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'It turned out there was a tumour in the ankle... I didn't mind the physical pain, it was just mentally so draining'

Irish karate star Caradh O’Donovan on how a horror injury led to a rare joint disease diagnosis, and managing Crohn’s disease.

AT THE TIME of our conversation, her entire focus was on May.

Irish karate star and Olympic hopeful Caradh O’Donovan had one shot, and she was certainly ready to shoot. The stage for this all-important world qualification event would be in Paris, with Tokyo 2020 the one thing on her mind.

aig-show-your-skills-launch Caradh O'Donovan (left) alongside Nadia Power at an AIG Show Your Skills event. Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

A career-threatening injury and subsequent a rare joint disease diagnosis kept her out for most of last year so the world ranking qualification route had gone down the drain. Everything was riding on this.

“I’m pretty confident but I’m also realistic,” she said in the latter days of February. “If everything goes well… it’s not just me, everyone who is competing at this event is relying on things to fall into place.

“If it does and I can compete and stay injury-free, I have no doubt I’ll qualify. I’m confident that when things go well for me, nobody can beat me but at the same time, I’m realistic that I’ve got one day and one shot.”

It’s quite strange to read those words back.

We need little reminding of what’s unfolded since, the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down the sporting world and pushing the Olympics out until at least 2021. The dream is on hold once again.

The plan was for this interview to tee-up that Paris showdown two weekends ago, but with the script torn to shreds and yet to be rewritten, it was fitting to press on with it now given the week that’s in it.

Yesterday was World IBD Day, one which is intended to unite people everywhere and raise awareness of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, collectively known as inflammatory bowel disease.

O’Donovan was diagnosed with the former in 2014, and has made a huge effort to share her experience with the chronic condition since. “When I looked back and think of the pain I was in, I don’t know how I did it,” she told The42 in 2018. “I was literally spending hours vomiting and five minutes later, I’d have to go and compete.”

Back in her teenage years, the Sligo native always felt sick after certain types of food. She just blamed it on her dodgy stomach, but the situation soon started to worsen. Through her twenties, she got sicker and sicker to the point that she could barely stand at times between the diarrhoea, vomiting blood and pain in her joints.

Screenshot 2020-05-20 at 16.18.51 Source: Caradh O'Donovan Instagram.

Embarrassed about the nasty symptoms, she didn’t do anything about it — until her mother realised there was something very wrong on a family holiday in 2014. Having spent pretty much all of the trip in agony on the toilet, she was caught crawling out of the bathroom. 

That was that, and the recovery began once she hit home soil.

“It’s something I have to constantly manage,” O’Donovan picks up now. “I’ve got it under control at the minute, which is good. When I got diagnosed, I was on a lot of medication.

At the minute, I’m trialling a phase where I’m medication-free. I’ve been allowed to do that for eight months. It’s going great. It’s actually better because the medication they give you weakens your immune system so you pick up colds and all of that.

“I’ve felt the benefit of not taking it because now, when people sneeze on me, I’m like, ‘It’s fine.’ That’s been a good thing.

“I’m fairly vigilant at going to my appointments, I always have to get my bloods and samples and send them in just to make sure… I think what happens is the disease gets active before you actually feel the symptoms so they just monitor it pretty well.

“Touch wood, things are good.”

It’s something she’s learned to live with, and she’s keen to get the message out that others can too. Through her athlete mentoring and work in various schools across the country, it’s something she’s grown so comfortable with speaking about. 

And she’s made others comfortable with it too. So much so that she has kids gifting her poems about the illness.

caradh Source: CaradhODonovan Twitter.

“Ah, that was a little girl in a school,” she smiles. “She wrote a poem rhyming the word kung-fu with the word loo or something, it was all about Crohn’s disease. It was very cute.

Obviously it’s much more severe than that, you get a lot more symptoms. But it was very cute.

This brings her back to her own younger years, and comes as a chance for the 36-year-old to reflect on her fascinating sporting journey so far. Having taken interest in everything and anything on the sporting spectrum as a child, she started kickboxing at the age of 12.

It quickly became her number one and all else took a back seat. After furthering her career in Dublin and enjoying a rapid rise, winning all that there was to be won, O’Donovan always had an Olympic dream that needed to be fulfilled.

The idea of flirting with other martial arts disciplines came on her radar. In 2013, she considered taekwondo and trained alongside the “incredible” Jack Whoolley, who’s now primed to represent Ireland at the next Olympics. Even back then, she knew the Dubliner would hit the big time — but she was unsure if taekwondo was for her.

“I enjoyed it,” she recalls. “That style of martial arts probably wasn’t as suitable to me but I got diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and that just put an end to it at the time.”

