Adrian O'Dwyer at work in his gym
Little about Adrian O’Dwyer conforms to the ordinary. He stands 6’ 5” tall, his muscular, pierced and tattooed body makes him stand out from, and above, the crowd.
He lives the role well. His life less ordinary has seen the one time svelte high jumper in the Olympics evolve into a Schwarzenegger like arm wrestler today. What else? Adrian’s world!
The nimble 79 kilo medal prospect from the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 now weighs in at a hefty 120 kilos.
New life, new challenges, new me, Adrian suggested. Or to be exact: “I don’t do the norm. I do things differently,” he smiled.
These times the engaging 33-year-old runs his own fitness company, Leviathan Training, which is based at the Top Pro premises at the back of the Club House Hotel on Patrick Street in the heart of the City.
The company name - he is a personal trainer but also does group sessions and helps with injury rehab and so on - was his nickname during his high flying high jumping days on the international scene. Adrian could have put his own name on the company, but he has a dislike for that sort of thing.
His is different to a regular gym where people can do their own thing. He teaches techniques, shows people how best to get the best from the gym work, he explained.
“I never did upper body training when I was high jumping,” he said of the obvious change in body mass from times past. “It was all legs, legs then. You had to be light. Now at this game it is all upper body work, forearm, biceps, chest, hands and wrists.”
This game? Arm wrestling, would you believe? He has been competing at international level, right and left arms, for over two years as he chased competitions all over the world.
He started as a novice and he made the World Professional Championships within six months. Now he is rated as a professional, an automatic categorisation after winning the British Professional Championship some time back.
He has long since retired from athletics, which was his first love. He carried the Kilkenny City Harriers and Irish colours to great heights before injuries forced him into retirement.
The high jump was his specialty. He personal best of 2 metres 30 cms attained in Algiers eight days before the qualifying deadline for the Olympics left him in a lofty place. He was ranked fifth in the World.
Some place for mere 19-year-old chasing an Olympic dream.
Adrian won two Irish senior titles, both indoors and outdoors (2002 and 2003) and he remains the Irish record holder in both disciplines.
His record leap took him comfortably past the A level qualifying standard for the Olympics, a rarity in Irish high jumping. He was a contender, but then shortly before the flight to Athens ankle and Achilles injuries he had been nursing flared-up. They literally took the pep out of his step.
“I did a competition down in Cork after Algiers and my ankle didn’t feel good,” he explained. “I was taking anti-inflammatory tablets and strapping the ankle but it didn’t get better.
“I could barely jump two metres and here I was going to the Olympics. In the end, it was a toss-up whether I’d even go but because I chased it all my life, thought about it every second of the day, I was going but I knew I was way off my best.”
He still went to the Olympics, of course, but the experience turned from one of high hopes into a Greek tragedy. In the qualifying round he failed to clear 2m 10 cms. Generally that was a ‘pop over’ height for him.
He actually jumped 2m 10cms in the warm-up, but in the competition, in front of a full arena, he failed.
Had he been able to repeat his 2m 30cms best he would have featured among the medals. The golden mark in Athens in the high jump was 2m 36cms.
For years afterwards Adrian continued to chase the dream; looking for a solution to the ankle problems that cut him down. Years, tens of thousands of euro and thousands of travel miles later he gave up the ghost.
We had spoken before he travelled to the Olympics and we hitched onto his dream like so many others. Well all believed. We all hoped.
Our paths didn’t cross much since, but recently Adrian spoke to us for the first time about the dream that turned into a nightmare.
Athletics, individual sport, was him. The gene pool all but ordained he would be an athlete of some sort. His Kilkenny dad, Paddy represented Ireland at judo. His Hamburg born mother, Gudrun was a former international eventer in horse riding.
Adrian discovered athletics and high jumping when he was 13. He was already 6’ tall, and he had the gift of being able to generate powerful lift off with his legs. Sean Lynch was among his early mentors at the ’Harriers.
“Looking back, I would probably have been a better javelin thrower,” Adrian said in that open, bold and disarming way he has. “I loved it. I was totally taken.”
He won the Leinster championship the first year; the All-Ireland within three years. He gathered under-age titles by the score.
“I wanted to be a World record holder,” he insisted when he looked back.
When he finished school at St Kieran’s College he turned professional, being a carded holder and grant assisted athlete in the Athletics Ireland programme.
“It was my job to high jump, pure and simple,” Adrian continued.
During the year leading up to the Olympics he was jumping well consistently, getting invites into the leading athletics meetings. He felt super-human. Injuries? They never crossed his mind.
Then he picked up an Achilles problem and tore ligaments. The injuries simply wouldn’t go away.
“Trying to tell a 19-year-old you couldn’t go to the Olympic wasn’t on,” he said when he recalled the thinking at the time. ”I was going. I was 100% sure I would make the final and do well for myself.”
To make matters worse, his then coach Maeve Kyle couldn’t travel to the Olympics. He went to the ’Games without a coach, virtually alone. He still remembers standing in the belly of the vast and packed arena. He loved it. He fed off that sort of thing.
But he was alone, in the sense that he was without a mentor; surrounded by super fit and fiercely driven competitors.
