The prodigious Irish teens with Olympic medal ambitions

Chris and Sean McCarthy are two of Irish karate’s best prospects, and they aim to qualify for this year’s Olympics.

Twin brothers Chris and Sean McCarthy in action during an exhibition match.
Twin brothers Chris and Sean McCarthy in action during an exhibition match.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Updated at 11.08

SEAN AND CHRIS McCarthy certainly aren’t short of confidence.

The 18-year-old twin karate stars are aiming to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. 

Yet not only are they optimistic about getting there, they both feel winning a medal is eminently possible.

“Most of athletes coming up now are quite young,” Chris tells The42. “A lot of the guys winning tournaments in senior are 18 or 19.

“I think being 18 isn’t a disadvantage at all.

“If I get there, I would definitely think I could get a medal… I think it’s quite a realistic goal.”

“I’d definitely be confident in qualifying as well and giving my best,” Sean adds.

“The qualification tournament will be in May, so I’m looking forward to that. I’ll hopefully get a medal as well.”

Both Sean and Chris only recently made the switch to senior and have been making good progress.

According to the latest World Karate Federation (WKF) rankings, Chris is 46th in the world in the male kumite +84 KG category and Sean is 76th in male kumite -84 KG.

Both have impressive track records at junior level. In October 2018, Sean claimed a bronze medal at the Youth Olympics.

Meanwhile, last March, Chris won Ireland’s first-ever gold at European level in karate, prevailing at the Cadet, Junior and U21 European Karate Championship in Aalborg, Denmark, an event in which 1,115 athletes from 51 clubs from across the continent competed at various levels and disciplines.

“It was probably my best year I had ever really,” Chris says of 2019. “I was ranked number one in Europe and the world for juniors.

“I really enjoyed [the triumph at the Europeans], because that was probably the best performance I had overall.

I woke up the first day and I knew it was going to be my day, because I put all the work in. So I knew straight away when I got there that it was going to happen.

“I was preparing all season for that tournament. I knew it was one of the biggest ones. I wanted to end my junior career by winning a European level. I felt I deserved to.”

Sean says he enjoyed a similarly productive past 12 months.

“I felt like I made good progress. It’s different when you go up the rankings as well, it’s a lot harder to stay on top, because everyone knows more about you. So it’s challenging in that way too, but it was definitely a good year.”

It is only after the past three months that they have started to transition to senior level, as they each eye a place at Tokyo 2020.

In total, 80 qualification spots will be available, as karate becomes part of the Olympics for the first time.

No more than eight athletes can qualify per nation (four male and four female maximum), while only one is permitted in every event.

In total, there are eight events, — 67 kg, 75kg, +75kg and Kata for men, and 55kg, 61kg, +61kg and Kata for women.

twin-brothers-chris-and-sean-mccarthy-in-action-during-an-exhibition-match Sean and Chris McCarthy competing against one another. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

One spot per event is reserved for the host country, while other qualifiers are determined by a combination of ranking and how the athletes get on in the qualification tournament.

“We’ve the Olympic qualifiers coming up in May in Paris, and we’re also going to Paris next week for the Paris Open,” Chris explains. “Then we have the U21 Europeans coming up in Budapest as well. So lots of tournaments.

“The tournament in Paris is over two days. So the winners from first and second each day will qualify from whatever weight class that you go on.”

“There are two days of events, so you have two shots at it,” Sean adds.

To compete at the Olympics would be a significant reward for years of hard work. They played other sports such as GAA and soccer growing up, but got hooked on karate at the age of eight and have seldom looked back since.

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The pair were around 14 when they started making Ireland squads, as their talent for the sport became increasingly apparent.

Yet karate is not their sole concern at the moment. Both brothers have completed the Leaving Cert and they’re now in the first year of a course in Sports Injuries and Therapy at CSN College of Further Education in their native Cork.

“Generally, it’s grand. Sometimes, when you’ve an assignment coming up [it's a challenge combining with karate],” Sean says.

Chris adds: “It’s a lot easier when you’re in college [in terms of] balancing your time. 

“With school last year, the Leaving Cert was a lot more difficult — there’s a lot more work in the Leaving Cert. I’m only in my first year in college — it’s not too bad now.”

Chris and Sean have also benefitted from The Emerging Talent Programme (ETP) at the Mardyke Arena UCC. According to the official website, the scheme “offers emerging athletes a specialised vehicle to fulfil their sporting potential through access to sports science, athletic development, performance psychology, nutrition and lifestyle support… Athletes will be monitored and assessed on an on-going basis with regular communication kept with all relevant parties (coach, parents, etc.).”

The McCarthy brothers’ parents have also been key in harnessing their development.

They’ve had to spend a lot of money with all the tournaments and driving us up to Dublin,” Sean says. “They’ve had to sacrifice as much as we have really, with all the stuff they’ve had to miss, going away to all the tournaments with us.”

Having two elite athletes in the one family the same age and working for broadly similar goals also creates a highly competitive atmosphere in the household, only somewhat offset by their two sisters’ lack of interest in sport.

“It can sometimes get a bit intense,”Sean adds. “But it’s definitely better to have someone at such a high level to train with every day, it’s great that way.

“We’d train about three hours a day, six days a week, so it’d be pretty intense.

“It’d be worth it in the end really, it just has to be done. You get used to it.”

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Paul Fennessy

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