Killarney Valley AC sprinter Sarah Leahy clocked a PB and reached the final of the 100 metres at the National Senior Championships in Dublin last weekend.
Adam Moynihan caught up with the 21-year-old to discuss her impressive performances, and her subsequent call-up to the Ireland U23 squad.
Hi Sarah. Congrats on your recent success. What were your expectations going into the National Senior Championships and how did things pan out on the day?
Thanks. I didn’t have too many expectations really. My first goal was to get another PB – the two weeks prior I was getting one every time I ran. My second one was to make the final. Looking at the names and the times, I wasn’t too sure I was going to make it. But I was delighted that I did make it and I was able to attain both my goals.
You have been selected to represent Ireland at the European U23 Championships (4x100m). When did you find out about that and how did you react?
I found out on Sunday night when I came back from Dublin. I was over the moon. I probably ran faster down the stairs to tell my parents than I did in the 100 metres! My brother heard me roaring about it in the next room.
And was your selection a direct result of your performances over the weekend?
Very much so. Three weeks ago, nobody really knew who I was. My name wasn’t in the mix at all because I hadn’t been running. Then my name kind of came up at the AAI Games, and at the U23 Championships I got a glimmer of hope that I might be in the mix. Running well at senior definitely helped. That’s what pushed me over the line.
It must be a proud moment for you and your family?
It has been a dream of mine for years. I didn’t really think about it this year because I had just come back (to running – Sarah had been playing with the Kerry ladies up until last year). I didn’t think it was an option because I didn’t think I’d be running this well. It’s a dream come true. I can’t wait, I’m so excited.
You will be competing in the 4x100m. Do you have any experience with this type of race?
I did the mixed relay at the Community Games years ago and we got a silver medal one year and a bronze another year. So I have some experience with the relay.
The championships are on in Estonia from July 8-11. Are you looking forward to getting over there?
Yeah, I didn’t realise how close it was. We’re leaving in like a week.
And what about your teammates (Gina Akpe-Moses, Aoife Lynch, Lauren Roy and Molly Scott)? Would you know them well from competing against them?
I would, yes. They are elite athletes and they have all ran for Ireland multiple times already. Two of them were in the World Relays there a few months ago in the 4x200m and they came second. So they have a lot of experience and I can’t wait to run with them.
What will be the team’s goal heading over to Estonia?
We’re having a meeting on Friday (today) so we’ll find out then. I’m sure the aim will be to run as fast as we can and aim for a medal.
Is it challenging switching over from 100m to the relay?
I don’t think it should be too hard, although there is a bit more pressure. Obviously, the baton change is highly important in a relay. If you mess that up, it can mess up your time and your placing. But overall the relay can drive you to run even faster because you’re not just running for yourself, it’s for your whole team. Especially now with Ireland… You’re representing a lot more than just yourself. But yeah, [running the 4x100m] shouldn’t be too much of a difference. Don’t drop the baton is the main thing really!
In terms of training, what does your weekly schedule look like?
I do a bit of gym during the week and I train four times – Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday – all at the Killarney Valley AC Arena. I train with a whole pile of athletes in the sprint and jump group. I’m one of the oldest there. They’re all very dedicated and very fun, I’m really enjoying the training at the moment. Tomás Griffin is my coach and he’s excellent. Obviously the training he’s doing with me is definitely working. It’s all very enjoyable. It doesn’t seem like hard work.
Has the new track benefitted you and your training?
100%. The track was one of the main things that made me go back to athletics. It’s so handy, I can be down in training in five minutes. Before, we were training on grass or we were driving to Castleisland. The track is of huge benefit. A lot of work went into it and I can’t praise the people involved enough.
Athletics can be very technical. Is there any aspect of your running that you feel you need to work on?
I think there’s plenty! My trainers are very nice, they think I’m running well. But me and my mom see a few things. My arms could be improved, and things like lifting up my knees. When I look at myself compared to the other athletes, I feel like I look a bit silly. They’re so perfect technically. I have plenty to work on, which is exciting because when I get those things improved, I should be going even faster.
And looking ahead to the future, after Estonia, what are your long-term goals?
I suppose the typical answer for every young athlete is the Olympics. Right now, I would say that’s the dream rather than a goal. For the next year, I have PBs I want to get to and new times I want to reach. And hopefully, after experiencing it next week, I’ll get to represent Ireland again.
Killarney Valley AC named Club of the Year at national awards ceremony
Members of Killarney Valley Athletics Club had cause for celebration on Wednesday as they picked up the prestigious Development Club of the Year prize at the 123.ie National Athletics Awards.
The award is handed out annually to a club who have made a positive impact on behalf of the sport within their community.
