By Dave Donnelly
The decision to retire came about all of a sudden and, yet, when it did arrive it had been a long time in the making.
Caradh O’Donovan dedicated four years of her life to the dream of not only becoming an Olympian but achieving success at the summer games in Tokyo.
Those games, a year later than planned, will take place in Japan later this year but will do so without karate champion O’Donovan, who decided last week to hang up her kimono.
The Terenure-based black belt did so with the littlest fuss, politely declining Karate Ireland’s invitation to the qualifying event in Paris in June.
She changed her Twitter bio to ‘former athlete’ and quietly returned to her business, which now includes mentoring and advocating for athletes, as well as presenting a sports show on iRadio.
Three leg surgeries and the difficulty of managing the debilitating condition Crohn’s disease proved roadblocks along the way but it was time, and lack of support, that proved the telling factor.
“The Olympics was always the goal,” the Sligo native, who has called Dublin home for half of her 37 years, tells the Dublin Gazette.
“It was postponed another year and, between injuries and age and everything, I was thinking of just sticking around for that.
“But, for a number of reasons, last week I just said, ‘hey, I’ll call it a day – it’s not going to happen’. So I’m done now with all forms of competition. It’s time to move on.”
That letter arrived early last week and, initially, O’Donovan was gung-ho about taking what would be her only opportunity to compete at the Games.
A good night’s sleep often offers the best perspective, however, and she awoke one morning dead-set on calling it a day – and early enough so she didn’t take the opportunity from someone else.
“I got the letter and, at that point, I was adamant I was going and expected to get selected – I’d have been surprised if I wasn’t.
“But I woke up on Tuesday or Wednesday and I thought ‘fuck, I can’t do it anymore’. It’s not happening, between injuries and everything.
“I’m also aware that there’s younger fighters coming up who would kill for this opportunity, and I didn’t want to delay or drag it out and decide last minute and not give somebody else a fair shot.
“I don’t know what came over me, but I just made the decision that it wasn’t happening.”
How she came to that decision is difficult to unpick but it goes back to the fact that, for every battle she’s fought hand to hand, or foot to foot, there’s been two more behind the scenes.
From the age of 12 to 33, she kickboxed, and she represented Ireland in the martial art before the admission of karate to the Olympics in 2016 prompted her to swap codes.
She mixed both sports for a while but, with Tokyo 2020 a realistic target, she focused on karate and became the best in the country.
As with virtually every sport on this island, politics was never far away. A schism in the governing body, ONAKAI, led to two organisations professing themselves to be the legitimate body in Ireland.
The unseemly episode continued for almost a year before a resolution was found but the sport’s reputation was tarnished.
Certain sports have always been favoured with regard to Sport Ireland funding while others make do with lesser support.
As an indoor contact sport, karate would always need special provision to continue during lockdown but O’Donovan feels let down that karate was denied the same access as other sports.
“With the fact Sport Ireland don’t give us access to their gyms, there’s just no way I can be prepared and be competitive to go to an Olympic qualification event in less than two months.
“I was always in it to win it, and I was judging my own shape as an athlete and I’m probably half the athlete I was. I didn’t want to go away and make up the numbers.
“For some people, that might just be their goal, to represent their country, but that’s not the way I wanted to go there. I’m used to being one of the best athletes and I didn’t want to do half do it.
“A lot of it is to do with the support in the Irish sports system. I feel like they’ve done a lot for some athletes in some sports, and they’ve really let some other sports, like my own, down.”
O’Donovan has already made provision for the next chapter. She is close to completing a two-year programme in athlete mentoring with the Dame Kelly Holmes Foundation.
She’s a co-founder of Global Athlete, a movement to positively influence sport worldwide by empowering and representing athletes in the decisions that affect them most.
The key word there is ‘global’ because, after 20-plus years of fighting her own corner in Irish sport, she’s jaded from what she often viewed as a one-woman crusade to get what was right.
“From an athlete’s point, and more from a governance point of view, looking at whether things can improve for sports [in Ireland] that aren’t already in that little clique, I’m completely exhausted.
“It’s completely broken me. It’s been 20 years of constant battles to try and get a tracksuit funded. It’s just never going to happen. It’s been really lonely.
“Behind closed doors, everyone agrees with you in the sport, all the athletes, all the families, all the parents, but nobody’s willing to stick their neck out and say it.
“You need a collective voice in order for change to happen and I just don’t think people in Ireland are ready to do that in certain sports.
“I hope that does change, and I hope it will get better for the next generation, but it’s just not going to be my battle.
“I’ve given it everything I can and hopefully some of the younger ones coming through will have a bit more fight in them. But I’m all done.”