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A year on from his Tokyo despair, Jordan Lee is bouncing back

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High jumper Jordan Lee opens up to Adam Moynihan about last year’s Paralympic heartbreak and how he managed to rediscover his confidence in 2022

When Jordan Lee jetted off for Tokyo this time last year, his hopes were high.

The Killarney high jumper was heading east to compete in his first ever Paralympic Games and although he was still new to the sport (he had taken it up just three years prior), his performances up to that point indicated that he wasn’t just there to take part.

Sadly, that’s not how things played out for the then 21-year-old. He underperformed on the world stage and finished last in his field. It was a chastening experience for Lee and the ramifications were potentially huge as his funding from Paralympics Ireland was now – very suddenly - under threat.

“There was a lot of pressure on me to try and retain my funding,” Lee reveals. “I was very much on my last legs. Funding can be wiped away in an instant if you’re not performing. It’s very, very cutthroat. It was 50-50 [for me].”

Losing that financial support would have been life-changing for Lee, who has aspirations of competing at the next World Championships in Paris in 2023.

“If we’re going to call a spade a spade, I had some very poor performances last year. [But] it was just a poor season. I’ve shown consistency over the last four years, I’ve been going on the right trajectory – up until last year when things didn’t go my way.

“It would have been quite harsh to say, ‘he’s had a bad year, we’re going to strip him of his funding’. I think it was a fair compromise to allow me to have another year to prove myself. I have some really good people in my corner that were fighting for my cause.”

With the help of Tomás Griffin (coach), Alan Delaney (high jump technical coach), Shane O’Rourke and Ciarán McCabe (both strength and conditioning), the Kerryman has bounced back in a big way.

“Thankfully I’ve been able to produce a very solid year. There were some clear signs of progression. My best jump last year was 1.87 (metres). I’ve jumped 1.90 three times this year, which is a big improvement.

“Finishing second at the French Grand Prix was a highlight for me. I finished behind the Paralympic silver medallist as well. It was good to finish second at the first international comp since the Paralympics because the confidence had taken a bit of a hit. I’ve always been very confident so when Tokyo came it was a shock to the system.

“In France, I threw myself out there and I had the silver medallist on the edge. He had to pull some jumps out of the bag. It was important to build that confidence up again.”

Lee often speaks of his desire to be recognised as a good pro athlete – not simply a good disabled athlete – and he proved his point once again by winning gold at the National U23 Championships in July. In doing so he became the first disabled competitor since superstar sprinter Jason Smyth to triumph against able-bodied rivals at nationals.

“A lot of it is down to doing the basic things right again, and knowing that Tokyo is over. I can’t be dwelling on it. I’ve got to move on,” Lee says of his recent form.

“Being honest with yourself is important too. I realised that it couldn’t get lower from that point [in Tokyo]. I was actually in a very chilled out headspace all year.

"Provided that I’m training hard, giving it 100%, and being very diligent, I felt that things would get better. All that materialised into a very good season."

“Now I’m in a really good place to retain the funding again for next year. I’m third in the world and second in Europe in both high jump and long jump.”

The long jump is another nice string to Lee’s bow and, true to form, he has sampled immediate success in his new discipline. In his first competition, having trained for the event just twice, he jumped up to second in Europe. He will weigh up the pros and cons of potentially juggling both disciplines next year – the high jump is still his priority - but for now he’s ready to enjoy some downtime.

“It has been a hectic year so I’m looking forward to taking a break and doing normal 22-year-old things for once.”

The Killarney Valley AC man is actually heading to the host city of the next World Championships – Paris – in a couple of weeks, although he says it’s very much a holiday rather than a reconnaissance mission.

Before he signs off for 2022 he will attend the official opening of the Killarney Valley AC Arena tomorrow (Saturday). He and his clubmates will take part in an exhibition of athletics on the day as the club hopes to showcase both their new facilities and the talented young sportspeople who are now benefitting from them.

“It’s something that the club have wanted to do over the past couple of years but it couldn’t happen because of Covid,” Lee says. “We’re looking forward to having a great atmosphere down at the track with tons of people there.

