breaking the mould
Tanya Sweeney speaks to Caradh O'Donovan as she guns for a kickboxing world title – a sport IN WHICH she could 'outpunch any man in MY weight'
Call it the Katie Taylor effect if you will – in recent years, kickboxing has become the sport of choice for an increasing number of women.
Among these, Sligo-born Caradh O'Donovan is fast becoming the poster girl for the sport. Currently the WAKO European Kickboxing Champion and top-ranked female fighter in Ireland in her weight division, the 29-year-old is bound for the World Kickboxing Championships in Turkey in November.
"I think Katie Taylor has done wonders for women in sports, especially these contact sports," she says. "There's been a real push of young girls taking part in the last few years, and that's probably down to Katie."
In spite of its growing popularity on a grass-roots level, kickboxing is still very much in its nascent stage when it comes to getting recognised on a wider level. While most athletes who train for more than three hours a day enjoy fiscal support from the Irish Sports Council, many kickboxers – Caradh included – are largely self-funded.
"Six or seven years ago, I began to take kickboxing more seriously and started to train twice a day," she recalls. "I changed to a club in Tallaght where I got access to top-level coaching. I started to have a good bit of success (at competitions) and thought, 'This is what I want to do'. So other things had to be put aside. The standard has got so high worldwide that you're forced to train this hard.
"We don't get any funding from the Sports Council, but we've been getting a little support through the Institute of Sport in the last couple of months. The onus is on ourselves to represent the country. I understand the (Sports Council) budgets have been cut, but I do feel it's a little unfair as I work as hard as those athletes getting funded. We're just not there yet, but hopefully it'll change down the line."
Competitions aside, it is certainly easy to see why kickboxing is starting to appeal to more women. An hour's workout burns 800 calories and almost constantly engages the core, for a start. The cardio-conditioning elements of the sport are among the most efficient ways to burn fat, not least the stubborn belly fat that is associated with a host of illnesses.
Kickboxing also offers a way to get stresses and frustrations out of your system. According to researchers from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology in Oxford, a group sport also releases more endorphins than going it alone. Others again choose kickboxing for its self-defence aspect.
Yet when Caradh was training almost 16 years ago in Sligo, she came up against the same obstacle that Katie Taylor regularly mentions in interviews. Being very much in the minority as a young girl, she found it tough to source a sparring partner in Sligo.
"Thankfully, it's less difficult now," she says. "We've a good team here, and most of us are based in Dublin. And I feel that I could probably outpunch any man in my weight category in terms of strength."
Caradh's passion for sport is immediately evident, and not only from her twice-daily workouts. A sports captain in school, she attended UCD to get her sports management degree and Waterford RTC for a Master's in sports psychology. She combines her training with her full-time job in the high-performance unit for Triathlon Ireland.
"I'm training for the championships, so before work I get to the gym for 6am and do a 90-minute workout – lots of weights and intense cardio like sprints, squats and burpees – and then do sparring and padwork for two hours after work," she says.
"It's tough and intense, but I do block off certain times and take a break. The kickboxing girls in Ireland are a close-knit bunch, which is great, but I also make time to see friends for dinner or the cinema."
Given the amount of time spent training for bouts, it is no surprise to find that Caradh has suffered some injuries, most notably three broken noses in the past year alone.
'When I started doing kickboxing, people thought I was a bit mad," she says. "My family understand that it's difficult and they've seen the horrific injuries down the years, but when you get the gold medals they see why I do what I do."
As for meeting new people: "They generally don't believe me! Most people tell me I look nothing like a kickboxer."
Given the number of national and international titles already under her belt, hopes are high that Caradh will return home from the world championships in November with a medal in her pocket. After that, the world – and hopefully a little more funding and sponsorship – will be hers for the taking.
"When qualifying I had some great challenges from girls around the country. When you've worked hard for it, it's all the more special," she says.
"That said, anything less than gold isn't what I want. I'm always happy with these achievements, but it would be nice to get a little bit more recognition for it."