Jennings would come home from school and pop in VHS recordings of the cartoon as a child.
“I saw all three of their movies, too,” he said.
As fate may have it, a local taekwondo class was playing a clip of the Turtles at a kiosk inside a local strip mall near his hometown of Alexandria, Va. Jennings, who was 10-years-old at the time, snuck away from his mother to sneak a peak at the TV screen.
“I was walking through the mall with my mom and I see this TV playing the Ninja Turtles, so of course I gotta check it out,” recalled Jennings, now 26. “Then a guy came around the counter and explained the class. I was all for it, and he sold my mom on the idea, too.”
Soon, local instructors discovered that Jennings was an up-and-coming gem in the sport. Under the primary guidance of instructor Master Patrice Remarck, Jennings began training five to eight hours a day, and began winning tournaments by the age of 13.
Now, Jennings has reached the pinnacle of his sport by realizing his dream of qualifying for the Olympics. He defeated Mark Lopez, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist, at the U.S. Olympic taekwondo trials to earn a spot on the U.S. team in the bantam/featherweight division (under 149.9 pounds) at the upcoming London summer games.
On Friday, after providing instruction to an evening class of 23 students at Lakeshore Taekwondo in Grand Haven, Jennings signed autographs of a glossy photo captured moments after he had clinched the Olympic team.
“That was pure excitement,” he said.
Competition is fierce for qualifying for any Olympic sport, but it’s downright cutthroat in taekwondo.
“There’s two weight classes for guys and two for girls (in the Olympics),” Jennings explained. “Our regular national team has eight guy weight classes, but it’s consolidated weights for the Olympics. Each country chooses two in bantam/featherweight and light welterweight.
“For so long, it’s just been about making the next team. It’s constantly making teams, so it’s not a big deal,” he said. “But now, it’s like, ‘Man, I made the frickin’ Olympic team.’ I went from a strip mall to being in the Olympics. It’s crazy.”
Jennings said that the sport of taekwondo is a tight-knit community, so he’s been able to build friendships over the years with enthusiasts such as Lakeshore Taekwondo Academy instructor Master Brad DeMinck. Both are fourth-degree black belts.
DeMinck invited Jennings to instruct a class or two at the facility on Columbus Avenue sometime before Jennings was set to depart for London on July 25, and Jennings obliged.
“Man, I love being around the kids and just teaching,” said Jennings, who one day hopes to open a taekwondo academy of his own.
Jennings answered questions from the students for several minutes, and dove into topics such as his favorite moves, the favorite spot on the globe he’s visited, and his demanding workout regimen.
“I work out three times a day, so every workout is important,” he said. “Whatever you do here will come out on the mat (in competition). The one day you take off, even if you’ve gone 99 days in a row, you take that 100th off, it’s going to come out. That’s why you always gotta keep a strong mindset.”
Jennings said he’ll face fierce competition in London from competitors from Turkey and Iran, but his goals remain golden.
“The ultimate goal, yes, is a gold medal, but the job is not a failure if I fall short,” he said.
Jennings will compete in London on Aug. 9 – near the conclusion of the games – which will give him a few days to soak up the sights and sounds of the city after the Opening Ceremonies on July 27.
“People have told me that it doesn’t hit you right away,” he said. “But from just watching it on TV and then realizing that I’m going to be apart of it, I’m sure it’s going to be breathtaking.”