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Meet the Kerry woman rubbing shoulders with Serena and Nadal

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Molly Sullivan chats to Adam Moynihan about life as a strength and conditioning coach to professional tennis player İpek Öz

Molly Sullivan always wanted to work in professional sports but she never imagined it would happen like this. Despite playing a bit of tennis as a kid, the Ballyhar native admits to only having a passing interest in the sport. Up until recently, that is.

In April she came on board as strength and conditioning coach for up and coming Turkish player İpek Öz. The last few months have been a whirlwind of international travel, Grand Slams, and mixing with some of the greatest tennis players of all time.

It’s all bit surreal, Sullivan admits, although when you speak to her it doesn’t take long to figure out how she has ended up where she is. During our walk around Killarney House and Gardens on a sunny Tuesday morning, the 24-year-old comes across as clear-minded and driven; the type of person for whom mediocrity isn’t an option.

Initially she wanted to be a sports agent so she studied Law and Psychology in UL, but the draw of a more hands-on role was strong.

“It was a crossroads, left or right, and I couldn’t really decide for a very long time,” she recalls. “In the end I went and did a Masters in Sports Performance in UL. I finished that a year-and-a-half ago. Now I’m doing a Masters of Science in Sports Nutrition, which I’ll be finishing in November.”

Upon graduating from her first Masters, she quickly picked up an S&C gig with the Irish swim team. She enjoyed the role (despite dealing with the effects of the pandemic during her time there) but she ultimately came to the conclusion that it wasn’t for her.

“My boss there referred me another S&C coach, Ian Jones, who has worked in the NFL with the Houston Texans. That was my thing when I was studying, I wanted to go and work in the NFL. When Ian offered me a job, I was delighted. I took it because of the amount of connections Ian has and the amount of people he knows.”

A short time after linking up with Jones, her foresight paid off - albeit it in an unexpected manner.

“I was working with Ian for less than three months when he sent me a voice note saying that there was an American tennis coach looking for a strength and conditioning coach, and would I have any interest in travelling out there and trialling it for a few weeks.”

The athlete in need turned out to be the No. 1 female tennis player in Turkey, İpek Öz.

Sullivan, an accomplished rower who earlier this year won a national title in the women’s quad with Killorglin RC, jumped at the opportunity. Although she readily confesses to not being a big tennis fan up to that point.

“I actually wasn’t to be honest with you,” she smiles. “I used to play it when I was a kid but I would only watch the majors. I was never a hardcore tennis fan. But I just always wanted to work in professional sport. That was the goal. So it was a no-brainer to take the job.”

In addition to taking care of Öz’s physical training, Sullivan also manages the nutrition side of things. She says she has been taken aback by the sheer volume of work pro tennis players get through on a daily basis.

“It’s so different to any sport I’ve worked in. It’s insane the amount they have to go through. There’s a documentary on Netflix worth watching called Untold: Breaking Point. It shows how mentally draining it is.

“It’s all about showing up and doing the exact same thing for hours, and then doing the gym for an hour. And then repeating that the next day. In terms of workload, it’s very high.

“İpek gets up in the morning and hits [balls] for two or two-and-a-half hours on the court. It’s every other day basically for me; one day will be a weights session and the next day will be a conditioning session. So she’s training for about four hours every day, at least.

“Injury risk is always a problem, and you have to think about nutrition constantly. As a player you really have to love what you’re doing or else it just won’t work.”

By chance, Sullivan’s appointment has coincided nicely with the most exciting time in the pro tennis calendar. Since linking up with her new employer for the first time in Sweden (where Öz won a €25,000 tournament), the Kerry woman has been at Wimbledon, Roland Garros and, most recently, the US Open.

She helped Öz through a two-week training camp in Istanbul before flying out to the latter tournament, which is still ongoing. The Turkish player, who is currently ranked 165th in the world, exited in the qualifiers at the hands of Leolia Jeanjean of France last Wednesday.

İpek Öz and Sullivan at the US Open.

It was nevertheless an incredible experience for Sullivan, not least because of the famous faces she bumped into while working at the iconic Flushing Meadows venue.

“The US Open was cool because all the main draw players arrive early. While we were there I watched Rafa Nadal practice every day. You meet them all in the corridor every day. I was just star-struck all the time.

