AS SHE LAY on the mat holding her knee, Lisa Kearney saw her Olympic dream flash before her eyes and thought it was all over right there.
Something wasn’t right, she knew immediately. The instinct that comes hand-in-hand with a long and frustrating history of injuries told her that much.
Six months out from London 2012 and the biggest moment of her young judo career, this felt like a bad one. One that might need surgery.
A ligament tear, they told her when she got out of Bulgaria and back home to Belfast. Mercifully there was no need for an operation; she would be back on the mat within three months.
That was at the end of January. It’s only now that Kearney is returning to competitive action with her Olympic place still on the line at the final qualifying event, next week’s European Judo Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia.
“I guess if you’re going to get an injury in an Olympic year, right at the start of the year is the best time to get it,” she tells TheScore.ie.
“When it first happened I thought, ‘Oh no, this is really bad.’ So when I got home and got my scan, I was just so relieved that it wasn’t as bad as I first suspected.
When I found out that I didn’t need an operation and that I’d have rehab for a few months and I’d be back, you can’t ask for any more than that. One day I thought this is a disaster. The following day to be told no operation and a couple of months out, that made it seem a lot better.
It would’ve been a cruel blow for the young woman who has been Irish judo’s leading light since she won her first senior national title in 2001. Kearney doesn’t turn 23 until next month but she is already the country’s most decorated judoka; in Samoa in 2010, she became the first Irish woman to win gold at a World Cup event.
Her performances at these World Cup events over the last two years have put her in the driving seat for an Olympic spot. But until the Europeans are over next week, she’s not taking anything for granted.
“I’m in a really good position. The only way that I won’t qualify is if the two girls behind me both take a medal at this tournament. It’s the European Championships, it’s such a tough tournament, so it’s really unlikely that both of them on the same day are going to take a medal.
Anything can happen. It’s not over till it’s over so I’m going into this competition really focused on just doing what I need to do, performing, just doing my best so that I leave nothing to chance and that I stay in the qualification position that I’m in.
It’s a focus and maturity that belies her age but Kearney will be the first to tell you that such discipline only gets harder as the Olympics get closer. She’s not a machine and, although she isn’t definitely there yet, the mind sometimes wanders towards London.
“It’s all around me, it’s in my face every day and I’m only a week away from the last tournament, so I’m thinking about it all the time. It’s such an exciting time.
“The last two years of qualifying have been a chapter of my life, so I’m looking forward to finishing that and then starting a new chapter.”
Home and away
That chapter has largely been written in Edinburgh where Kearney intersperses her studies in psychology at Heriot-Watt University with training sessions at the Scottish Judo Institute, a GB Centre of Excellence.
A lot of 18-year-olds would jump at the chance to leave home and move to a foreign city but it was by no means an easy decision for Kearney. With no full-time training groups in Ireland, she knew that she had no other option if she was serious about her sport.
“The coaches over there are absolutely amazing, they treat me like one of their own.” It helps too that her coach Ciaran Ward, performance director with the Irish Judo Association, travels over and back from Ireland for regular sessions.
Ward himself is an Olympian having represented Ireland at the 1992 Games in Barcelona and again four years later in Atlanta. Having him on her side is “a massive help,” she says.
Ciaran has been there and done it, twice. He knows exactly what it’s like, what it takes to get there, what it’s like being there. To have a coach with that experience is absolutely phenomenal and I think it will definitely help me give the best performance I can and prepare in the best way I can.
She’s already raised the profile of judo in Ireland; now Kearney is on the cusp of becoming the first woman to carry the Irish flag on to the biggest stage of all.
However her story ends over the next four months, there is a sense that this is only the beginning.