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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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Kerry ladies must bounce back at home to Waterford

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All-Ireland Senior Championship Group 2

Kerry v Waterford

Saturday 3pm

Fitzgerald Stadium

The Kerry ladies will be looking to get back to winning ways against Waterford on Saturday following last weekend’s frustrating draw against Donegal in Ballybofey.

The Kingdom led with seconds remaining in treacherous conditions but a late Donegal free snatched a draw for the home side (Donegal 1-6 Kerry 0-9). It was a game that Kerry would have been expecting to win and the result puts a lot more pressure on them this weekend as they try to top the three-team group and earn a home quarter-final.

If they beat Waterford and Donegal do likewise next week, Kerry and Donegal will be level in first place on four points each. The top seed will then be decided by the head-to-head record between the teams. As Kerry v Donegal was a draw, the deciding factor will be whoever scored the most points in that draw. That would be good news for Kerry as they scored nine points to Donegal’s six.

When Kerry and Waterford last met (in this year’s Munster Championship), Kerry needed a late winner by Fiadhna Tangney to prevail by narrowest of margins (1-8 to 1-7). If Waterford beat Kerry and then lose to Donegal, Kerry would be eliminated from the championship.

The Kerry squad has been boosted by the return of Síofra O’Shea who came off the bench against Donegal following a lengthy period out with a knee injury.

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US-bound Kerry runner Lynch hopes to emulate Mageean magic

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by Adam Moynihan

Killarney middle distance runner Oisín Lynch is taking inspiration from newly crowned European 1500m champion Ciara Mageean as he gets set for the next stage of his career in the United States.

This week Lynch confirmed that he will be heading Stateside after accepting a scholarship at Adams State University in Colorado. The promising 800m and 1500m competitor caught the eye of coaches at the leading American college after representing Ireland in the Youth Olympics and also by winning two national titles in recent months.

Speaking to the Killarney Advertiser, the 18-year-old Killarney Valley AC athlete, who is currently doing his Leaving Cert at St Brendan’s College, says he one day hopes to emulate Mageean’s heroics on the international stage.

“The Irish are on the up at underage and at senior level,” Lynch notes. “We have been improving a lot in recent years. When you see Ciara Mageean winning the 1500m it just shows that it can be done by Irish people.

“Sometimes Irish athletes don’t really believe in themselves when they’re getting knocked out of championships by English or European athletes. Mageean winning that European title is definitely something to drive me on. It shows that I can actually do it.”

DREAM

For Lynch, moving to the United States is a hugely significant step, and one that he has dreamed about making since he was a child.

“It’s unbelievable. I always hoped I could earn a scholarship. I worked hard over the last few years, so it’s nice to see that work paying off.

“I had a few schools onto me but when Adams State got in touch, I sized it up and I knew it was a really good opportunity.

“The fact that the college is at 7,500 feet… That’s a crazy altitude. It’s double the height of Carrauntoohil. Altitude training has massive benefits for distance running and nowadays nearly every pro spends most of their year training at altitude. The chance to get that training for the next couple of years is great.

“And their athletics programme is unbelievable. Coach Damon Martin has been there for 40 years and he has coached 12 Olympians. Adams State is in the top 15 for distance in the country and the standard out there in America is very high.”

STRIDES

Killarney Valley AC have made enormous strides since building their new, state-of-the-art facility in 2020 and Lynch is a grateful beneficiary of that progress.

“I can’t thank the club enough. Going back a couple of years we were training on grass in parks. When you want to be a track runner, it’s just not the same. After a lot of hard work by a lot of good people, we managed to get a 200-metre track in Killarney. That’s massive for us and it’s all we need for training.

“The coaches down there are putting in the hard work, including my dad (Con), Tomás Griffin, Jean Courtney, Jerry Griffin, Bríd Stack, Alan Delaney… I could go on. It’s a great club and there are some good athletes coming through. It’s an exciting time for Killarney Valley.”

After Lynch completes his Leaving Cert, he will start preparing for life as a college athlete. He will study kinesiology in Colorado and on the track he hopes to keep on moving in the right direction. That means getting his times down (his current PBs are 1.50.59 over 800m and 3.51 over 1500m), representing Ireland, and hopefully winning a national title in America.

“Obviously I’ll take every step as it comes,” the ambitious Kerryman says, “but the Olympics is the main long-term target, hopefully in LA in 2028.”

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