Sunday 25 February 2018

Diminutive Kearney ready to give rivals the chop as she looks to make big impact

Irelands's Lisa Kearney (Blue) fights with Romania's Alina Dumitru. Photo: Getty Images
Irelands's Lisa Kearney (Blue) fights with Romania's Alina Dumitru. Photo: Getty Images

Cliona Foley judo

B-movie stereotypes may have some of us thinking of the angry men in white pyjamas when it comes to martial arts, but Lisa Kearney certainly debunks that myth.

Ireland's first female Olympic judoka is five foot one and a half, just seven and a half stone and speaks with a soft west Belfast lilt.

Her sport, in some respects, is the gentlest of martial arts. The word 'judo' translates as 'gentle way' so there are no high kicks or punches, no nutting bricks or wild screams of 'highyaaah'.

Judo contests are five-minute whirlwinds of throws and holds. Kearney (22) may be tiny, but she's the best in Ireland and has a bruise, turning yellow on her right cheekbone, to hint that she's just finished a week of tough pre-Olympic sparring in Spain.

But if you really want to know how tough her sport is, check out her thumbs. A long scar down both tells the tale.

Between the ages of 17 and 19, she needed five operations: on a shoulder, two thumbs, one knee and her nose.

She had to get a joint fused on one thumb, and the other involved a reconstruction, both after serious ligament damage. The thumbs, knees, back and neck are the usual sore spots for a judoka, but Kearney has been particularly unlucky and her physical conditioning now reflects the precautions she has taken to avoid a recurrence.

"She is a physical specimen," her coach Ciaran Ward stresses. "Her power-to-weight ratio is remarkable; already she is there physically."

But it is her mental power that, Ward says, makes her special. Ward, who competed himself in Barcelona and Atlanta, first met Kearney when he quit competing and started his own coaching business in Belfast schools.

The first one he visited was his old primary school in Andersonstown, where Kearney was among his immediate recruits. She wasn't very good initially, but he noticed something unusual about this eight-year-old.

"She didn't win a fight, not one contest, for over a year," he chuckles. "All her friends were winning left, right and centre yet she was still doing everything we were asking.

"As soon as kids find something that makes them win they'll keep doing it over and over again at the expense of other stuff, but Lisa kept doing what I asked her.

"She had a really mature approach for someone that young and, after about 18 months, she was able to do what we wanted and hasn't looked back since." Now, through a reciprocal arrangement with Northern Ireland Sports Council, she is based in Edinburgh, studying psychology and training locally at the Scottish Institute of Sport, often three times a day.

Her Olympic qualifying campaign necessitated collecting enough points on the international circuit and she had that done by the time she went to the European Championships this year, where she was knocked out by the reigning Olympic champion.

But it wasn't that straightforward, not least because one of her favourite techniques -- the leg grab -- was outlawed by some rule changes just as she was about to start her Olympic campaign. "That inhibited her for the first six months of her qualifying campaign; she had to completely reinvent herself," Ward explains.

Two particular tournaments proved to him that Kearney is world class. She was seriously sick en route to the first qualifying tournament in Baku (Azerbaijan). "How she even got out of bed that day I don't know," Ward says. But she fought and came fifth.

"Her first competition back then was a Grand Slam in Moscow. There's only four Grand Slams -- Tokyo, Moscow, Paris and Rio -- and they're worth more points. She beat the current world bronze medallist and took the current Olympic silver medallist right to the wire. It went to a golden score (judo's equivalent of a golden goal).

"She has collected higher points and won some World Cup events but, to me, those two performances stand out."

Her first bout tomorrow is against world No 7 Shugen Wu and if she gets through that she will likely have to face the world No 2, but she clearly won't be stressing about it.

"I won't be on the internet, Facebook or Twitter; I only look at my draw just before I fight," she insists cheerfully, as she makes her own Irish sporting history. "My goal is to give the best performance that I've ever given and if I do that I think I'll do well."

Irish Independent

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