“I know it’s a slogan and a hashtag that we use on social media but the club is legitimately ‘On the Rise’ over the past couple of years. This year alone we’ve won 106 or 107 national and provincial medals – that’s not including county competitions. That’s an insane number for what is a very new club, as such, in terms of moving into the track. It’s amazing to see it.

“Hopefully on Saturday everyone can get a good feel for what the club’s culture is like, get to see us in action and have some fun.

“It’s very hard for the general public to understand athletics, really. Jason Smyth, for example has run the 100 metres in 10.2 seconds. He competes against somebody who runs 10.9. The natural reaction for someone watching that is to think, ‘the guy who ran 10.9 is no good’. But 10.9 is ridiculously fast. That’s still an unbelievable time.

“I think speed and other physical attributes on the track aren’t really recognised by people. They don’t understand how good you have to be to run a certain time or jump a certain height.

“We have an unbelievably talented team right now. It’s hopefully going to be interesting for the people who come down on Saturday. I’m training this week so I can jump over a couple of people’s heads, just to put things into context.”

One of those individuals he’ll be clearing is his girlfriend and fellow para-athlete Madie Wilson-Walker. Or should we say, ‘attempting to clear’?

“We’ve already done it. We tested it out,” Wilson-Walker – who accompanied Lee for this interview – jokes.

Was there any flinching?

“Oh yeah, there was! He said he would do it off three steps and I was like, ‘I swear to God…!’”

“Three steps was bit dodgy,” Lee smiles. “That’s the pressure though. You either have to clear her or something goes wrong.”

As they say in show business, it will be alright on the night. Hopefully.

Lee and Wilson-Walker have been joined at the hip since reuniting post-Covid. The Canadian long jumper – a bilateral amputee who competes using blades - moved to Killarney in 2021 to be with Lee and properly resume their transatlantic romance.

Of course, Lee and Wilson-Walker won’t be the only international athletes on show. The Killarney club currently boasts a number of top-level performers and Lee says that, as a team, they are all pushing each other on to greater things.

“We have an amazing family dynamic in the group. We have group sessions but generally they will split up after the warm-up into different disciplines. Sarah [Leahy] will be doing her stuff with the sprinters, I’ll be doing my stuff with the jumpers, Oisín Lynch and Jason O’Reilly will be doing their own things with their own group of people… It’s great craic.

“The club had to work at the start to get people invested into athletics. Now we have an unbelievable team with athletes who are quitting other sports to stick with us. There’s evidence there to prove that it has worked, with Sarah going to the World Championships. I still don’t think that gets the recognition it deserves. To be competing against the Jamaicans and the Polish – the best in the world – and she’s training here with Killarney Valley…”

There must be a sense of pride there?

“Oh definitely. We always knew Sarah was incredibly talented it was just a question of consistency with her sessions at the track, progressing on bit by bit. She has done that, and she deserves all the rewards that she gets. She’s an incredible athlete.

“I think the likes of Sarah and Ciara Kennelly and myself have inspired the likes of Oisín Lynch and Jason O’Reilly, and hopefully other people in the club, to keep on progressing at a high level.”

It’s not all about the superstars who have Europeans and Worlds and Olympics on their minds, though. As Lee himself has shown through his own achievements to date, sport is for everybody.

“It’s good to have internationals around the place but nobody is held on a pedestal. That’s not what athletics is about. It’s about inclusion. We all have different goals that we want to achieve but the steps to get there remain the same for everybody.”

The official opening of the Killarney Valley AC Arena takes place tomorrow (Saturday) at 3.30pm.

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New-look Lakers ready for big tip-off

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Last year the Scotts Lakers were left to rue a slow start when they missed out on the playoffs by a single basket. With that in mind, starting off on the right foot is sure to be a priority this time around.

The Lakers get their 2022/23 National League Division 1 season up and running on Saturday, October 1 with a home game against the Limerick Sport Eagles. When they take to the court at Killarney Sports & Leisure Centre there will be a new enough look to the team.

