal, I thought I wanted to do something with the family and create a little bit of business together. We love pizza, we love bread, so we thought it was a perfect opportunity to open the pizzeria. It’s nice to have something for after taekwondo as well. It’s amazing to be able to do it with my family, my mum and dad, and be able to show a different side so it’s not just taekwondo all the time. I can show the Italian in me, the food I love, and show it off to the world by selling some pizzas!”
If you have ever munched on a margarita from Di Scala Pizzeria, located just an 11-minute walk down Deyes Lane from Maghull North station in Walkden’s native Liverpool, you have probably met the Harainis, Anna and Saeed, or even their Tokyo-bound daughter herself.
“Di Scala is my mum’s maiden name and my grandad is the Italian one,” said Walkden, who will wear the late restauranteur's necklace during the Olympics. “He was born in Naples and we created this through him. The day he passed away was the day of my first senior World Championship gold. I just remember trying to ring home to tell him and he was not there. With this restaurant and with the family, we’re keep[ing] his legacy and the family name alive.”
But before the burrata and the belts, there was Becky.
“I was a bit of a wild child, always doing something or playing out,” explained Walkden, who is one of over 1,000 to benefit from National Lottery funding allowing her to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams. I wanted to play in the park all the time and I was a bit of a tomboy. I grew into being quite competitive. When I was 11, I joined taekwondo with my friend Becky one day after school and I’ve never looked back. I remember seeing everyone kicking and screaming at each other, with these different coloured belts on and white suits, and thinking ‘what the hell’s going on?’. But I absolutely fell in love with it and before I knew it, I’m sitting here as world champion.”
Anna’s memory of her industrious, determined daughter is much the same.
“Bianca was always very sporty in school,” she said. “She won a lot of things in school competing with athletics, she was first in Liverpool for the Harriers running long distance. And then Becky introduced her to taekwondo. She was just obsessed with it to be honest. She did everything possible to go to taekwondo. She sold sweets in school to make a little bit of extra money. She went twice a week, but she wanted to go more, so she did everything she could to try to get there.”
Becky quit; Walkden did not. At just 15, she left her parents’ home, moving to Manchester to join UK Sport’s National Lottery-funded World Class Programme for GB Taekwondo after being scouted via the Fighting Chance talent campaign. Walkden won world European junior bronze that same year, following it up with junior world silver 12 months later.
She recalled: “To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just took a leap of faith and just went with it. I went to an all-girls’ school in Liverpool and then I had to move to a mixed school in Manchester. Even that alone was something so new. Then for it to be in different accents, different places, and then do sport on top of it, I literally just went with it and tried to wing the whole thing. It’s paid off for me alright, so I can’t complain!”
Still, going from the comfort of her mum and dad’s to suddenly sharing a house with other girls was a big adjustment, even for the agreeable girl Saeed described as “bubby, full of confidence, and would never let you be sad. When you were in her company, she’d just make you laugh.”
The teen athletes were not entirely left to their own devices.
“Because we were so young, we had a guardian,” said Walkden, who admitted says National Lottery support of GB’s athletes had been vital throughout her career. “She was there, but it was like literally living away. We were all so independent. You have to think quick straight away, and you have to learn how to grow up straight away.”
It is entirely possible that Di Scala would not exist were it not for Walkden’s days under the watchful eye of the hen-like house Taekwon-don.
“I’ve never really thought about it like that,” muses the heavyweight, who switched from the +67kg division to +74kg after Rio—a decision, she jokes, that has enabled her to eat more pizza.
“It probably did teach me some life lessons quickly. I had to learn how to cook straight away. Now I love cooking, I absolutely love it. I try and make loads of different recipes all the time. I had to learn how to do my washing properly, literally grow up. I think with that independence it does help in sport. We are an individual sport. It is all about, ‘what do I need to give me the best shot, give me the best chance?’ So those little life lessons I had definitely had a good effect.”
Taekwondo might be an individual effort on the mat, but, at least for Walkden, it is an entirely different story outside of competition.
Walkden’s current roommate is fellow National Lottery-funded Tokyo-bound teammate and best friend Jade Jones, who she lived with in the early days. For a spell, the pair also shared accommodation with Team GB boxer Lauren Price, who was once briefly wooed to taekwondo before becoming Wales’ first amateur world boxing champion. The two even shared a wall.
“She was on the top floor with me next door,” recalled Walkden. “It’s amazing to see how well she’s doing. I cannot wait to see her in Tokyo. We have not seen her since she left the house [a decade ago]. It’s a blast from the past.”
Bianca’s long-time boyfriend, Aaron Cook, is also one of the sport’s most famous fighters. The British-born athlete competes for Moldova and narrowly missed out on Olympic qualification.
“It just shows how tough it is to get to the Olympics,” said Walkden. “Aaron is one of the world’s best but missed out by a fraction. I wish he’d done it but I’m just so lucky he’s still pushing me and supporting me to get my gold. Hopefully, I can come back with the medal and he’ll feel he’s helped me win that. I’ve won all the other competitions. This is the last thing I need to just tick off and I have completed the whole set. I’d be speechless.”
The Harainis are cautiously optimistic about her Tokyo chances, or perhaps just downright confident. Saeed’s already invited a few friends to Di Scala for the medal celebration party. Meanwhile, Anna is eyeing the next phase of Walkden’s world domination: cooking competitions.
She said: “Even playing outside, Bianca would want to win a little race on her bike, she’s always been competitive. Everything she does, cooking, she just wants to be the best. I keep saying about going on the television [to do] cooking, on one of the programmes, because she does three-course meals, five-course meals. Desserts and everything.”
Watch out, Paul Hollywood. Here comes Bianca Walkden: the piano player, Olympic medallist, and future Bake-Off champion-—who kicks people in the head.