Lauren Burns seemingly came from nowhere to win gold in taekwondo in her 49kg division. It was the first medal in the sport, which was making its Olympic debut.
Burns’ moment of fame was boosted by the incongruous connections that media love to make. She’s the daughter of the singer and songwriter, Ronnie Burns, who was a household name in Australia in the 60s and 70s.
But aside from starting taekwondo because her father and brother were doing it, Burns was entirely her own woman.
The fact that it was a new Olympic sport meant she had barely any official funding.
“I had a sponsorship with an organic vegetable shop,” Burns said.
“My first tournament was in New York (in 1993). It was actually at Madison Square Garden, which was pretty crazy. But we had to pay our way, we paid part of our flights, we paid for our tracksuit.”
However, the financial hardship was outweighed by the sheer delight that after more than a decade in the sport, taekwondo finally had a place in the Olympics.
“There was never really an expectation like ‘oh I should have that much attention or our sport should have that sort of spotlight,’ because we’d never had it,” she said.
The final itself went off without a hitch as Burns beat her Cuban opponent Urbia Melendez by four points to two.
“I just had this incredible, single-minded, myopic focus on winning gold — so that was what I was really there to do,” she said.
“It wasn’t until I came off and my coach grabbed me, and I was running around the stadium, and it was it like ‘Yes, I did it’.”
The next day was a blur as the media interviews came thick and fast.
“I did so many that I lost my voice,” she said.
“I ended up getting some strapping tape and I just put it over my mouth because I needed people to see that I just couldn’t speak.”
Burns retired straight after the Olympics and threw herself into numerous projects — particularly public speaking.
“I was on such a high and it was like I was on the hamster wheel and I said yes to everything. Write a book? Great. Finish a uni degree? I’ll do that.
“I always had a bag in the hallway because I was travelling interstate all the time and never really knew where I was.”
It took five years for her to slow down.
“I stopped and went ‘woah’, and that’s when I kind of had that reflection of you know, who am I without my sport? Who am I if I’m not Lauren the taekwondo girl?”
Burns finished her degree in naturopathy and nutrition, and continued her public speaking career — which has only now been curtailed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The gold medal definitely changed my life,”, says Burns.