Ahead of the games

 

OLYMPICS TRAINING:Punishing training regimes and months spent away from family competing in obscure destinations – all to meet the nation’s expectations. Irish Olympic hopefuls tell MALACHY CLERKINwhat it will take to qualify for London 2012

SEB COE TELLS a story about Christmas day, 1979. He’d already gone for a 12-mile morning run but once his dinner was over, he got fidgety. The Moscow Olympics would begin in seven months’ time and the fear that his great rival Steve Ovett was probably out doing a second run gnawed away at him. So he went out and put in another five miles in the afternoon.

It’s a semi-famous story among running folk. What’s maybe not as well known is the follow-up that was winkled out of Coe by the Irish sportswriter David Walsh in an interview in 2008. Twenty years after that Christmas day, Coe and Ovett had put away childish things and were friends now. Over a beer, Coe told Ovett of that day and of the paranoia he felt that made him go for a second run. “Can you believe that?” he asked. Ovett looked back at him and said, “Did you only run twice that day?”

One year from last Wednesday, the opening ceremony of the London Olympics will erupt and convulse for the televisual pleasure of billions worldwide.

In the middle of the stadium will stand thousands of athletes, just arrived from every nation in the world. Strip everything away – the money, the corruption, the doping, the everything – strip it all away and you are left with these people: Olympians.

Some of them are the best of the best, the top of the food chain. Others among them stuck at it and knuckled down when more talented people couldn’t be bothered along the way. Every last one of them can tell you a story to rival Seb Coe’s. About the extra sets and sessions that aren’t really extra at all – just what needs to be done.

Ireland will send an Olympic team of somewhere in the region of 50 or 60 athletes to the games. All but a tiny handful will come back without medals. Yet those we send will be the best of us; men and women devoting every square inch of their lives to something the rest of us only tune in to for a fortnight every four years.

Right now, they’re fixed on meeting qualification criteria, on avoiding injury, on squirreling away small pieces of work that they’ll call upon in 12 months’ time. Most of them can’t train in Ireland on any long-term basis because of weather/lack of facilities/lack of coaches – take your pick. But a year from next Wednesday, they’ll walk behind a tricolour and wave for the cameras, Ireland’s Olympians, whatever anybody says about them.

These are their stories.

BARRY MURPHY Swimmer

In late summer 2008, Barry Murphy was a bitter young man. There had been wild-card spots going for the Beijing Olympics for swimmers who had only achieved the B standard qualifying time and, although his claims had been strong, he had been left with his hand out and his mouth open. Then a 25-year-old prospect at the University of Tennessee, the Dubliner had no choice but to readjust his sights and fixate on making it to London.

“I was really disappointed and hurt when I didn’t go to Beijing. But honestly, now I can look back at it and say that it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I had a break-out swim in December 2008 and carried that on into the following summer.

“And every goal I’ve set myself since, I’ve trained with fire for it. I don’t take it for granted in any way when I make these teams now because I remember how hard it was to take when I didn’t get the nod for Beijing. I don’t ever want to feel that again.”

This time around, he’s removing all margin for doubt. Back in March, he swam well inside the A standard time for the 100-metre breaststroke and was ranked 16th in the world heading into last week’s World Championships in Shanghai. Come London, he’ll take to the pool as the leading Irish male swimmer, determined to put right the wrongs of 2008.

“That swim in March came as a big shock, to be honest. To be able to swim inside the Olympic qualifying time that early was brilliant. I’d been doing a huge amount of work and hadn’t really targeted that meet for anything other than a qualifying time for the World Championships. It gave me huge confidence in the work I’m doing.”

DEREK BURNETT Trap shooter

Tick-tock, tick-tock. When Derek Burnett got back from Slovenia a fortnight ago, the 40-year-old from Longford had to deal with what was both the best and worst weekend of his year so far. Qualification for his fourth Olympics was a real prospect, as he was shooting so well at the World Cup event there, but in the end, he fell one target short. One may as well have been a dozen.

“I shot 121 out of 125 and if somebody had offered me that score on the way over I’d have taken it. As it turned out, it was one light of the final. You have to win an Olympic quota place by getting into the final or, if you don’t make the final, you have to hope that some of the fellas ahead of you have already got their quota place from a previous event. As it happened, none of the lads in the final in Slovenia had their place already.”

