independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Life after running

Sprinter Jessika Zebo claims she's still faster than her rugby-star brother -- even now that she's hung up her spikes, writes Alison O'Riordan

Jessika Zebo. BRENDAN MORAN/BRYAN MEADE

Her brother Simon is known as the skillful and speedy winger for Irish rugby who likes to attack and charge forward with a rugby ball, but -- according to sprinter and hurdler Jessika Zebo -- she holds the fastest acclaim for running in her household by a long-shot.

"I first discovered my love for running at a very young age. My dad used to coach kids in Leevale Athletics Club in Cork and he would take me and Simon up to the track when we were tiny tots to run around every Tuesday and Thursday evening.

"I could barely walk when I started running but it has always been a very natural thing in our house. For the record, I would like to state that I have always been the fastest Zebo and like to think I still am," laughs the 28 year old.

Sport has always been part of Jessika's identity. It gives her a certain energy and high that she can equate with nothing else.

"I have always loved to run and it's always been part of me. I can't honestly think of any other sport that I would rather do or that I'd be any good at.

"I probably first discovered I was faster than most when I started school and I would look forward to sports day so much. I loved to race and I used to drag my family to every sports day around the country on a Sunday. It was so much fun and always felt so easy at that age to run fast, but sadly, at some point you learn you're not always going to be on top, and then you develop a new love - the love to train."

Easy-going and affable Jessika first represented Ireland when she was 15 years of age in the 80m hurdles. This is where a passion for hurdling was born.

"As a junior, I was always a 100/200m sprinter, but I discovered hurdling as a teenager and began training with a great coach in Cork.

"Up until my 20s, I continued to mix sprinting with hurdling until I made the move to Limerick, and similarly I made the move to 400m," says the qualified social worker.

Jessika continued to represent Ireland in the 400m event on many occasions throughout her 20s and the London Olympics were within her grasp, which meant training a demanding 12 times a week to be part of the women's 4x400m relay team.

However, prior to the summer Games last July, the hurdler was hit by a temperamental achilles tendon, and in the end, she never made the cut. Her decision to retire from competitive sprinting came shortly after the Games, due to the combination of a few tough years of sickness with glandular fever and her recent injury.

"Last year, racing was just not going my way, and unfortunately my dream of competing at the Olympics was not meant to be. I never fully recovered from an Achilles injury I obtained in 2010 where I missed two seasons and that made everything else so hard. I was always going to give the Olympics my best shot but after the disappointment of not qualifying, I knew the time was right to hang up my spikes."

Retiring from competition was an extremely tough decision for the athlete to make, but she knows deep down it was the right one.

"There comes a time when the lows of the sport simply outweigh the highs, and despite my best efforts to stick at it, my poor body didn't want any more. Mentally it's very hard to keep going when you're in that place."

Now Jessika runs for pleasure, despite her days of competing being over. She exercises five times a week, combining her running with tag rugby and swimming.

"I have the most incredible memories of my running years. I've had a colourful running career and, more than that, a very happy one. I was part of the women's 4x400m team that travelled to the European indoors in Turin in 2009. I have also raced competitively all over Europe, winning some and losing some, and as a youth, I won two All-Ireland titles.

"Now I am enjoying some of the things I missed out on over the years and I'm loving it."

Still considering herself very much an athlete, despite no longer being professional, Jessika keeps a very strict diet.

"As an athlete, you need to know the right food and supplements for your body. I like to think I still eat very well, but I certainly don't feel bad if I have a few drinks at the weekend or if I have a little junk food when I feel like it. I love chocolate and I love red wine."

As I delve deeper, it is obvious that Jessika and her brother inherited their speed genes from their father Arthur, a Martinique-born French 800m runner who qualified for the French team for the 1976 Olympics.

"Dad was a fantastic athlete and in my eyes he seemed to have the exact balance for competing and possessing a real love for the sport while simultaneously being a little bit ruthless on the track. He had many titles to his name. He qualified for the Olympics but heartbreakingly never got to race as he broke his leg in the lead-up to the Games."

Arthur met his Cork-born wife Lynda in

Paris while she was working as an au pair and he was fulfilling his military duty, but they soon moved back to Cork to raise a family.

"My mum's friend was going on a date with my dad's friend and both mum and dad were dragged along for support. Apparently they hit it off and are now married 30 years," laughs Jessika.

While Jessika's dad is responsible for her sporting prowess, her mum is without doubt her biggest supporter.

"Mum didn't play a lot of sport in her youth but she is always there supporting and encouraging us. Without her keeping us on our toes and helping us stay involved in everything we love, full-time sport would have been very hard to pursue for both Simon and I without her."

I couldn't possibly finish the interview without asking Jessika what it was like to be the sister of a rugby-star brother who has become a poster boy for Munster, following his glittering debut at Ireland's Six Nations clash with Wales in February.

"To be honest, it's like it has always been to be Simon's sister. He is not the hottest property in rugby to me. He is my brother.

"In fact, he is 100 different things to me before he is a rugby player, but I will say that I am fiercely proud of him and everything he does.

"He is so talented and nothing makes me happier than to see Si living his dream. There is no doubt in the world I am his biggest fan, but before all the rugby, he was my little brother, copying everything I did and wanting to be just like me. I'm going to say that anyway; he is going to love reading this!"

Jessika has always loved to watch rugby but her interest has deepened of late.

"I love watching sport in general, but now that rugby has become such a big part of our lives, I have an even bigger interest in it."

Jessika was reluctantly catapulted into the spotlight in March this year when her musician boyfriend Darragh, of acoustic folk/rock band Hermitage Green, proposed to her during a live gig in the Academy music venue in Dublin in front of hundreds of people. To her embarrassment, it instantly became a YouTube hit.

"I felt complete and utter shock. It was the biggest surprise but the best surprise. I felt a bit shy about it being on YouTube, mostly because I was a blubbering mess, but it's so nice to have the memory captured on tape.

"Darragh's song was beautiful. I still can't listen to it without crying. His proposal was something very special and I am the happiest girl alive."

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