“I’ve met Nadal a good few times actually. He came very early [to the US Open]. I just decided to go to Arthur Ashe Stadium, which is open to anyone with accreditation, and he was in there practicing. He took a photo with me afterwards. The following morning I saw him in the hallway and he said ‘good morning’. He’s just really sound and makes time for everyone. That’s the impression I got from him.”

Nadal is playing at Flushing Meadows for the 20th time.

This particular US Open is very special indeed for one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Serena Williams. The 40-year-old is expected to call it a day once her involvement in this year’s tournament is over; she is in third round action today (Friday) against Ajla Tomljanović. Sullivan is growing accustomed to being around the likes of Nadal and Andy Murray and Naomi Osaka, but she admits to being especially starstruck around the 23-time Grand Slam champ.

“I remember one day I was talking to İpek and I said, ‘Jeez, I’d love to meet Serena Williams’. And 10 seconds later, I swear, she was there warming up next to us. I turned around and was like, ‘I can’t be here right now’.

“I don’t like bothering players when they’re doing something so I actually caught her for a picture after her practice two days later. She was sound. Very nice about it.”

Serena Williams and Molly Sullivan.

What do her family back in Ballyhar, a rural townland near Killarney, make of it all?

“They think I have notions now I’d say,” Sullivan jokes. “They think it’s unreal though. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve had it planned when I was studying that I wasn’t going to end up anywhere else besides professional sport. Thankfully it has paid off now.”

Next up is a busy period that includes trips to Bucharest, Budapest and Parma. Sullivan says Öz is making good progress as she comes to terms with elite level tennis.

"She’s doing okay. She’s dealing with a lot of other things on the side that is affecting her mentally (Öz recently split with her coach). Other than that she’s going well. It’s her first year in Grand Slam tournaments so it’s a huge difference for her. You’re walking into the US Open and there are thousands of people there asking for pictures and autographs. And hers was a night match so everyone was drinking… It’s just a different kettle of fish altogether.

“She’s aiming to get into the top 100, and then the top 50. It’s all leading up to January, really, and the Australian Open in Melbourne. The big goal for İpek will be to win a few matches at a major.

“It’s exciting. The Australian Open is supposed to be the nicest of all of them for the athletes and coaches. The facilities are meant to be insane. You’re treated like royalty at the Grand Slams. It’s really nice to be a part of it.”

As for her future beyond that, Sullivan’s ambitions remain sky high, although she does feel as though being a woman is an “obstacle” in her chosen field. She was fortunate that Öz “really wanted” a female S&C coach, but job-hunting in male sports may prove to be more challenging.

“It’s not easy getting a job in professional sports as a female strength and conditioning coach. It’s just not that common yet. I was the only one at the US Open from what we could see. The females there were sports psychologists, nutritionists, or you’d see the odd physio. The majority of the teams were all male. I was constantly getting asked when I was playing because everyone thought I was a tennis player.

“Being a girl is still an obstacle, for sure. Especially working with men’s teams. That’s why I did my second masters; I wanted to have everything covered from an employer’s point of view.

“I’d like to help İpek get as high as she can in the rankings and go on that journey with her a bit. I’ll just see how that goes really and then, like I said, I always wanted to work in the NFL. I had planned to do that this summer on an internship but when I got offered this job, it took precedence.

“We’ll just have to see where it goes.”

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Ireland’s newest and toughest cycle will be a thrilling challenge

Ireland’s newest cycling event comes to Kenmare this month with an exciting and challenging course for the experienced cyclist. Already attracting attention within cycling communities around the country, Velo Kenmare […]

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Ireland’s newest cycling event comes to Kenmare this month with an exciting and challenging course for the experienced cyclist.

Already attracting attention within cycling communities around the country, Velo Kenmare will tackle some of Kerry’s toughest climbs and highest mountain passes.

Taking place on October 22, Velo Kenmare is an 135km timed loop route starting and finishing in Kenmare. The total climbing distance is 1,650m, and organisers hope to appeal to serious cyclists who are looking for a new and thrilling challenge.

No stranger to cycling events, Velo Kenmare is being managed by Elite Events Management, who also successfully deliver iconic cycling events Wicklow 200, Ride Dingle and the Ring of Beara Cycle.
Cyclists are encouraged to register for Velo Kenmare on the Velo Cycle Ireland website www.velocycleireland.ie but places are limited for the enjoyment and safety of all participants, and anyone interested is urged to sign up soon as places are filling up.

