The 35-year old Dane boasts the svelte physique of an elite-level athlete and the sculpted Nordic facial features that modelling agencies would kill for. She is successful both professionally – she is a state prosecutor – and personally – she is married with two children, aged five and eight.
But cancer is no respecter of looks or position: In 2009, Gjessing was diagnosed with the disease.
“It was a big shock,” she said. Gjessing underwent various treatments and in 2012, her lower left arm was amputated. The trauma forced some introspection, and she decided to return to an old love.
Before her illness, Gjessing had practiced taekwondo, competing at the 2001 and 2003 world championships. But in 2004, she had given up the practice, partly due to familial and educational commitments, and partly due to failing the 2004 Olympic qualifications. Fast forward to 2012, and while she was in rehab, she saw something that inspired.
“I saw the Paralympics in London a few months after my amputation, and I thought, ‘How can I feel sorry for myself, when they can do all this?’” she recalled.
She contacted her former coach Bjarne Johansen - with whom she had remained in contact – and the two were excited to discover that para-taekwondo existed. After an eight-year layoff, Gjessing got back into training. “Johansen had an elite taekwondo center and his guys were on a high level,” she said. “But I found I could still kick.”
Just a month and a half later, she entered the (able-bodied) European Championships and won in her class. “That felt really good,” she recalled, and started intensive training for the World Para-Taekwondo Championships in 2013.
In Lausanne, she took home the gold.
That win, plus her previous experience in able-bodied taekwondo, gives her a unique vantage point from which to judge the two formats.
Para-taekwondo has removed the crowd-pleasing head kicks which tend to be lateral; this makes it more linear, with more back-and-forth movement, she said. She was also surprised that (at least in the women’s categories) there was as wide a pool of opponents as in able-bodied. She will stick with the para-format.
“From now on, I’m only doing para-taekwondo, I am not going back to able-bodied,” she said. “With work and kids, I don’t want to fight with head contact.”
This year in Moscow, having trained six days a week for months in the run-up she was in tigerish condition, fully prepared to defend her title.
Her first two matches were a cruise. Against relatively inexperienced opposition, she won 16-0 and 12-0; both fights were – prudently - stopped by the judges. The situation presented Gjessing with an issue. “I felt I should have been more gentle with them, I want them to be up and coming as I want more competitors!” she said. “It is a dilemma.”
There would be no such dilemma in the final. Facing Azerbaijan’s Mammedova Aynur, she underwent a trial-by-fire, the toughest fight of her para-taekwondo career.
Plunged into near-mortal combat, Gjessing was unable to crack Aynur’s water-tight guard. “She was really good, she covered up and did her thing,” said Gjessing, who, for the first two rounds, was behind on points. What she did not realize, as her opponent came out for the final round, was how exhausted she was. “I was really tired, and my concentration slipped,” said Aynur. “The last 30 seconds decided the match.”
Needing a high-risk, high-scoring technique, Gjessing unleashed a spinning back kick. It landed and put her ahead. When the smoke cleared, she was holding gold in the women’s -58 g, K44 class, with a score of 5-3.
Aynur’s dismay was evident when she stood on the silver rostrum: Tears streamed down her face. Yet the two are not to-the-death rivals. “We only fight on the mats; off them, we are good friends,” said Aynur. But she warns, “In October, at the European Championships, I’ll beat her!”
Meanwhile Gjessing is looking forward to reuniting with her husband and children.
“My family is very supportive, but I can’t do this all year round,” she said. “I have not followed the kids to school since May and I hardly pick them up, so now, I am ready for some family time.”
In the aftermath of cancer, the combination of para-taekwondo and victory has proven effective life therapy.
“I love doing taekwondo, I love the sport, I love the kicking, I love the people,” she mused. “Doing something you like and winning a world championship fills a center in your brain: I think I am happier than before.”
That is confirmed by her colleagues. “She is such a joy to be with,” said Danish team head and president of the Danish Taekwondo Federation, Ejnar Skovgaard Mikkelson. “There is such a joy in her, and in this arena, too; you don’t feel that so much in ordinary taekwondo.”
Johansen puts it succinctly: para-taekwondo, he says, is “gasoline for life.”
And Gjessing plans to motor on, because she is enthused by para-taekwondo’s future possibilities.
“I hope that this goes through to the Paralympics, that is the big dream,” she said. “If it is in Tokyo in 2020, I can promise you: I’ll be ready!”