After getting back on track, her phenomenal kickboxing exploits continued but the stress and pressure related to it began to build. She needed a release of some sort and in 2017, almost as a hobby on the side at first, she took up karate.

Within two months, she had her heart set on competing and the big switch was in full flow.

“There’s a huge amount of similarities between the two,” she explains. The competition area or tatami is the exact same and tactics are very similar, as well as the punches and kicks, although contact is slightly more limited in karate.

When I looked at it first, I used to watch a few karate fights and think, ‘This is going to be easy. In a couple of months now, I’ll be world champion.’ But it wasn’t that straightforward.

“It’s been a bit of an adjustment but at the same time, it’s still realistic to me. Somebody else might say, ‘Oh, that’s a whole new sport’ — it’s not completely. I mean the style of kickboxing I did originated from karate so there’s a huge crossover there.

“But probably between injury and a few other bits, it’s taken me a little bit longer to get as well adjusted to it. At the same time, I’m fairly confident that if I get fit and everything goes well over the next couple of months that I’ll qualify for Tokyo.”

cod O'Donovan (file pic).

Having competed at 55kg in kickboxing, O’Donovan is now under-61kg for karate and there are 10 Olympic spots in her category. The transition, overall, has been enjoyable though there have been some speed bumps and mental battles along the way.

“The hardest adjustment was actually psychological because you’re used to being the best in your sport. You go to tournaments and you’re expected to win, and then you go into this brand new one and you’re nobody. You’re right down the bottom of the pile.

“Even in competitions when you go for those 50/50 clashes, you’ll come out the worst because you’re up against big names or big nations. I used to be the other side of that, so that was an adjustment.

“Then from a technical or physical point-of-view, I was hitting way too hard. I was just hammering people with kicks and punches and I’d be like, ‘What’s the problem here?’ That was a big adjustment. I still struggle with that, I still hit hard but I think I’ve got it a little bit more under control.”

I think they’ve nicknamed me ‘Red Mist’ or something with it coming out of my ears,” she adds with a giggle. “Certainly in Ireland when I first came on the scene, they were like, ‘Oh my God, she hits so hard, she’s very aggressive.’

“But I think they now accept that it’s not personal, it’s just coming from one side to the other.”

The biggest setback surely came last year though, when she suffered a horrific injury. In the background too, political in-fighting divided Irish karate, so O’Donovan’s personal struggles were certainly compounded.

Initially, she sustained a stress fracture in her ankle. “That’s grand like, a six-week job, I’ll be back in no time,” she thought at the time, happy to be only missing one ranking event. How wrong she was.

“Then after a couple of weeks, my doctor said, ‘I’m just going to refer you to this guy now for an MRI,’” O’Donovan picks up the story. “No alarm bells went off in my head, I was thinking it was just standard procedure.

When I went in to see the consultant, he just looked at me and said, ‘It’s not good.’ It turned out there was a tumour in the ankle. It’s a rare joint disease called PVNS, I had never heard of it, I think four or five people in Ireland have it.

“What happened was it had just eaten away all the cartilage and the ligament. They needed a donor for new cartilage and decided to take it out of the knee here.”

She points to it, and continues: “They basically opened this up, took out the cartilage, they had to break the ankle on both sides, patch it up and put in a few pins.

“It was a tough enough one, but I suppose I have been lucky over the years. I haven’t had anything too bad.”

Recuperation on the knee began immediately after the surgery, while the ankle was a more gradual process.

“Luckily with the knee, even though there were a lot of stitches in it, I was able to start physio on it within hours. I was in the hospital bed on this machine, doing [exercises] on my knee. I was like, ‘Come at me, I need this physio!’ I just wanted to get back at it.

“I did loads of physio on that even when I couldn’t put any weight on the ankle… it’s just long and boring and tedious, constantly doing the same physio work every day. Then you’d have setbacks that you think, ‘Oh I’m able to go back training’ and then you go in and you might overdo it and you have to take a step back again.

I think that’s probably the only thing that kept me going. I didn’t mind the physical pain it was just mentally so draining not being able to do anything.

“You’re watching everyone go away, representing Ireland and winning things, you’re so happy for people but at the same time, you want to be back in yourself. I’d say that’s the hardest part, pushing yourself to get back. At the same time, if I didn’t have a carrot to aim for, I probably would have struggled a lot more with it.”

That dangling carrot was, of course, the Tokyo Olympics. That surely remains the case despite the disappointment of everything being cancelled.

While people have asked her about dipping her toes in another discipline like boxing — she remembers Norway’s Cecilia Braekhus, a rumoured future opponent of Katie Taylor, at one of her first international kickboxing events — or MMA in the future, her focus remains on karate. And on what else she can achieve there down the line.

One thing’s for sure: O’Donovan’s time will come again. And when it does it will be fascinating to follow her journey.

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Emma Duffy

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