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Dublin: -1°C Monday 1 March 2021

'If Irish people ever thought I was brash, that would be my worst nightmare'

When the opportunity came to switch allegiance from Britain to Ireland, Ben Fletcher jumped at it.

Irish judo's Olympic hope, Ben Fletcher.
Irish judo's Olympic hope, Ben Fletcher.

IT BEGINS AS a story about emigration rather than sport, a typical tale of 1960s Ireland, the father leaving home to find work, money posted home to feed a family of seven.

Years pass. Work in Bruff – even nearby Limerick city – remains scarce and the father (John Joseph Keating) faces the dilemma so many from that generation are hit with, to either keep the family where their roots are or move lock, stock and barrel to a place where there’s work, money and his children won’t go hungry.

Alice-Mary Keating was a middle child, seven-years-old when she swapped life in Bruff for Reading. Everything she’d known, the fields, the streets, the friends, the school, she had to leave behind. We can only imagine the inner turmoil of a child, the train ride as she held onto her belongings and her father’s hand, the boat to Hollyhead, the long journey south, the unfamiliar accents on her arrival.

They’d adapt. Alice-Mary Keating would grow up, marry and become Alice-Mary Fletcher. Children came along. They’d turn out to be world class at judo, a sport she knew little or nothing about growing up but would grow to love as they won medals at world junior championships and become Olympians.

Then, in 2017, she and Ben had a chat in the front room, which ended up being more of confession. “I want to switch to Ireland,” her then 25-year-old son said. “And I was wondering how you’d feel about that?”

There were tears. A mother’s pride is a powerful thing, trumped – in this case – by an emigrant’s pride. This isn’t a Declan Rice scenario in reverse. At 25, Ben Fletcher was already established as a world class operator, twice a winner on the grand prix circuit, as well as being a silver medallist and two-time bronze winner at the events that act as a precursor for the Olympics.

In his mind, switching allegiance had already occurred earlier when he applied for his Irish passport. “I’ve grown up with half my family English, half of them Irish. That’s what I am,” says Fletcher. “For me and Megan (his sister is also an Irish judo international with Olympic ambitions), the bottom line is that if we were to win Olympic medals for Ireland, mum would just be absolutely made up.

european-games-2019-day-three Megan Fletcher in action for Ireland at the European Games. Source: Martin Rickett

“That is what this is about for us. For me, family always comes first. I don’t have the words to say this – but mum and all our Irish cousins, aunts, uncles, would just be so proud of us getting to the Olympics for Ireland. It would mean a massive amount to her.”

He’s cautious as he speaks and explains why. “I would be a little bit worried about what Irish people who don’t know me think about me changing over. I have never wanted to be seen as money-grabbing, never wanted to be seen as this brash person. To be honest, if (Irish) people ever thought that about me, that would be my worst nightmare. I’d absolutely hate it.”

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His concern about being perceived as a money-grabber is, in a way, naively amusing, given how so many Irish Olympians scrape and save to get by. There may be decent support networks in place, maintenance grants, costs paid when they compete in international competitions, but an athlete’s lifestyle isn’t luxurious. Many of them continue to live at home with their parents, Megan even ended up training in the family-run garden centre during lockdown, a judo mat laid out between a cactus and a plant.

By the time November’s European championships came around, they looked at their schedule, considered the possibility of flying to the venue in Prague and then looked at the potential flip side, how if they contracted Covid, they’d have to isolate in a hotel room for 10 days, de-facto prisoners of Prague.

The alternative was to load their car, fill the tank with petrol, pack the playstation, stick on the Sat Nav and hit the road from Swindon to the Czech capital, a 22-hour round trip. And for what? Fletcher lost in the first round, beaten by the eventual European champion, Peter Paltchik. Months of preparation brought down to four minutes of action.

“That didn’t bother me too much actually because it was a real ding-dong of a fight, and because of the lockdown, my training was hugely affected – so I had no real measure of where I was at, whereas normally you’d have a fair idea of what kind of form you are in. The fact Paltchik went on to win – and the fact that I had a good, old quarrel with him, meant that my confidence wasn’t one bit dented.”

Now ranked 16th in the world – 16th being the cut-off point to get a ticket to Tokyo – it appears, on the outset, that an Olympic medal is a bit ambitious. Yet once you delve a little deeper into the evidence, he has a reasonable chance, having been ranked as high as fifth, having beaten everyone else in the top ten at some point in his career.

Better again, he has the experience of Rio behind him, seeing how – when the opening ceremony, the crowds, TV cameras and hype were stripped away, it still ended up being ‘a judo event’. After Rio there was a shift in mindset, too, a realisation that everything in his marrow and his bones cannot be fixated on one event in four-years-time. “I learned to enjoy the journey, not just the destination,” said Fletcher.

Still he knows Tokyo next year could be the most dramatic day in his life, a five-fight schedule that could see his name inked into Irish sporting history. “By ten past ten in the morning, it could all be over; or potentially you could have a medal that you’ll store away in your life forever,” Fletcher says. “Some of those fights could be absolute carnage. I’ve not won a major (Olympic, European or world championship) yet but I’ve beaten all the people who have. I can do it in Tokyo. It’s within me.”

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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