In 2012, Sean O’Leary led a life considered fairly average. Married and with two boys, he worked as a driver to pay the bills, and trained youngsters in Irish hurling a few times a week.
On one such average day at the beach in Cork, he hurt his right heel and thought nothing of it, covering it up with a band aid. Over the span of the next few months, O’Leary’s right foot deteriorated to the point where he was plagued with recurring pain.
A doctor would determine the cause to be an injury wrought by the rough play from his hurling training. However, six months down the line, the pain had become unbearable.
O’Leary could not walk, let alone work. Several more medical tests would later determine that he was suffering from osteomyelitis – a bone infection which had possibly stemmed from the cut on his heel months earlier.
Life for the Irishman for the next six years would comprise of medication regimes, operations, and several hospital visits, each of the latter lasting several months at a time.
In September 2018, doctors advised O’Leary that they would need to amputate his right leg to save his life.
The operation led him down a dark path. By 2020, O’Leary was on a regimen of painkillers and weighed 127 kilograms after turning to a diet of fast food and soft drinks for comfort.
However, a meeting with Straight Blast Gym Cork (SBG) owner and head trainer Liam-Og Griffin would prove to be a fateful pivot.
Griffin introduced O’Leary to Alta MMA training, which proved to be a silver lining in the dark clouds that had enveloped his days.
However, his suffering did not end then. Less than a year later, O’Leary lost his wife Rose to cancer.
Amid all the pain and gloom, O’Leary found relief with martial arts, and more specifically jiu-jitsu.
O’Leary, now 54, made his debut in the ongoing 15th Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship in the para category last Thursday, in which he lost to the experienced Brazilian Mario Edson.
He was back in action in the 85kg blue belt Masters 4 division at the Mubadala Arena on Monday where he suffered a first-round loss to Sattar Gulyev of Azerbaijan by submission. But for him, the journey is more important than the destination.
“It’s my first time in Abu Dhabi and my first trip abroad for a competition. My gym set up a gofundme, and friends and family donated to it,” O’Leary told The National.
“Yes, I lost the contest on Thursday but there are a few things I took from it. I started my preparation about four months before my fight. The drills and rolls I did with [trainer] William Cooper gave me the confidence, knowledge, skills and determination to succeed.
“Also, I felt that my progression from where I was to how I performed during my fight has made me realise that I am progressing in the game.”
O’Leary has two main goals in the sport: to get as many disabled people involved in jiu-jitsu and, personally, to earn a black belt.
“It has changed my life and it would be great to get others that may feel that, because of their disability, it’s not for them. But I want to change that thinking,” he said.
“I will continue to compete in jiu-jitsu until my body won’t allow me,” says O’Leary, who also plans to take part in the European BJJ championship in February 2024.
Whatever O’Leary achieves in life, the memories of his wife of 25 years, who passed away in October 2020, continue to drive him. O’Leary says she was the one who motivated him to make a fresh start after his injury.
“My wife was a major influence in all my training,” he said. “She was very sick during Covid but she was adamant that I train every day.
“I was 125kg with only one leg. She wanted me to lose weight and get healthy. The days I didn’t want to go training she would push me to go.
“I remember distinctly the day I had to bring her to hospital as she was very sick. When doctors told us that she needed to stay in hospital, I told her that I would go home and get her stuff to stay in hospital.
“The doctor informed me that Ireland was at its highest [danger] level for Covid and I wouldn’t be allowed back into hospital. She told me that I had training at 5pm and that I was to go, that I needed to lose weight and to get healthy for our two boys. My wife died five days later.
“I wasn’t allowed in to see her until the last few hours before she passed. So now every time I feel like not training, her last words would ring in my head and I would go.
“I think what my wife would be most proud of is that I stuck with it. I set weight targets and I achieved them. I got healthier both physically and mentally. She would be proud of my determination and consistency."
O’Leary is a fully qualified First Aid Instructor and is currently back in college to get a degree in neuromuscular therapy. His sons Sean, 27, is in Australia and 21-year-old Kyle is studying architecture in college.
“My willingness is to work hard and to keep going," he added. "Also, motivating others that they too can achieve their goals no matter how big they are or their limitations.”