TOUGH CLIMBS

​​​​The tough enough mountain climbs are over Molls Gap, Ballaghbeama Pass, Ballaghasheen and Coomakista. The route will take in breathtaking scenery Kenmare is famous for, and incorporating some of the most stunning parts of the Wild Atlantic Way and Ring of Kerry. It is hoped visitors to the cycle event will be encouraged to stay for a few days, and will all be given €20 vouchers or ‘Velo Dollars’ to spend in local shops which will be redeemable against goods and services in Kenmare.

Riders will be allotted a time slot to allow for a staggered start, taking them along a fully marshalled route, with medical cover, bike mechanic support, and hot food and entertainment at the finish in Kenmare.

Making its mark, Velo Kenmare participant race packs will come inside a yellow Velo Kenmare water bottle and finishers’ medals are in the shape of a yellow cow bell. Prizes will be awarded for the quickest top three male and top three female finishers, and fastest male and female will be awarded the title of King and Queen of the Kerry Mountains.

Experienced cyclists are encouraged to take on this exciting new challenge, testing themselves and their clubmates for the fastest finish across these four gruelling climbs, through some of the most beautiful landscape in the country for the best welcome back at the finish.

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It’s tip-off time for new-look Lakers

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National League Division 1

Scotts Lakers v Limerick Sport Eagles

Saturday at 7.30pm

Killarney Sports & Leisure Centre

The 2022/23 National League tips off on Saturday evening and the Scotts Lakers will be hoping to get their campaign off to a flyer at home to the Limerick Sport Eagles.

The Lakers narrowly missed out on a playoff berth last time around, mainly due to a disappointing start to the season. Playing their first four home games at alternative venues probably didn’t help; the Killarney Sports & Leisure Centre was being used as a makeshift vaccination centre at the time. That’s all ancient history now, thankfully.

With that in mind, a fast start will be a priority, beginning with the visit of the Eagles this weekend.

ROSTER

It’s always difficult to tell until at least a few matches have been played but head coach Jarlath Lee appears to have made some good moves during the off-season.

Godwin Boahen will be missed but Dutch point guard Esebio Strijdhaftig has come in as a replacement, and Ukrainian big man Dmytro Berozkin – all 6’10” of him – has also come on board.

American shooter Eric Cooper Jr’s time here was brief; he has moved on already with Indiana native Jack Ferguson filling his shoes. Just like former laker Seán O’Brien, Ferguson played college ball with Colgate University.

The Lakers have retained the services of Portuguese player Rui Saravia, a skilled passer who has settled in nicely.

Just as essential as the imports are the local players who make up the majority of the squad. Mark O’Shea and Paul Clarke are important figures in the squad, although their involvement is likely to be curtailed by football commitments for the time being.

Youngsters Jamie O’Sullivan, Senan O’Leary and David Gleeson could well see more game time this season after exhibiting great promise in 2021/22, and other St Paul’s graduates like Mark Sheahan, Jack O’Sullivan and Eoin Carroll will also play their part.

A player to keep a close eye on is Ronan Collins, a Gneeveguilla native who has represented Ireland with distinction at underage level.

The club will be hoping for a healthy turnout for their season opener.

Meanwhile, the Lakers’ crosstown rivals the Killarney Cougars have an away fixture to get things started. They take on SETU Carlow (formerly IT Carlow) at the Barrow Centre on Saturday evening.

WOMEN’S LEAGUE

The St Paul’s women’s team (who are back in the National League for the first time since 2012) are also ready for their opening match of the new campaign. They travel to Kilkenny to take on the Marble City Hawks on Saturday at 7pm.

The team is managed by well-known local coach James Fleming and will be backboned by Killarney players like Lynn Jones, Rheanne O’Shea, Cassandra Buckley and current Ireland U16 international Leah McMahon.

Canadian Sophia Paska (formerly of the Limerick Celtics) and American Yuleska Ramirez Tejeda (ex-Limerick Sport Huskies) will add some recent league experience to the squad.

Paul’s first home game of the 2022/23 season will come next Saturday, October 8 against the Celtics.

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