Beth Munro was a talented netball player before she attended a disability sporting event and discovered taekwondo
Beth Munro was a talented netball player competing in a regional league, even playing a friendly against Sri Lanka ahead of the 2019 World Cup, until a chance conversation made her consider disability sport.
Now, less than two years later, she is on her way to the Tokyo Paralympics after securing a spot on the British squad by winning her first-ever competitive taekwondo event last month. “It’s surreal,” she says, her expression one of joyful disbelief.
Immediately after the win, she had one person on the top of her list to thank. It was not a family member, nor the coach who plucked her from obscurity. Rather, it was a student she supported two years ago in her former job as a mental health officer in Liverpool.
“She was the person who got the path started,” Munro says. “When working with Chantelle she invited me to a disability sporting event in north Wales, where she was going to play wheelchair basketball. If she hadn’t mentioned for me to go, I would have never driven for an hour and a half to north Wales and started all this.”
Munro wears a huge smile as she breathlessly tells the story of an incredible couple of years. In 2019, the Liverpudlian had yet to discover taekwondo – and had never even tried para-sport. Though she was born with an arm impairment, Munro, 28, had always played able-bodied sport – partly because of growing up with her twin sister.
“It’s not me denying my disability,” she says. “Maybe it was because Faye was there, who was fully able, but my competitive side came out growing up as, ‘if she could do it, I could do it as well’.”
She played netball in the North-West during her 20s, and through it all Munro adapted to the able-bodied rules. “I love a challenge and going into a fully-able sport I saw the challenge and definitely overcame it,” she says. “For example, when you catch the ball in netball, the umpire considers control as two hands on it. Obviously I’d catch a ball with one hand and then release – but in that transition an opponent could knock the ball out of my hand and some referees would not see it as a foul. I didn’t want the game to adapt to me, so I had to adapt to the game, and I did.”
The athleticism she developed playing netball caught the attention of Disability Sport Wales at the event with Chantelle. While trying some of the sport on offer, she was approached by national performance manager Anthony Hughes, who asked her to throw a ball the length of the sports hall.
“I threw it just one time and he said, ‘If I can potentially get you to the Paralympics and get you a medal, would you come down to Cardiff once a month to train in javelin?’ I’m not going to say no to that, am I?” she says, laughing.
She was enrolled in a javelin and taekwondo programme, with the aim to develop her skills and then specialise closer to the Paris Games in 2024.
Though she eventually excelled at the martial art, she admits it did not come naturally to her initially. “I had never kicked or punched a person in my life; I’m very placid and not aggressive,” she says. “When they first put me in a sparring situation, I’d kick them and go ‘Sorry!’ Every time. But now the inner fighter is coming out.”
As with all athletes, the Covid pandemic interrupted her training, as well as her plans to move to Cardiff to cut out her commute.
Having quit her job just before lockdown ahead of the move, Munro took up a temporary position as a healthcare assistant in Liverpool to make ends meet, working on Covid wards during the peak of the pandemic. But three months of 12-hour shifts in full PPE did not deter her from her Paralympic dream, and she finally moved to Cardiff last August.
Munro’s potential became clear to GB Taekwondo after a trial in February, and she moved to training full-time at their high-performance base in Manchester three months ago.
When given the opportunity to compete at the European Tokyo qualifying event in Bulgaria in May – her first competition – she knew it was her only chance to get to the Games.
“The pressure was there, but I did not know what to expect,” she says. “Everything was very novel, even the presentation of the actual match – when you get your name called as if you were a boxer. It was a lot to take in, but from my first competition ever, to now be heading to Tokyo, is surreal. I need pinching sometimes.”
Munro will compete in the K44 under-58kg division when taekwondo makes its Paralympic debut in August. She says her life’s trajectory has even taken her by surprise, from being dead-set on pursuing a doctorate in psychology to now being an athlete full-time. But that is not to say she has just come along for the ride.
“I want to win a medal,” Munro says. “I don’t know which colour yet, but never underestimate the underdog. People don’t know me, so I suppose they’ve just got to wait and see what I bring to the table in Tokyo.
“I’ve told Chantelle already though, if I win a medal at Tokyo, she’s getting the first shout out."