In her quest to become an Olympian, west Belfast judo expert Lisa Kearney truly traveled to the ends of the earth.
Abu Dabi, Baku, Cairo, Kazakhstan, Madrid, Miami, Minsk, Moscow, Prague, Samoa, San Salvador, Sofia: Ireland’s number one female judo fighter visited them all in search of competition for London 2012 qualification.
In order to gain automatic selection in the Under 48 kilo category, Kearney had to maintain a consistently high level of performance over the past couple of seasons. Staying inside the world’s top 14 ultimately determined her right to make the relatively shorter journey to London this summer.
When she enters the ring, with the world's media spotlight shine firmly on her, Kearney will become the first woman to represent Ireland in a sport that traces its roots back to 1882 in Japan. She has been practising judo for a relatively short 13 years.
'I started this sport in my local primary school when I was eight years old as an after schools activity,' Kearney recalls. 'The only reason was that my friends went along and I did, too. I absolutely loved it. And now here I am all these years later on the verge of the Olympics.'
Judo translates as ‘gentle way’ and Kearney fits the bill. She is both measured in her responses and yet, at her core, is a steely, determined athlete. Maintaining that standard presents its own constant challenges for Kearney in a world where her main opponents are also some of her friends
'It’s inevitable that I will be competing against the same people on a regular basis. I would be friendly with some of them while others keep themselves to themselves. That is the way they choose to be. But once the competition is over and done with, there can be a nice atmosphere and a bit of down time before we head into the next tournament.'
Kearney’s commitment to judo is not merely down to the physical grind of training and competition. The graduation through the different belts has led to her sport merging into her way of life.
'You start at white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black,' she explains. 'I got my black when I was 15. There is the technical theory which you have to learn as well. Judo is very useful for character building. It teaches you levels of respect that perhaps other sports don’t possess. These skills you learn can be applied in every day life.'
While 22-year old Kearney has her mind set on competing at the London 2012 Olympic Games, her horizons go beyond this coming July and August. 'After London there are the European and World championships,' she adds, 'and then in 2014 there are the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.'
As with many other Olympians and Paralympians, Kearney is grateful for the continuing support she gets from the Sports Institute for Northern Ireland. 'SINI provide me with massive support in many areas,' she admits. 'The first and most obvious for me is the physiotherapy. I’ve had quite a few injury problems in the past and if it wasn’t for their help I wouldn’t be here now at the level I’m competing in. All I have had to do was lift the phone.'
Former Olympian Ciaran Ward has coached Kearney since she first joined his Yamakwai, and she credits him with her development. 'We’ve had our ups and downs, but he has put in so much on my behalf. Without Ciaran’s coaching I wouldn’t be where I am today.'
Right now, though, Kearney only has time to think about London and her first Olympic Games. 'I sometimes dream what it will be like to be there,' she whispers. 'It will mean so much to be the first female ever from Ireland to compete in judo at an Olympic Games. It will show how much the sport has developed here.'