By Gerard Mulreaney (@gerardmulreaney)
When the World Short Track Speed Skating Championships get underway next week Ireland will be represented by Sydney-born 22-year-old Liam O’Brien.
O’Brien competed at the recent European Championships in Gdansk, Poland where he made his International debut, finishing 25th overall. It was the best finish for an Irish short track speed skater in the history of the event.
“It felt amazing. I was truly honoured to get out there and represent Ireland at my first International competition. It was a big learning curve, but it was a great feeling to race competitively again,” said O’Brien.
The World Championships are a futher step up, but he’s looking forward to the challenge:
“To represent Ireland is a real honour and I am excited to be given the opportunity to represent them at the World Championships. With continuous support from family and friends back home along with added support from the Irish Association, it’s a great feeling and really means the world to me.”
O’Brien’s parents are both Irish having emigrated to Australia. Liam’s father Sean, is from Carrigallen, Co Leitrim while his mother Mary is from Kingscourt in Co Cavan. Liam has always had a strong connection to Ireland as he’s a regular visitor, returning every Christmas to visit family, staying in Muff, Co Donegal.
Despite previously representing Australia, skating for Ireland was always something he and his family discussed. When Ireland joined the Ice Skating Union (ISU) his dad ran into the President of the Ice Skating Association of Ireland (ISAI), Karen O’Sullivan at a figure skating event where his sister Danielle was competing. A few years later he was given the opportunity to represent Ireland. “It was a really easy decision. I have huge family support in Ireland and with the added support from the Irish Association it’s really exciting to represent Ireland.”
Liam has been coached in Australia all the way through the various age groups by the hugely respected coach Maggie Holland, along with 2018 National Coach of the Year Scott Weekes. Holland was named National Short Track coach in 1990. The Australian men won the country’s first ever Winter Olympic Medal in the 5,000m Relay in Lillehammer in 1994 under her tutelage. Holland was inducted into the Australian Ice Racing (AIR) Hall of fame for her lifelong commitment to coaching in 2014.
She remembers when she first met Liam as a youngster while he was watching his sister compete:
“I first met Liam as a young fun “cheeky” boy when he was a figure skater at the Canterbury Ice Rink, he was just 4 at the time. He always loved to skate really fast and of course I tapped into that. He was quite talented at figure skating, and as a cricketer and footballer. This general athleticism has helped Liam a lot in his skating.
“For a time he was able to fit all the sports into his schooling but eventually he made a choice to focus on speed skating and thus began the journey into development through the various levels. Like any teenager he had his ups and downs but he always wanted to keep on with skating during his final high school year and into his first years of University.
“From a young age he has always looked up to the older skaters who have inspired him to develop his speed and technique. I believe Liam is now at an age where he understands what he needs to do if he is to continue on and develop as a top short tracker.”
In 2018 Liam took the decision to focus more on his training, leaving his family and friends behind and moving to Korea. There he’s under the tutelage of former US National Team coach Lee Kwang Soo. It’s a decision he says he needed to take if he wanted to be successful.
“Living in Australia, the skating community isn’t as big as it is in Asia and Europe, so it was hard to train at a high enough level to compete alongside the best in the world at ISU events. Some of my teammates had trained in South Korea and I decided to follow them. I’m now training at an ice rink in Seongnam, Korea. It’s located a bit closer to home than Europe. It’s more suitable and there’s a large training group that can push me to become stronger which is much needed.
“With the aid of my coaches and others who have trained me whilst I was in Sydney and South Korea, they have all helped me grow as an athlete, each one helping me improve in different ways and kept my love for the sport ignited. I am grateful for all the help each of them have provided for me and for their continued support to this day.”
One of the biggest hurdles he had to overcome was moving away from home. Family is extremely important to Liam. They are very supportive to him, as they were for Danielle when she was competing. Daily online contact with his family has been extremely important. With the Covid pandemic affecting travel, his family weren’t able to be present for the European Championships, or the upcoming World Championships. Only his Korean coach will be accompanying him to Dordrecht.
“I know how tough it has been for my family and everyone in Ireland and around the world with lockdown so I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to continue to train in Korea. The ISU and the international associations have done a great job with the bubble concept and giving us an opportunity to compete.”
O’Brien is currently completing a Bachelor of Actuarial Studies/Bachelor of Commerce at the University of New South Wales, albeit with reduced subjects while he’s training full time. He also attends Dankook University to study the Korean language, something he struggled with initially, but he understands the language much better now. It’s given him that extra focus outside of skating.
This is a very important year for all Winter sports athletes with the 2022 Winter Olympics just around the corner. With Danielle having competed as an Ice Dancer at the Sochi games in 2014 Liam is hoping that his performances will end up with him getting selected come Februaury.
“After watching my sister compete at the Sochi Olympics, I’ve had aspirations to represent Ireland at an Olympic Games. She has probably been the biggest influence on my career to date. I want to become a better skater and be able to compete head-to-head with the best skaters in the world. Leading into an Olympic season it is really important for me to skate against the best so I know where to improve and focus on building in the lead up to the 2021-22 season.”
Photo Credits: Sean Gillis (ISAI)