Sprinter Sarah Leahy of Killarney Valley and UL was also honoured with the Female University Athlete of the Year award.
Speaking to the Killarney Advertiser, coach and committee member Tomás Griffin said he and his clubmates were “delighted” and “very proud” to accept the Club Development award on behalf of all their athletes, coaches and administrators. The opening of their new track alongside St Brendan’s College in 2020 has been crucial, Griffin explained.
“The facility a catalyst but the passion was always there and we had people doing their best and coaching long before there was a track. To see the momentum that came with the opening of the track being maintained is great. We now have a waiting list of people looking to join the club.
“Did we see ourselves winning an award like this, in an organisation of 53,000 members and 400 clubs? No. But was it always possible? Yes. Killarney as a town across all sports – Gaelic football, soccer, basketball, cycling, judo, rock climbing – it’s a place where people excel. The bar is already raised. But being able to reach this level and achieve what we have in just two years shows what other talent is out there.”
Killarney Valley now boast five Irish internationals, 320 registered members and 22 Athletics Ireland accredited coaches. The club won 107 provincial and national medals in 2022, and they had 155 graduates from their Couch to 5k programme. Many of these participants are now regulars in the local Park Run and are continuing their personal health and fitness journeys with the club.
Nine Killarney Valley representatives attended the awards ceremony on Wednesday: Tomás Griffin, Jerry Griffin (chairperson), Bríd Stack, Gene Courtney, Con Lynch, Karen Smith, Sarah Leahy, Jordan Lee, and Madie Wilson-Walker. Sarah’s parents Mike and Marie also made the journey.
Jiu-jitsu champion Wilson da Silva sets sights on world title
This week Adam Moynihan called to the Movement & Fitness Club on New Street to catch up with Killarney man Wilson da Silva. The 38-year-old Brazilian recently won gold at the European Championship for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and now he’s gunning for a world title.
Wilson, congratulations on your latest success in Rome and Abu Dhabi.
Thank you, Adam.
Before we chat about that, let’s go back to the start. How did you end up living in Killarney?
I came here around 15 years ago because I met someone from Killorglin and we went out for five or six years. After we broke up, I came to Killarney. I’m pretty much half-local, half-Brazilian now.
What part of Brazil are you from?
The northeast. A place called Recife. If you look at the map, it’s the nearest point to Ireland.
Do you get to go home often?
I try to go once a year, you know? I was home earlier this year and then before Covid. But once a year I go home in the summertime.
It must be nice to get some sunshine.
It’s nice, man. Even recently the doctor told me I have Vitamin D deficiency. My skin colour needs the sun! So I go home once a year. I follow the doctor’s advice.
How did you get into jiu-jitsu?
I did it back home in Brazil but I continued here in Killarney. I trained with guys here, Pedro Bessa and Tom McGuire. Then there is another club in Killarney and I trained with them up until four years ago. Things weren’t working out so I started my own gym. I just wanted to do things my way which was to have a clean place, no ego, no drama, no stress, no jealousy. Just come, train jiu-jitsu and help each other. And it’s going well.
Was it hard to go out on your own?
In the beginning it was really difficult because I was opening a second club in the town, on my own. There was really only one guy who wanted to train with me, but then my fiancé (Ewelina) started training and one became two, two became three, and it started to grow. Now we have classes for babies from three years up, kids and teenagers. We’re doing jiu-jitsu and capoeira for all ages. I guess it’s something good for the community.
Can you tell me a bit about jiu-jitsu? Is it similar to other sports?
If you were to describe jiu-jitsu to someone who never saw it, it would be very similar to judo. You have people throwing each other and putting each other on the floor. The jiu-jitsu match is five minutes long and the goal is to checkmate the opponent, to make your opponent quit, or tap out. So there is a lot of ground work, grappling, and wrestling. It’s an excellent sport and great for self-defence. I can’t recommend jiu-jitsu enough.
So there’s no striking?
There is no striking but [in terms of self-defence] there is ducking from striking, turning a strike into a mobilisation. It’s about finding locks on the body – the joint moves this way for example (he turns his arm) – figuring out how the anatomy of the body works.
It seems quite technical and intellectual.
Yes, it’s a very intelligent sport. I trained in weightlifting for a long time, for many years. With time it simply comes down to reps, breaking muscle fibre, and you’re not learning anything. It’s boring. With jiu-jitsu you’re constantly thinking. You’re constantly working your brain.
I compare it to a game of chess. First you figure out how to move the pieces, and then you have to play strategy. Look ahead to the next move and what your opponent can do to you. The moves are complicated and you’re always learning new things. It requires a lot of focus and discipline to get good at it. You don’t get bored with jiu-jitsu.