Foreign imports Godwin Boahen and Emilian Grudov have moved on during the off-season and have been replaced by American shooter Eric Cooper Jr, Dutch ball carrier Esebio Strijdhaftig and Ukrainian big man Dmytro Berozkin.

Cooper Jr is a graduate of Pepperdine University and his eye for a basket has been evident in pre-season. His 84 three-pointers in a single season is the third best haul in Pepperdine’s history. Bosman player Strijdhaftig plays point guard and he was very adept in defence and in taking the ball to the rim at his previous club Almere (Netherlands).

Berozkin will be endeavouring to use his 6’10” frame to his advantage in both offence and defence. He has represented his native Ukraine at U16, U18 and U20 level. Now based in Killarney, he will be looking to settle quickly into the pace of the league.

Rui Saravia – the Portuguese player who signed last season – is staying put and with local lads Mark O’Shea and Paul Clarke also committed (GAA commitments in the short term allowing), the Lakers are expecting to put out a strong starting five.

Teenagers Jamie O’Sullivan and Senan O’Leary will be looking to add minutes to their court time and, the more he played, David Gleeson improved immeasurably as a force at both ends last season.

The squad will be further boosted by the presence of Irish underage international Ronan Collins, who, like Gleeson, is a Gneeveguilla native. Collins had a very impressive record in the green of Ireland and once he settles into the league he will be a real asset to the squad.

Marko Benčić, the son of former Lakers coach Vojkan, contributed hugely to the scoring effort in the latter part of last season’s league campaign. He will be looking to push on again in 2022/23.

The club will, as always, be looking to harvest the potential of their outstanding underage structure and young guns Mark Sheahan, Jack O’Sullivan and Eoin Carroll – amongst others – will be involved with the squad. Another addition to the squad is Jamie Cooke who is well known for his basketball prowess with the Kerry Stars club.

That sluggish start in 2021 was mitigated somewhat by players being unavailable and the fact that their home venue was being used as a makeshift vaccination centre (their first four home games were staged at alternative venues).

There should be no such excuses this time around and coach Jarlath Lee will be hoping for a positive opening month that includes three home games here in Killarney. The other Limerick side, the Celtics, will visit the town on October 22 and Cork outfit Fr Mathews will cross the county bounds on October 30.

The sole road trip in October is to Waterford to take on the SETU Waterford Vikings October 8. The league is a little more arduous this season in terms of travel; with away days in Donegal and Dublin, a large, functioning squad is vital.

St Paul’s have once again expressed their gratitude to the team’s main sponsor, Maurice O’Donoghue of Scotts Hotel. The O’Donoghue family’s legacy in supporting Killarney basketball goes back over 40 years.

The club is also seeking additional support via the following initiatives: Season Ticket (€100) – Admission to all nine home National League and cup games; Patron Ticket (€150) – Admission for two adults to all nine home National League and cup games; Game Sponsor (€300) – Admission for two to all nine home National League and cup games, your business name featured on the front of your sponsored game programme, and your business name attached to all advertising for the game on social media, local written media and on Radio Kerry previews and reports.

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A closer look at sport’s occupational hazards

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In Part 1 of a new series, former Kerry goalkeeper Eamonn Fitzgerald examines the complicated world of sports injuries

Injuries are an occupational hazard for players in all types of sports.

Injuries to elite sports stars hit the headlines. Of the Kerry team that won the 2022 All-Ireland, Joe O’Connor, Gavin White and Micheál Burns are out of action with long-term injuries.

Just back is Dara Moynihan, who was most unfortunate to sustain an injury during Tuesday night training before the All-Ireland final. Talk about hard luck for the Spa flyer. I am sure he would have started if he had avoided injury.

Fellow clubman Dan O’Donoghue was also unlucky. He was playing great with Kerry during the league and was shaping up so well to nail down a position at corner back. Injury denied him that privilege and up sprung Graham O’Sullivan to get the corner back position.

Injuries are also heartbreaking for the regular sportsperson at club or individual levels.

