IT wasn’t exactly love at first sight but it wasn’t too long into her first night’s training at Ballinabranna Karate Club that Jasmine Byrne realised she had stumbled on something that would come to dominate her life.
Her dad, Ken, was an avid runner and hurler and wanted his daughter to follow in his sporty footsteps but in her early years, Jasmine refuted all his efforts. When Noel Amond started up the Karate Club in Ballinabranna GAA, Jasmine was given no choice.
“I never did any sport, I took to nothing, I know that sounds terrible but I just didn’t,” laughs Jasmine.
“Then the club in Ballinabranna opened when I was nine, that was in 2009, going on 2010. It opened up in the GAA club and dad was like, ‘Right Jaz, you’re going’. I never had an option. I remember the first night I went there, I kicked and screamed and was telling him he was the worst father in the world for making me do it.”
But sometimes fathers really do know best and as Byrne got through her first session she realised that she had found something she could focus on.
“I remember that first night, I was in with Noel Amond, I started thinking I actually like this. I’m just obsessed ever since,” she said.
Now 21, she is as immersed in the sport as she possibly could be.
“I’ve grown up with the sport. People tell me that I obsessed with it and I am. It is my life, my whole life revolves around the sport.”
The sport unleashed a competitive edge that Byrne never really knew she had, and it also helped created a new level of a bond with her father, who is willing to do anything to help her progress.
“Dad was a runner and a hurler but he was never into karate. It was only when I started going to competitions that he really started to get into it. I remember going to my first World Championships when I was 12 and getting bronze. Everybody was telling me how great I did but I remember being devastated because I wanted the gold. I told dad then that I wanted to be the best and ever since then he’s done everything he can to support me. He brought me to competitions and things like seminars so that I could get all the knowledge that I needed to improve.
“Noel and the club, which was in Ballinabranna but now in Bagenalstown, were a great support as well. There were loads of us who grew up through the club and we always had different targets that helped spur us on, so that was helpful,” said Byrne.
The sport opened up new doors for her and she was able to travel the world to compete.
“Karate is growing in Ireland but it was still very new when I was starting off. As we got better, we knew we’d have to go further afield to go to the competitions that we needed for us to improve. You have to travel if you want to want to be the best at this sport,” she said.
To paraphrase a cliche used with boxing, you don’t play karate. Even though, it was only semi-contact at stage there was always the danger of being hurt but it wasn’t a desire to protect herself that drove Byrne through her intense training schedule, it was a desire to be the best.
“Once I started I was obsessed. When I was in school, I used to get up early to train so that I’d able to study in the afternoon. The girls would be planning different things at the weekend but I’d have to tell them that I’d be training, even as we got older and started going out and things like that. They hated me for that but they understood that I was doing something I loved,” she said.
Any big competition involved a 14 week training camp that would test the limits of dedication of any athlete. Training six days a week, three of those days with double sessions, were the easy part. Sticking to the weight was the hard bit.
“I usually fight -65kg. Cutting weight is hard, it’s torture. You can never go too far above your weight so you have to watch what you eat all the time. You aren’t overly strict but then when get into that 14 week camp it’s literally turkey rashers, eggs, 100g of chicken and your veg. That’s what I live off, and lots of water. Before we went to Romania, the last kilogram, I swear to God I thought the scales would never go down. I was in the sauna, doing everything. That’s when you question is it really worth it but then you go in, get your win and then get re-feed and it really is all worth it,” she said.
At that competition in Romania in September, Byrne won the Open weight senior WUKF World Championship, one of the biggest thrills of her career so far.
“People nearly have this expectation on me and I hate that because you will never be the best, you always have to keep pushing. That’s why I train so hard, I want to be the best. People were saying to me that I’d won before but that was special. When you are standing on the podium with the gold medal around your neck and the national anthem playing– there’s no better feeling,” she said.
As thrilling as that was, Byrne’s mind had long before started wandering to the professional side of the sport, with full contact.
There aren’t many opportunities open to females for those kinds of fights but one was lined up before Covid struck.
“When I heard about the full contact I really wanted to give a go. We went to a few meetings and I told my da that I really thought this would be my cup of tea. He put my name forward and a Polish girl said she’d take the fight, it was to be the first full contact girls fight. I didn’t know anything about her but I said we’d take it and we’ll see where it goes. It was delayed because Covid hit, then it was to be in October 2020, then March 2021 and it was October 2021 before it finally took place. That was hard because we were in camp, then out of camp, in camp, out of camp but we finally got there,” she said.