He has two chances left to grab one of the six remaining spots – the European Championships in August and the Worlds in September. That’s where all his energies are now. Itching, scraping, tacking, trying.

Burnett imports and sells ammunition to help pay the bills in the real world, but for the next few months nothing will matter except qualifying. He nearly made an Olympic final in 2004, but shed tears on RTÉ radio in 2008 after finishing a disappointing 29th. The games do that to you.

“Right after the event, there and then when I was in Beijing, I definitely considered giving it up. But the more time went by and as the pain eased, that wasn’t really an option. I didn’t want to walk away from the Olympics with that sort of sour taste. I’d just love to get there again so I can make amends.”

PAUL HESSION 200m sprinter

“You can’t ignore the Olympics,” he says. “It’s too big. It’s a circus, really.” Based in Scotland, the 28-year-old from Athenry enjoyed the circus no end last time out. He won his quarter-final, very nearly breaking his own Irish record in the process, and only just missed out on a place in the final. Pasty-white sprinters from Galway don’t, in the normal run of things, come anywhere close to Olympic 200-metre finals.

Hession is changing that.

He’d have imagined, coming back from China, that there’d be a European medal in his possession by now, but he only finished sixth in Barcelona last year. “I didn’t run too far short of my best times but a couple of other lads stepped up and made progress when I didn’t. It’s so hard to get progress when you’re getting on in your career. When you’re younger, you’re improving by huge, astronomical leaps each year.

“It’s much easier to see the improvement then. As you get older, you’re talking about such small, small percentages. But you enjoy those percentages more. If I take a hundredth of a second off my personal best this year, it’ll be far more satisfying than when I took a whole second off it when I was younger. Every bit of blood, sweat and tears goes into that hundredth of a second.”

The World Championships in South Korea will be where his late summer peaks – his opening heat in Daegu isn’t until September 3rd – and he’ll hope to have his qualifying time for London nailed down in the coming months as well. “You’ve got to be positive. I’m still up there, still on the fringes of the top 12, top 10 in the world.”

EOIN RHEINISCH Slalom canoeist

You remember him. He has one of those names that sings out from the radio once every four years. For around 12 dizzying minutes in Beijing in 2008, he had a medal within his reach and was looking ever closer to having it in his grasp. Coming from a country without one training facility worthy of his talents, it would have been an unearthly achievement.

In the end, the very last three guys down the course went faster and he had to settle for fourth. “Fourth is a hard place to finish,” says the 31-year-old. “You’d drive yourself demented if you dwelt on it.”

He’s speaking from just outside Bratislava where he and a fair chunk of the world’s other top canoeists are stationed for most of the next two months. The World Championships in September are the main qualifying event and because each course is unique, the competitors basically decamp to the venue to train on it for as long as they can beforehand.

“Celbridge is still home when I’m in Ireland. But home when I’m abroad is wherever the next World Championships are.” On average, he’ll spend 220 days outside Ireland each year trying to make the next step. He had major shoulder surgery over the winter and missed nearly six months of work and is being forced these days to almost use World Cup events as training exercises. Bit by little bit, though, he’s finding his way back.

“The thing with the Olympics is you work in four-year cycles but you really have no plan for what comes after. You basically see how things go and then you decide what the next step is. I took quite a bit of time after Beijing to decide whether I wanted to make that choice for another four years.”

SCOTT EVANS Badminton

Three years ago, Scott Evans’s Olympics was over before you realised it was on. He was the first Irish athlete into competition, playing his match in the dead of the Irish night to no audience back home, save for family and a few nighthawks. He nearly pulled off a shock victory too, but lost his nerve. That was on a Sunday and by Wednesday he was on a plane home.

“I didn’t want to stay around any longer, I was just too disappointed. I felt like I couldn’t really enjoy it after losing that way. And I don’t regret leaving at all. I went home and started back training on the Thursday. I was just so pissed off that I’d lost. I wanted to get back into it straight away.”

Evans is just a few months short of his 24th birthday, and has lived in Denmark for the past five years. He moved there lock, stock and without family to help share the load, in order to further his badminton career.

It has given him many things, not the least of which is a slight Scandinavian intonation on his otherwise Dublin tongue. “I absolutely love it here. It’s a fantastic place to live; obviously the best badminton in Europe is here. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“It was a huge decision at the time and it was really tough at the beginning, those first two years were very hard. But it got better and better with each year.”