“Some people think I buckled under the pressure,” he offered when one wondered what happened.
“I didn’t. I was injured - full stop. I hadn’t proper take off. I had been taking anti-inflammatories to try and sort things. It didn’t work.
“That is life. It was tough,” he said as casually as you like.
For five or six years afterward he continued to chase the dream in the hope he could get back. He reckoned the bills could have come to around €40,000 or more.
“A lot of people felt I just disappeared,” he said when he filled in some gaps. “There were years of going through surgery and rehab afterwards trying to get my ankle right.
“I tried everything. My dad was a rock, a powerful source of comfort and inspiration, telling me all the time to see things through to make sure I could have no regrets.”
Then one day the curtain dropped. Adidas continued as a sponsor for years and one day a pair of spikes arrived from the company. He was feeling good at the time and he went to Scanlon Park with his dad to try them.
The ankle gave way.
He took off the shoes, put them in the bag and told his dad he was finished. He was about 27 or 28 at the time.
“It was tough, but that’s sport,” he said with a shrug of the shoulders.
“The experience toughened me up massively. I have zero regrets. 100%. I knew I gave it everything to try and get back.
“The day I retired a huge weight came off my shoulders. I tried. It didn’t work. I moved on, and I was happy to move on.”
That night he was alone in Athens was torture, an alone time like no other. We had heard he spent most of the night sitting on the branch of a tree somewhere in the great city.
He didn’t deny our summation. His version was he sat down in the Olympic Village away from everyone to reflect.
“There was a tree there, and I sat on the branch,” was his concession to the story. “I don’t want it to sound too Hollywood-like. No. I sat on a tree. I am a high jumper. I can climb. I reflected on what went on and how I could deal with it.”
There was one time afterwards when he thought he was right. It was at a competition in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. He was in “awesome form”. He jumped 2m 15cms in training off four steps. He was on fire.
Bang! He went and did a scissors jump and landed on his left ankle. Crack. Back to square one. A step closer to the end. That simple incident added two more years to those already lost.
The day after he retired he got up full of beans and joined the gym in the Newpark Hotel in Kilkenny. He decided he would build up his upper body for a change. He started to put on muscle; biceps, arm and so on.
New life shape
Within six months his body weight ballooned from 79 to 98 kilos. His new life was taking shape.
He eventually got bored with body-building simply for the sake of it. There was no point, no pleasure in training without a purpose.
Eventually he found arm wrestling. That was two years ago.
Adrian was never a slave to fashion. He was his own man, always. Hence the body piercings, the tattoos, the muscles.
“I am very happy in my own skin,” he assured. “I am a confident person, very confident. The athletics and individual sport taught me that. I am happy where I am now.
“This is fun for me,” he said of the arm wrestling. “Through the arm wrestling I got to meet a whole load of new people around the world.
“I am changed from a sport that it was me versus a bar, to now me versus a person. I love the psychological aspect of that. It is a battle, but it’s not one where you are going out to hurt the other person, although you can get bad injuries.
“You could get arm breaks, muscle snaps and things like that, but that can happen anywhere. What I like about the combat side is you can arm wrestle someone 100 times and no one gets hurt. It is different to boxing, MMA where you set out to hurt someone.”
Strategy for each contest depends, and is dictated mainly by your opponent and his strengths.
“If I am going against a lad with a short arm and massive biceps I don’t want to get in a hook with him,” Adrian said when he went into detail. “I want to get in a top roll. I want to attack his fingers.
“It is like a orthodox boxer going in against a South paw. He has to alter his style to suit. It is exactly the same. If your hand slips you go into a strap; the strap suits a stronger arm, a power arm wrestler. Outside the strap suits someone with a really strong hand.
“You have to mix and match.”
Next year he hopes to go to the World Championships. Money? At the top level there is big money to be made. It could be up to €50,000 a win. Adrian is not in the league yet, but….
“This is still a hobby for me,” Adrian assured. “It is different from the high jumping. High jumping was my job. There was a lot of stress in that because it was my job. Results dictated how my job was going.
“There is less stress now. If I don’t do well in a competition, my livelihood doesn’t depend on it. My personal training is my job. The arm wrestling is a little something extra.”
The past is the past. He is in a good place now.
“I was known in Kilkenny as the guy who did the high jump and who went to the Olympics,” he offered when he slipped into reflective mode. “I was sick of being known as that. It was a constant reminder of the injuries.”
Then he entered the body piercings and tattoo phase.
“I think it was a form of body armour,” he suggested. “I wasn’t known as the guy from the high jump anymore. I was the guy with the piercings and tattoos. For me it was a mask in many ways.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love the piercings. I am a fan of it.
And he rolled on: “I am in a brilliant, fantastic place. The business is going well. My arm wrestling is going well. I am in a good relationship. No problems. No injuries. No anything.
“I have seen the tough end of sport. I have seen the worst of the worst. I have been through horrible phases, but I came out of it.
“I have no regrets over athletics. I retired because I had to. Zero regrets. I have fond memories of when I competed.
“But when I look at sport, the high jump on television I don’t wish to be back there. I am done with that.
“Now I am into this,” he assured as he waved his muscular arms.
And he can arm wrestling until he is 50 or more, he smiled.