The fight was set against Aleksandra Zgorecka in the National Basketball Arena on the Saturday of Halloween weekend but it was Byrne who got the fright.
In her desire to make her professional debut she hadn’t paid too much attention to her opponent and it was only when she stepped on the mat that the size difference became apparent.
“Oh, holy God,” laughed Byrne.
“I always fight -65kg but this girl couldn’t make that weight and there was nobody else willing to take the fight with me. I said we’d fight -69kg and see how it goes but I think I underestimated the size of her. I remember walking out and the Streets of New York was playing and the whole Basketball Arena was roaring. I came out second so she was already there on the stage when I got there and I just remember thinking ‘Be the f**k, she’s actually big,” said Byrne.
Not only was she big but the Polish girl could fight too. Byrne was in at the deep end during her first ever round of full contact fighting.
“There were three rounds of three minutes. Because she was so much bigger she had the longer reach and when I tell you she hit me, oh holy God. After the first round, the blood was pouring from my nose, both my eyes, I was choking on the blood. After the first round, I walked over to dad and took the gumshield and I said to him ‘Be the f**k, I wasn’t expecting that. What are we going to do now?’
“He said we’d have to do something different and he told me that I’d lost that round. He’d always tell me as it is so he told me that I’d have to pull something out of the bag. I went back out for the second round. There wasn’t even a mark on her and I was still choking on the blood but I swear to God we just went to town on each other. I’ll never forget it,” said Byrne, who was pleased with the way she was able to be hit and still come forward.
“I always wondered about it, looking at the likes of Katie Taylor and Kellie Harrington, or even Conor McGregor, would I be able to take a hit to the face? With the very first hit she broke my nose and there was blood everywhere but I didn’t react. When I came off, the commentator covering the fight pulled me to one side and said he’d never seen anybody not take a step back like that. I didn’t care about anything else I just knew I had to go through her if I was going to win. The doctor barely spoke a word of English but during the last round the fight was stopped for him to check me. He was telling me that he wanted to stop the fight but I could see the clock and there was one minute and 38 seconds left and that stage I knew I was winning the round and could win the fight so I told him no way could he stop it. He told me that I got one more shot to the eye he’d stop the fight. Well, I’ve never minded my right eye as much in my life,” said Byrne.
Once the fight was over, there was the nervous wait before the scores were finalised and she then finally had her hands raised – but it came at a cost. A day in Tallaght Hospital, 12 stitches in a wound to her eye and two weeks off her job as a primary school teacher in Portlaoise.
“I went to Tallaght Hospital on the Sunday and I was there all day with ice packs, getting MRIs all that kind of thing. I got a two week cert from work and so many people were in touch. My mam probably got a fright, she wouldn’t usually come to my fights but she did that night and I think she was traumatised. That probably did make me think about it. She was telling me that my face looked so bad and I was thinking that I must not be the full shilling, not only do I do this but I absolutely love it,” she said.
“So many people were asking me would I do it again and I told them ‘absolutely’, if I didn’t love it I wouldn’t have taken the fight in the first place. I’m planning my next fight next April already,” she added.
Karate at this stage is not a mega international sport where Byrne is going to make her millions, for now at least, but it’s belts and wins that she is targetting, not money.
“I don’t think at this stage you can get rich from full contact karate so I’ll keep the day job for now. I want to win belts, I’m obsessed with winning. I just want to be the best I can be in karate and win everything that is in my division. I want everyone to know, there’s Jasmine Byrne. I will go anywhere in the world to fight anybody and I know my da will go anywhere with me. We will be on that plane to go where ever we have to go,” she said.
There is also the knowledge that she could be just at the start of something. Katie Taylor has built up women’s professional boxing simply because she is so good and Byrne would love to do something with her own sport.
“I look back now on where karate was when I started. It was a fella’s sport, it was all the lads doing it. You do see it growing. I went to Scotland recently where my little brother was fighting and there were so many little girls, some of them were coming up to tell me that they had watched my fight. There were girls in Ireland texting me saying they wanted to get started after seeing my fight. That’s massive. For anybody to think ‘I could do that because I saw Jasmine doing it’, that’s savage. That’s better than winning…well, nearly better,” Byrne laughs.
Her cheerful happy nature hides what is a fierce competitor underneath and you would do well to remember her name because this is one Carlow woman with the determination to go the very top of her sport.
If you want you child to learn from the very best, Jasmine Byrne is currently running karate classes from St Laurences GAA club in Balitore in Kildare and further details can be got from the club.