November 29, 2022

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Akon Baak’s athletic talent is clear when she kicks someone in the head.

At 188cm tall, or six-foot-two in the old scale, the 13-year-old about to take the biggest step in her short taekwondo career — representing Australia at the junior Cadet World Championships in Bulgaria later this month.

“Not many people get to represent their country and that’s a really exciting thing and I’m really proud to be able to represent Australia,” Akon said.

“I also like basketball and athletics, but I feel like taekwondo is the sport for me because I can well use my height to my advantage.”

Akon’s rise in the sport spans the globe – from Sudan, to Scotland, Afghanistan, Iran and Adelaide.

Her story epitomises the universal nature of sport and is an extraordinary tale of modern Australia.

A family of five stands together smiling at the camera. The children are wearing taekwondo uniforms
Taekwondo has become a family affair for the Baaks, with Akon’s younger sister and brother following in her footsteps.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

From South Sudan to Adelaide

Akon’s father, Kuol Baak, was taken from his family in his early teens and trained to fight with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement army.

He fought as a boy soldier for the independence of South Sudan along with thousands of other so-called ‘Lost Boys’.

Eventually he walked to neighbouring Kenya as a 15-year-old seeking refuge from civil war in 1992.

“I was lucky to be disarmed and made to join the refugees coming to Kenya,” Mr Baak said.

He was one of thousands who formed the Kakuma Refugee Camp.

In 2003 he was granted a humanitarian visa and came to Adelaide.

Shortly after, he met and eventually married his wife, Melanie.

“Australia is one of the best, if not the best country for any refugee in the world.

“A place like Adelaide, if you can find it, that’s a piece of the world that you should use so refugees, don’t give up hope.”

A girl with long brown hair bounds down an athletics track and jumps toward a long-jump sandpit
Akon Baak said taekwondo was the sport for her, while also excelling at several other sports including basketball and athletics.(Supplied: Melanie Baak)

From Adelaide to a Glasgow gym

Mr Baak said taekwondo had become part of his family’s story.

That tale started several years ago in Scotland, when Akon and stumbled into a taekwondo class in Glasgow with her brother and sister.

A young girl with a big brown afro in a white taekwondo outfit smiles as she kicks for the camera
Akon Baak first tried taekwondo in Scotland as an eight-year-old.(Supplied: Melanie Baak)

Akon’s mother, Melanie Baak, said the sport became a saving grace for her three children as she undertook a four-month fellowship at the University of Glasgow.

“At Akon’s first class, her face just lit up,” Ms Baak said.

“I’ve got these beautiful photos of her after her first class with a white belt and new gear on and I remember the excitement that you could feel from her.”

The family didn’t expect the interest in the Korean martial art to continue on return to Adelaide, but it did.

On return home, they found an academy run by Mohammad Reza Hassani – an Afghan refugee, who learnt the Korean martial art while exiled in Iran as a boy.

He said coming to Australia had given him opportunities he didn’t have back home.

“In Australia, everybody has rights,” he said.

“We have very limited equipment, very basic equipment, but we have big hearts and big belief.”

An Afghan man wearing a blue taekwondo outfit with slicked back hair smiles at the camera with children behind him
Mohammad Reza Hassani said his taekwondo academy was the most multi-cultural in South Australia.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

Akon is Mr Reza Hassani’s first pupil to represent Australia – something he is very proud of.

He has been training her three times a week at the Enfield Community Centre in Adelaide’s north in preparation for her first international competition and her ultimate goal.

“I really want to go to the Olympics, because that’s where the best of the best go,” Akon said.

“She is a good listener. I know she’s only 13 but she could make it,” Mr Reza Hassani said.

Fellow students help family with costly trip

The family is trying to raise $9,000 to cover the cost of the trip to Bulgaria for her first international appearance.

Other students at the taekwondo academy have been a significant source of that support.

Many of them are unable to represent Australia because they aren’t yet citizens but have gone the extra mile to train her.

A man wearing a grey shirt and black tie gives a 'thumbs up' to the camera standing next to a girl with a gold medal on her neck
Mohammad Reza Hassani and Akon Baak have shared several successes at national level in recent years.(Supplied: Melanie Baak)

“They want to support me so that I can represent this whole club and represent them,” Akon said.

Mrs Baak said her daughter would take all of her experiences with her as she battled the world’s best.

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