UK taekwondo star Cook inspired by Power Rangers

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(Eds: With AP Photos.)By MARIA CHENGAssociated Press

If not for the Power Rangers, British taekwondo athlete Aaron Cook might be watching the London Olympics on TV instead of competing for gold.

As an impressionable 5-year-old growing up in Manchester, Cook adored the intrepid television superheroes who battle to save Earth from dark forces like evil ninja masters and cryogenically frozen criminals.

Cook liked the show so much, he started to copy some of their kicks. That prompted his parents to enroll him in taekwondo classes, despite the instructor's concerns that he might be too young to understand the Korean martial art.

''I wanted to beat all the baddies and be the hero,'' Cook told The Associated Press, adding his goals have changed a little since then. ''I used to want to be a Power Ranger, but now I want to be an Olympic champion.''

At 21, Cook is one of Britain's top prospects for an Olympic taekwondo medal. He narrowly missed out on a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games and is currently ranked second in the world in the 80-kilogram (176-pound) division.

Last year, he ditched Britain's taekwondo training academy and hired his own team of coaches. His parents even built him a customized gym in their backyard.

''Everything we have done has been to help and support (Aaron) to be the best that he can be,'' his mother, Christine, said in an email. ''Hopefully in a few months' time, he'll be rewarded with the Olympic gold medal he's spent the last 16 years of his life working towards.''

Since striking out on his own, Cook has won six major competitions - more than his rivals at the national academy.

Some critics have slammed Cook for turning his back on Britain's taekwondo program and say he is too focused on sponsorship deals and self-promotion; he and his team frequently wear ''Team Cook'' T-shirts at competitions.

Still, Cook was recently named part of Britain's taekwondo team at the European Championships in May, the last major event before the Olympic squad is selected. Though he will keep his own coach and train independently, Cook will have some compulsory training sessions with the national team.

''Aaron is a really talented athlete,'' said Gary Hall, the performance director for Britain's taekwondo team. ''How effective he is at the Olympics and world level will tell how effective his plan has been.''

On a recent break from training, Cook spent a day filming clips for a Nickelodeon series, ''Olympic Heroes.'' That included throwing a few high kicks in his taekwondo uniform as well as getting into a tight red-and-black Power Ranger costume, complete with red boots, white gloves, gold belt, and a helmet. Cook then performed a sequence of punches and blocks resembling the traditional forms of taekwondo.

He doubts whether any of the Power Rangers moves might come in handy on the taekwondo mats.

''In Olympic-style taekwondo, we don't really use our hands,'' Cook said. ''It's all about the fancy kicks.''

Cook is known for his aggressive style, often incorporating several high kicks into a single attack that lasts just seconds.

He also gets respect from his opponents, including Lutalo Muhammad, whom Cook defeated in the semifinals of the Dutch Open in March. Muhammad is competing with Cook for a place on the British team, but congratulated Cook on Twitter, describing it as ''a deserved victory.''

Still, Cook said some of his competitors probably wouldn't think much of his Power Ranger costume and moves.

''Some might laugh a little bit, but I'm a kid at heart,'' Cook said. ''I don't know where I'd be if it wasn't for the Power Rangers.''

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