When champion kickboxer Caradh O’Donovan started to lose her motivation, she turned to karate for a new challenge and stunned everyone by making the national squad in less than a year.
Now representing Ireland at the European Championships next week (May 10th-13th) her ultimate goal is the Olympics at Tokyo 2020.
Holding 11 World Cup golds and three World Championship bronze medals in kickboxing, O’ Donovan is no stranger to the medal podium and aims to use that experience in her new sport.
The Sligo woman says: “It is very hard, it’s hard going back in to a new sport. You are used to being one of the best in the world, and everyone knowing you at international events and then you are at the bottom of the pile again. It’s a weird feeling, but to me it’s challenging. If it was too easy then everyone would be doing it.”
Competing in kickboxing since she was 12 years old, O’Donovan (34) says at first she thought of karate as a hobby. But she also admits she choose the karate club with the best women’s results, so maybe the dream was there from the start. She lives in Dublin, and that club just happens to be run by the coach of the national women’s team.
“I feel I’ve improved a lot. I’ve done four international events now, and got to the quarter-final stage in all of them so we are slowly getting there. I won the Irish International Open, I was really happy with that as I scored 24 points over the day. When I started I couldn’t buy a point. It’s not stressful, it’s exciting to see where I can go with this – I adore it,” she says.
“I have things to take with me, I know how to perform when it matters. I had to learn that in kickboxing, it took a long time, it’s psychological. I know how to move on the mat, how to close out a fight.”
In spite of her experience, O’ Donovan counts back pain and strains among the costs of her new sport. A lifetime spent in a kickboxing stance it turns out doesn’t quite prepare you for new pressures.
She says: “My technique is still improving. The contact is a big difference, in kickboxing it’s a lot harder contact and more so towards the face. In karate it’s more technical, you have to finish off the score, retract your punches so if it looks anyway not clean, it’s not a score.
“If you’re throwing a punch it has to look like there’s the ability to go through someone but it’s more about control, it’s more I could have hit hard. I never got disqualified but when I started I struggled with that.”
And she’s learning some Japanese phrases. A martial art with strong roots in Japan, competitors bow to each other before starting a fight and wear a white karategi.
Laughing, O’ Donovan says: “I hadn’t a clue what was going on at first. All the calls are in Japanese, all the techniques. I’m still not sure how to pronounce some of the moves. I love that they’ve kept all of that tradition and respect in it. I love that side of it. You wouldn’t be expected to go to Japan for training, all the right support is here but you know where karate is coming from.”
One of her main supporters is Paul Brennan, her trainer and head coach of the Irish women’s team.
He says: “Most people who compete in karate at international level are training for 10 or 15 years because it’s so skills-based. Caradh came onto the national squad about eight or nine months after she started training, it’s just unheard of. When she did come, I thought she won’t last, you’d be sort of sceptical.”
Brennan warns the competition is stiff as investment abroad in the sport is huge; he has tales of a Venezuelan athlete on the equivalent of €140,000 annually to train and Hong Kong flying in top foreign athletes to train with their team.
But when asked if the Olympics are a realistic dream for O’ Donovan, he doesn’t hesitate: “It’s realistic, yes. It’s not unheard of internationally, and she is very competitive. She trains twice a day, six times a week, when you get that type of dedication you’ve a chance.”
Tokyo is the first Olympics for karate. A spokeswoman for Karate Ireland said the sport is considered entry level by Sport Ireland so funding is not yet available. She said membership has grown since the announcement in December 2016 and they do everything they can to help athletes, but it is an expensive ambition.
O’Donovan was a Sky Sports Athlete Mentor, and that showed her she could make money talking about her passions, passing on lessons learned. She approached Sports for Schools, a social enterprise which brings top-level athletes into schools and now works for them around Leinster.
She also looked into working with the Dame Kelly Holmes Foundation, but that didn’t pan out. Instead O’Donovan started public speaking, building a name as someone who gives audiences that ‘I can do anything’ feeling.
She talks about success and coping with adversity – O’ Donovan has Crohn’s Disease. This life-long condition causes inflammation of the bowels, leading to debilitating cramps and diarrhoea.
O’Donovan grimaces as she recalls competing at an international kickboxing tournament with just one toilet for female athletes and officials.
“I was diagnosed in my twenties, so now I control it more. That should have been the best time in my sports career, but I was sick all the time. I feel better now than I did at 21. On paper it goes against the rules, but I know how I feel myself,” she says.
That understanding of nutrition helps her manage her weight. She competed at 55kg for Kickboxing but is under-61kg for karate, meaning no dramatic weight-cuts. She tucks away about 2,000 calories daily.
Keeping her weight steady is vital as Olympic qualification means collecting points at international events, starting with the Europeans this week. O’Donovan and her team-mates will compete abroad at least once a month over two years.
It’s relentless and costly, so why do it after everything she has achieved?
But O’Donovan exudes ambition with every answer she gives, no doubts; this is about winning a medal for Ireland.
She says: “I loved kickboxing when I was doing it. Then when you’ve won everything at that level, there’s only one medal left, and that’s the Olympic medal. Then you can say you have it all. Everyone’s Olympic dream is different, but mine is having a medal. I watched Sonia O’ Sullivan running when I was a kid, that’s my dream”.
And as she prepares for another evening at the karate club, she says: “I know it’s a bit out there, but the people I care about all believe in me. I think I’ll do it.”
O’Donovan is fund-raising for her qualification journey at https://www.gofundme.com/caradhs-olympic-dream