Champion kickboxer Caradh O'Donovan on her painful battle with Crohn's disease
Caradh O’Donovan suffered the ill effects of Crohn’s disease for years before it eventually forced her to give up her beloved kickboxing. But after learning to manage the painful condition, she’s come back even stronger and last weekend emerged triumphant at the kickboxing Irish Open championships
About a decade ago, kickboxing champion Caradh O’Donovan did a Masters in Sport & Exercise Psychology, mainly to advance her sporting performance and give herself the edge over her opponents.
Little did she realise that the teachings would prove indispensable for a different, but even more gruelling battle… with her own body.
Following a year-long hiatus, the Sligo-born sportswoman returned to the ring last year, after illness — specifically, Crohn’s disease — forced her to take a break and reassess her career.
The interlude didn’t do Caradh any harm as last weekend she won her category, the under-55kg, at the Irish Open championships. With more than 4,000 athletes congregating in the Citywest Convention Centre in Dublin for the three-day event, it is roundly considered one of the biggest tournaments in the kickboxing world.
“I was really determined to win, and to do so on home ground was really brilliant,” she enthuses. “It’s the biggest cup we have in our sport — winning the Irish Open is harder than winning the World Championships — and it wasn’t just a question of getting back into the sport, but getting back and being the best.”
Caradh says that the impact of her illness has helped to change her attitude to the sport. More than ever, she is grateful to be doing the thing she still loves every day.
Doctors could barely believe that Caradh had endured the symptoms of Crohn’s disease for as long as she did, but in some ways, it’s easy to see how the 32-year-old had the symptoms for as long as she did.
“Initially they didn’t think it was going to be anything too serious, but the doctors were amazed I was still standing,” she smiles. “I just happened to have a very high pain threshold, and kept putting things down to severe exhaustion or overtraining.”
Describing her symptoms as vomiting, swollen ankles and tiredness, Caradh assumed that she was experiencing food intolerances or bugs.
Things came to a head when she went on holiday with her sister and mother to the Canary Islands and spent much of the trip in the bathroom, doubled over in pain and vomiting blood.
“My mum couldn’t believe it when I said, ‘Ah, this happens every so often’,” says Caradh. “When I look back now, I think, ‘How stupid was that?’.”
Caradh’s GP, himself a retired rugby player, diagnosed her with Crohn’s after an MRI scan.
Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that may affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract. Signs and symptoms often include abdominal pain and cramps, diarrhoea (which may be bloody if the inflammation is severe), fever, and weight loss.
It’s thought around 20,000 people live with IBD in Ireland.
“It was a huge shock,” she admits. I’d only heard of it briefly before. My big fear was that I’d have to get a colostomy bag. I worried too that surgery would put me out of kickboxing; in the end the inflammations were so far apart that doctors weren’t able to operate. But back then, I didn’t understand that it was something you’d be stuck with forever. I thought it was an illness, you would treat and then it would be gone.
“In a way, I was really lucky that my GP was a former sportsperson who had worked with other athletes with similar issues,” she adds. “Another girl I know got diagnosed, and her GP told her that she would have to give up her sport.”
Caradh was determined to compete in her sport, but was keenly aware that some things would have to change. Weight cuts, which are a necessity so that she can compete in the -55kg weight category, were a big part of her regime. But now, she manages her weight year-round, cutting out the need to implement a drastic lifestyle change.
By its very nature, the course of Crohn’s disease cannot be predicted, and the path to wellness did not always run smoothly for Caradh.
“One time I ended up in hospital after eating just carrot soup for a week during a weight cut. I didn’t blend the soup properly and one lump of soup got stuck in my gut, resulting in a drip and painkillers. It felt like someone was stabbing me in the gut.”
Nowadays, Caradh — who has been fit and healthy for six months — adheres to a list of foods that she just can’t have.
“At the top of the list is Chinese food, which is terrible because I love a Spice Bag,” she laughs. “I’ve learned loads about nutrition and started cooking my own food from scratch, which I wouldn’t have done before.
“These days, I’ll have porridge with fruit for breakfast, fruits and nuts for snacks, omelettes or salad for lunch and steak, sweet potatoes, vegetables, rice or fish for dinner.”
Once controlled, Crohn’s is a very manageable condition: currently, Caradh is on regular medication and takes a humira needle every week, which is mercifully permitted when it comes to the anti-doping element of her sport. And in the run up to this year’s Irish Open, held in Citywest, Caradh had been training six days a week, with workouts happening twice a day on four of those days. And her hiatus has resulted in a dramatic change in mindset.
“Because I was too unwell to book competitions last year and that was frustrating, my feeling is that I need to relax a little bit more,” she reflects. “If I get sick and miss a competition, so what? There will be another one in a month or two’s time.
“I’m not putting massive pressure on myself on whether it happens or doesn’t happen. I’ll continue with kickboxing and do it for as long as I love it.”
Now maintaining her remission from Crohn’s, there are several options in Caradh’s crosshairs for the future: among them sports admin and management. However, for now, she is enjoying her role as an Athlete Mentor for Sky Sports’ Sky Academy. She is also blogging over at sportswomen.ie; after writing about her health challenges with admirable candour, and gets no end of enthusiastic feedback from others with Crohn’s disease.
And proving that it’s hard to keep a tough girl down, she has even found the time to try another sport on for size.
“I started karate too, and who knows?” she smiles. “There might be a few new goals in that if it turns out I’m any good at it.”
For more information on Crohn’s disease, see the Irish Society for Colitis and Crohn’s Disease website at iscc.ie; and for more about the Irish Open, see www.irishopenonline.com