London Irish martial artist to kick box in World Champs

Gold and Silver World Champs 2014

Fiona O’Brien went to meet Jackie Holohan at Conways 3 for her fundraiser to travel to China to compete against some of the world’s best kick boxers

Jackie Holohan has made quite an impact in the martial arts world in her short time competing in the sport, especially for someone who by her own admissions used to get her biggest workout while on the dance floor on nights out.

The Colindale-born school worker, whose family hail from Kilkenny and Mayo, was diagnosed with diabetes three years ago and started taekwondo as a means to regulate her sugar levels, but has gone on a medal rush since she started competing in May of last year.

With no less than 14 medals in just seven competitions, Jackie’s next challenge is to travel to Hainan, on China’s south coast, for a fortnight to enter the World Kickboxing Union Open World Championships on October 23.

Training with Master Wolf’s Tae Kwon-Do Academy in Hendon, Jackie has been selected as only one of ten or so competitors from the school to travel to the international event, an achievement in itself due to her brief involvement with the sport so far. In last year’s World Championships in Greece for example there were over 50 competitors, but Jackie’s three-gold medal haul at the English Championships in Derby last month has solidified her place on the plane to China.

Kumite World Champs 2014“It’s the furthest and longest I’ll ever have been away from home in my life, not to mind for a competition!” she says.

“It’s so important to me to go where martial arts originated. Even though the taekwondo I do is from South Korea, there will definitely be a better quality of fighter out there then we’ve been up against before. But I’m really hoping that I can bring something back, it would be amazing to come back with a medal from China!”

It’s this positive and competitive attitude that has seen the petite 34-year-old achieve so much success thus far, as well as her huge work ethic.

“It’s been a complete lifestyle change. I used to do a lot of exercise when I was at school, running, Irish dancing, hockey, netball and basketball, but when I left school I just stopped it and the only workout I’d really get is on the dance floor when I was out on a Friday or Saturday night!

“When I got diagnosed with diabetes I didn’t want to resort to insulin medication so said I would try to maintain my sugar levels through healthy eating and exercise.

“I used to eat a lot of crap and takeaways and I’d never even joined a gym before but always wanted to take up a martial art so this was the perfect opportunity to do so. I didn’t know where to start so when I was walking down the school hall one day I bumped into my now taekwondo instructor who was teaching the kids, and I’ve never looked back since.”

Although Jackie trains in taekwondo, she can compete in kickboxing due to the similarity in rules. At first, she was just doing it as a means of keeping fit, but began to think about it differently after her instructor convinced her to start competing.

“Within the year we were getting taught patterns (a sequence of attacks and counter attacks against an imaginary opponent which resemble a dance of sorts) which you need to grade. Eventually my instructor said that he was not going to continue training me unless I started to grade and it made me re-evaluate the whole reason why I was doing it.

Jackie at Conways 3
Jackie at Conways 3

“A few months afterwards there was a clubs championships and there was no pressure and was really relaxed, so I thought I might as well see how far I can progress in this, and that was the start of my competitive career really.”

As Jackie has only been grading for just over a year and a half, she is currently at the level of 4th kup red stripe, which is 3 belts away from a black belt, but in kickboxing competitions has been up against black belt opposition each time.

“The first time, my instructor told me there would be a novice division so I was pretty confident, but by the next week’s training he broke it to me that I’d be fighting against black belts. I just said I’d give it a go, but the funny thing is, I don’t get nervous of competitions. It was a big challenge, but when I train in class I spar against men and women who are bigger than me, so when it’s a competition it balances out as the competitors are my size.

“I found out I don’t have as big a problem with hitting people in the face as I thought I would! I could take a hit, but thought it would take some getting used to doing it to someone else. I think I hold back in training but in a competition I really go for it, probably because I don’t know them that well!

“It does get quite sore sometimes though but you don’t realise it with all the adrenaline buzzing. In my last competition in Derby, I actually got a knock in the head that gave me whiplash! But you don’t notice these things until the next day, but I’ve been quite lucky so far that I haven’t had any bruises to the face.

“I guess they toughen you up in training, there’s no sympathy or offers of ice packs, you just have to get up and get on with it!”

But as an amateur sport, the sacrifices made to travel to China have become the hardest part of Jackie’s experience of the sport.

“It’s been really tough raising the money for competitions. We did a sponsored event at the club last year, so I asked a lot of people for sponsorship so when it came around this year I didn’t want to ask again.

Gold Medals Derby“This is my fourth competition of the year, and none of them come cheap. Last year I had to buy the kit, the tracksuit, the shoes, a head guard, a foot guard, 10 ounce gloves, fighting gloves, shin pads and that’s all before flights, food and accommodation!

“I would prefer to not make a big deal of going out there and just celebrating if I managed to come back with a medal, but this way everyone knows about it before I even go. It means I feel a bit more pressure because I’m doing it for them, but it’s lovely to feel like I have their full support as they aren’t out in China.

“My dad organised tonight which is brilliant, and people have been fantastic, even the kids at school were giving me their 50ps! And without the help of my colleagues and head teacher Mrs Arnull at St. James Catholic School, allowing me to travel within school time, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”

As we speak, Jackie is stopped multiple times by well wishers behind the bar, regulars, friends and family she hadn’t seen for years from Reading.

“It’s been overwhelming. People I haven’t spoken to in years are calling to congratulate me and wish me luck, and I’m getting calls from family in Belmullet and Kilkenny who don’t really even know much about the sport. My dad’s been going around tonight with a print out of his own bit of research to show people what it’s really about!

“My best friend Rebecca has also been a great help and constantly encourages me. She’s from an English-Italian family, but we’ve known each other since we were two and she used to come Irish dancing with me. She’s a qualified PE teacher and gives me fitness advice whenever I need it.”

Kumite Medal World Champs 2014And Rebecca’s presence in Conways provided more than just moral support, as her husband John McDermott offered Jackie sponsorship through his company Bellmoor Construction.

So where does Jackie see taekwondo taking her in the future?

“All the kids at school are saying are we going to see you in the Olympics? That’s not for me, but once I get my black belt I can start teaching and I want to keep competing as well. Once I hit 35 I’m eligible for the veterans’ category! I’ll continue in the normal division as well for extra competition but that’s where I see it going.”

And she feels her role as Pastoral Support Manager has given her invaluable experience that will help in the future if she decides to pursue a career teaching them martial arts.

“I love working with kids, the time that I’ve spent in school has made me relate to them and see how they work. They’ve got so much going on, and there’s so much pressure with their GCSEs and everything but I want to show them they can do whatever they want.

“For me starting at this age proves to people that you can do anything you want, whenever you want and it doesn’t matter how old you are. Hopefully some of the kids at school can see that if I can do it at 34 they are at an age that they are capable enough and have the opportunities to do whatever they want and become a world champion if they want to be!”

Jackie would like to thank Seamus Moore and all the staff at Conways 3 for holding her fundraiser last Sunday evening.

  • For sponsorship opportunities for Jackie’s trip to China, contact the Irish World via email address fionao@theirishworld.com
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