They suffer the disappointments of missing the National Indoor Championships, the All-Ireland Cross Country, the National League games in basketball, the Celtic v Athletic local derby in the cup, the county final, the O’Donoghue Cup and many more occasions. Missing out on the next race or match is a worry and if the injury is serious enough they may well lose out for the rest of the season. That is hard to take after the enforced inactivity during COVID.

PERSPECTIVE

While researching for these articles, I talked with players and athletes from a wide range of sports about sports injuries. It also proved interesting to get the perspective and perceptions of trainers, managers, selectors and others involved with the injured competitors. What I learned from these people I relayed to doctors, physios, dieticians, and other medics. In all cases, I offered them anonymity and, with that assurance, they spoke freely. That wish is guaranteed. I am indebted to them all for being so willing and helpful to engage in the process.

The athletes/players I have contacted have been very forthcoming and helpful because injuries are so much part of their lives.

“I knew straight away it was serious and wondered if this knee injury would mean that I would miss out. I was devastated,” Player A said.

The contributions from all will help me to clarify opinions of my own on sports injuries, how they are caused, prognosis, diagnosis, treatment, remediation, rehabbing, and a return to action. The big question for the competitors is ‘when’. When will I be ready to play again?

In the case of a very serious injury, the question (and the pleading) switches to ‘Will I be able to return to the sport I love?’.

The consultant/doctor/physio may well have to explain to the injured party the difference between the urgent and the important. It is urgent for the athlete to be able to play in the cup final in two weeks’ time; it is important for the medic to emphasise that risking a return to play after two weeks rehabbing in a four-week programme is too risky, when further damage will most likely be caused. In some cases the harsh reality is that the person may have to end their career, or switch to a less demanding leisure activity.

Participants suffer injuries in non-contact sports, high-contact sport and collision sports. Go to any game and in most cases some player has to be substituted because of an injury sustained and not because the player in question is playing poorly.

REFEREES

Fortunately, in modern day sport, the referees suspend play while medical attention is sought to determine the extent of the injury and whether the player is fit to continue or to be substituted. Most teams now have a person in their backroom team with some medical expertise

That can be the relatively straightforward ruling where a player has to leave the action temporarily and a blood sub is allowed. The injured player may return to the action after the medics have done running repairs.

Which are the most dangerous sports? Are males more at risk than females? What goes through the mind of a sportsperson when he/she suffers a career-threatening injury? How are their domestic and professional lives affected? Are their dangers for young players being over-taxed and pushed on too early? Are individuals and teams training demands too high at intercounty, club and individual levels?

So many questions to tease out.

At grass roots level the most common injuries are soft-tissue and muscular. Then there is the unmistakable hamstring. Injuries to ligaments and joints are common. One cannot forget breaks, of course, and lacerations.

The high profile one now is the ACL .The journey to Santry Sports Clinic, or elsewhere, will cost in the region of €5,000 and that is just for the surgery. There are other considerable costs such as travel, accommodation, physio sessions, and missing work.

In some cases, the injured party will be covered for wages, but what about the self–employed plumber?

Most sports associations at national level have player injury insurance, but that only offsets some of the expenses incurred. The remainder, which can be quite considerable, falls on the individual. Her/his club may or may not be able to lessen the load.

There is also the mental health and well-being of the injured athlete to consider in the long rehab programme before returning to action.

HOSPITAL

A high percentage of games are played at weekends and it is surprising to find that sports injuries accounted for nearly one in three visits to the A&E departments of hospitals for minor injuries like cuts, sprains, or broken bones playing sport. Add this to the usual many hours of waiting in the A&E for other ‘emergencies’.

Weekend is busiest, of course, but the x-ray departments are also very busy on Mondays.

That is just one more common scenario that beggars belief why such a busy town as Killarney does not have full x-ray and MRI scan facilities for locals, visitors, and in this case for injured competitors. For many years Councillor Michael Gleeson fought a real battle to have a one-stop facility in Killarney for many services including the facility for detecting and diagnosing sports injuries. Conversion and adaptation of St Finan’s was one proposed location.