Is the focus and discipline side of it good for the kids who come to your gym?
Yes, definitely. I find that it is so beneficial for the kids. The kids want to win but if they want to win, they need to learn the moves. In order to learn the moves, they have to pay attention. So straight away it develops focus and concentration and discipline. If they do not pay attention, if they run around the place, they’re going to lose when they spar. It fixes itself. The guys who come in, pay attention, and it makes the others not want to lose so they pay attention and worker hard to learn the moves.
You can see the difference in the kids when they come here. We try to make them comfortable in uncomfortable situations so that when you take the child out of the jiu-jitsu class and they have a to deal with a hard subject in school, or a bully, they are mentally stronger.
I have witnessed that myself. I worked in security for many years and before I dedicated myself to jiu-jitsu, I found it easy to lose the head. But the more hours I put into the gym and training in jiu-jitsu, the more comfortable I became with frustrating situations. You’re able to remain calm. That’s a benefit of jiu-jitsu.
How important is size in jiu-jitsu?
That’s a tricky one. People say that size doesn’t matter. It definitely does. There’s no doubt about that. But the beauty of jiu-jitsu is that once you have the technique, you’re able to apply it against bigger guys. You know, the bigger guys have big muscles and bigger egos, but if the small guy trains hard he will be able to move the big guy’s body in a way that works against him. The big guy who goes to the gym, he’s used to pushing the bar this way (straight out), whereas the guy who knows jiu-jitsu knows that if he moves the bigger guys arms here (upwards), he’s not strong anymore. Now the bench press is worth nothing.
Bigger guys think they are unbeatable. The small guys have to work for it. I always motivate the guys here in the gym to be humble. You always have to consider yourself the second best, the guy who wants to be first. The moment you think that you’re bigger and better than everyone else, you stop working.
Tell me about your recent victories in London, Rome and Abu Dhabi.
Yeah, so I went to the UK and managed to win four golds at the London Open in the ‘Gi’, ‘A’, ‘No-Gi’ and ‘Absolute’ categories. (The ‘Gi’ is a uniform sometimes worn in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There are categories in which the Gi is worn – ‘Gi’ – and categories in which it is not – ‘No-Gi’. The ‘Absolute’ is an open weight division).
Then a couple of weeks ago I travelled to Rome to compete in the European Championship. The day before that event, the Rome Open was on and since I was already there, I signed up for that too. I won the first fight, submitted the guy, but then in the final I lost. It was a good lesson for me. Coming from so many wins, I thought I was going to smash this other guy. I got a bit cocky. Losing settled me down and humbled me a little bit. I went back to my accommodation and analysed my mistakes. I hoped that the next day I would be able to play a strategy to win.
In the end I managed to win four fights and win the biggest European tournament – the No-Gi European Championship. It was my dream. I have been there twice before and got knocked out in the quarter-final, and came third in the Gi division.
It was really emotional for me. It was a great achievement. Even now when I’m talking, I feel emotional. I don’t train that much with No-Gi so to come first in Europe, it’s hard to believe.
It’s really hard to run and promote a club and also train and win tournaments, a lot of people say it’s not possible, but I’m putting a lot of hours into this and proving that it is possible. When you work so hard, with the help of my training partners, the results have to come.
And you weren’t finished yet. Where did you go next?
Yeah, to finish the story, after winning the European tournament on the Saturday, I flew to Abu Dhabi on Monday for the World Championship. I managed to go there and win three fights before losing the semi-final after getting beat pretty hard. I got my ass kicked by the winner. Then I had to fight to win the third place [match]. So, even though it’s only third place, it’s third place on the biggest podium in the sport.
Is it normal to compete in this number of events in quick succession?
No. It’s crazy to do so many competitions in a short period of time. I usually take a month or two months off before the next competition. It’s expensive too and I must thank Kevin Leahy [from the neighbouring Black Sheep Hostel] for sponsoring me. But after London, I had a feeling that there was no stopping me. I’m healthy. I’m not injured. Now is my moment and I have to take the chance.
It was hard enough to believe that I won the European Championship but to go to Abu Dhabi and fight against the best guys in the world… It’s a dream. Well, it’s not a dream now because it happened. It’s a reality.
Is this it for you now? Have you achieved all you want to achieve?
No, there’s more. Much more. I want to win the World Championship in California next year. For sure I would like to win the European Championship next year too.
But my goal is more than just winning championships, it’s to build champions. I want to teach people and share techniques that are proven to work. As I try to grow the gym, I will continue competing for as long as God blesses me with this health. That’s it.
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