Tokyo Olympics: Kiwi Taekwondo prodigy Tom Burns' last-minute lockdown escape

Kiwi taekwondo prodigy Tom Burns feared he would never be able to return to his South Korea training base, where he was about to begin the thick of his Olympic preparations.

The 19-year-old is the only Australiasian student training at the prestigious Korea Nazarene University in Cheonan, where he was building for his bid as New Zealand's lone representative in the sport at Tokyo 2020.

But after a trip back downunder for Oceania Olympics qualifying, followed by a visit to family in Christchurch, flight cancellations and the looming COVID-19 nationwide lockdown threatened to scupper his return to Asia.

Fortunately, Burns managed to replace his grounded Air New Zealand return flight and escaped by the skin of his teeth.

"I got out two days before the lockdown started in New Zealand," Burns told Newshub. "I had to get a different flight back a week later with Singapore Airlines, so just in time."

In conjunction with family and the NZ Olympic Committee,Burns made the difficult call to return to South Korea to take advantage of the vastly superior training environment at his university, which is world-renowned for its taekwondo academy.

"It's a very minority sport in NZ," he says from Cheonan. "Here, there's more variety of training partners and they're all at a very high level, as well as different styles. 

"Other internationals come to train from around the world, so it just provides me with a lot more opportunity and experience."

South Korea has been held up as a glowing example of how to manage the pandemic, which was another significant factor in the decision.

"I didn't feel unsafe coming back here… they're very strict on the two-week isolation. 

"When you get to the airport, they make you install an app on your phone, which allows them to track it, so they can tell if you leave your house.

"You have to update them every day - you get an alert if you haven't - on how you're feeling. There's a checklist you have to fill out - if you've got a fever, if you've got a headache and all that sort of stuff."

With his mandatory two-week self-isolation behind him, Burns has been allowed to return to training with his coach in groups of four. 

The university has also informed him that classes will return to in-person in May, as the virus begins to settle.

And like many of his counterparts, Burns has welcomed the postponement of the Games until 2021, a move that allows him to mature further as a fighter for his crack at the podium.

"I already was going to be one of the youngest athletes in my division going into Tokyo," Burns notes. 

"It's a real advantage getting this extra year to train, and try and improve a bit more going into it.

"The four-year cycle makes it quite hard for a taekwondo athlete, because you've probably got about six years in your prime. So, with the eight years of two Olympics cycles, you only get one really good shot at it.

"The fact that I'm getting this extra time is really helpful for me."