It is not too late yet to provide that facility in Killarney for all, including the worried player who wants to know as soon as possible if the right hand is fractured. If so that has huge implications if it is close to the Leaving Cert exams or the finals at third level.

A whole new language has emerged in the weekday sports reporting and previewing of games. What exactly does ‘a clean bill of health’ mean when managers indicate that ‘everyone is available for selection’ or that ‘we have a few niggling injuries’? What exactly is a niggling injury? Are the players in question fit to play or not?

If they are not fit to start why are you holding them in reserve with every intention of springing them into action at a strategic time in the game? What does 90% ready mean and why is the player still rehabbing?

These and other terms favoured by the team managers in their guarded responses to the queries of sports reporters make it a mind game. Yes, we can read behind the lines and the jargon, but what is the reality?

I will be looking at these and other questions and responses in the coming weeks after speaking to those at the receiving end of injuries and the people who assist in clearing up the injuries so the players return to action fully recovered.

DANGEROUS

Car rallying, motorbike racing and high altitude mountaineering are very obvious dangerous sports, so there is a high level of mandatory safety precautions. But what surprised me in the team games is that basketball is always at the top or very high up in the statistics for injuries.

I put that very point to a well qualified person in the medical scene, suggesting that poor quality footwear and constant landing on a hard surface over the years must have been very hard on the ankles. The playing surfaces for the game are much improved from those in the past, but still basketball ranks high on the risk factor for injuries.

Those professionals that I spoke with agreed that these were causative factors, but pointed out the specific demands on players in basketball.

“It is a game of high forces, changes of direction, high speed and high skill factors. These are key factors in the high rate of injuries in basketball.”

Then there is the eternal question: is it dangerous and inadvisable to send a talented young player into the senior ranks too early?

It will be interesting to follow the progress of 15-year-old Ethan Nwaneri who became the youngest player in Premier League history. He came on as a sub for Arsenal as they returned to the top of the Premier League with a comfortable 3-0 win at Brentford on Sunday last. If he was here in Ireland, he would be studying for the Junior Cert, even too young to go into TY (Transition Year).

Of course, Wayne Rooney was still only 16 years old in 2002 when he scored a magnificent goal for Everton against Arsenal. He progressed to a hugely successful career with Man Utd and with England. I think he is still the highest goalscorer with Manchester United and with England. Local soccer aficionados will surely update me, if that record has been bettered. He also holds the record for the most appearances of any outfield player for the England national team.

These are elite professional players, but how about the talented 16-year-old in a small, rural club in Kerry who are caught for numbers to make up a team. For the love of the parish often rears its head and in he or she goes to make up the team. It’s the modern-day Matt the Thrasher O’Donovan leading his team to victory with the war cry ‘Up Tipperary’. Substitute Tipperary with St Pat’s/Fossa/Mastergeeha/Ballyhar Dynamos/Killarney Valley AC/Workmen’s/The Valley.

Yes, you are doing it all for the love of the parish.

EXCEPTIONS

At the other end, you have men like Dan Shanahan. He retired from club hurling just this year aged 45 after winning four Munster Championships with his beloved Waterford and three All-Stars (but no All-Ireland medal).

Closer to home are the Dooleys of Ballyduff. Father John Mike and his son Gavin played on the Ballyduff team in the 2022 Kerry Senior Hurling Championship final. They are the exceptions.

I wonder what age was Dan Kelleher when he hung up his boots and hurley. And is there any end to Jim O’Shea the Masters champion in the long jump and in the high jump in London? Modesty and humility are the qualities of this Firies native. No éirí in airde in this man, who has celebrated a very significant birthday ending in a zero. The first digit will surprise you. While other sports enthusiasts settle for spectating and watching sport on TV, Jim just continues to excel. High or long, it doesn’t matter for the greatest lepper alive, in what for him is active retirement. Keep raising the standards Jim. Is fearr léim maith ná droch–sheasamh.

That and more on injuries in future editions.

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