To qualify for London, Evans has to be in the top 64 in the world at the cut-off point next May. At the moment, he’s 53rd. Next month, the World Championships take place in the same London venue as the Olympic tournament will be staged in a year’s time. “There’s a lot more for me to improve on, but if I look back to Beijing and look at where I am now, my game has come on a huge amount.”

ROB HEFFERNAN Race walker

With two children at home, the months away training at altitude in Spain aren’t quite what he’d call his idea of a good time. But for the 33-year-old from Cork, aiming at his fourth Olympics, it’s a well-worn routine by now. “Skype makes it all a good bit easier. They can see me on the webcam and because we’re very isolated up here in the mountains, there’s very little else to be doing so I’d be in constant contact with them. I’m nearly there without being there.”

Nearly but not quite. Heffernan will be one of Ireland’s better medal hopes in track and field. He has been knocking on the door since coming sixth in the World Championships in 2007 and almost reached the medal positions at the European Championships at 20km and 50km last year. The World Championships in Daegu, South Korea is next on his agenda. But only up to a point.

“Korea is just a dress rehearsal for the Olympics really. You’re competing against the same guys. I’ll go there and compete in both the 20km and the 50km. You have one eye on London all the time. All Olympics are different – you go with different expectations. In saying that, this one is very similar to Beijing in that you’re talking about four years aiming at a medal and nothing else. You wouldn’t have realistically said that was the case for the first two in Sydney and Athens.”

Will it be the last hurrah? “Who knows? After London, maybe I’d like to find some sort of combined role. I could keep on a 50km career but combine it with bringing some young walkers along. Somewhere down the road, I’d like to maybe take over race-walking in Ireland.”

KATIE TAYLOR Boxer

Expectation is a hell of a thing. She’s one of the faces of the Irish Olympic challenge and has been for a few years now. And yet, not only has she never fought in an Olympics, she hasn’t even qualified for this one yet. Probably Ireland’s most famous female sports star, the general feeling among the public is that the 26-year-old only has to turn up in London and a medal will be hers for the hooking. Not so.

“I definitely feel like there will be a lot of pressure on me going into the qualifiers,” she says of the tournament in China next May that will decide who gets to compete in London. “I don’t think people realise just how hard it is going to be to even make it to the games. That can annoy me sometimes because I get the feeling that people are assuming I’m going to be there no problem.

“There are only three weight divisions in the Olympics, as opposed to the nine or 10 there would usually be at the World Championships. So they will all be packed into the three weight divisions at this one tournament. And you only have one chance as well – usually with the men, you’d have two or three tournaments to qualify through, but we have only one. So it’s going to be a huge task to make it there. Everything has to be right for that one competition in China.”

Taylor splits her training time between her boxing club in Bray and the High Performance Unit beside the National Stadium, where she spars with people such as Olympic bronze medallist Paddy Barnes.

JOE WARD Boxer

The sparkliest of Ireland’s rising boxing stars, the 17-year-old Traveller from Moate has been setting records and winning medals ever since he first put on a pair of boxing gloves just seven years ago. Last month, in only his eighth fight as a senior boxer, he took a gold medal at the European Championships in Turkey.

This comes after beating Olympic silver medallist Kenny Egan for the national senior title back in spring, ending an unbeaten run in Ireland for Egan that had stretched back 11 years. Obviously, in a boy so young, you’ll be expecting him to be keeping the head down and staying out of the limelight. No point everyone getting their hopes up, eh Joe?

“Not at all. I like all this, all the expectation. This has been my dream all along, especially since it was announced the Olympics would be in London. It’s getting closer by the day now. The qualifiers are only four months away.”

Those qualifiers are in Baku, Azerbaijan. Ward loves the place – it’s a regular venue for amateur boxing tournaments and he’s picked up plenty of honours there before. In 2010 he won the World under-19 gold medal. He was 16 at the time.

“A good old home town of mine, it is. I’ve fought there five times and won four gold medals and one silver. I won a World Junior Championship over there; I was best boxer in a tournament over there as well. The crowd follow me when I go over there. They’re well used to me. I don’t know what they do be saying to me but they make some amount of noise anyway.”

The London Olympics take place from July 27th to August 12th. See london2012.com