Annalise Murphy: ‘Now I’m excited. All the work, I think it’s been worth it’

Olympic sailor Annalise Murphy. Photograph: Tom Honan

THE OLYMPIC SAILOR HAS BEEN CAUGHT IN A STRANGE SOLITARY LIMBO, TRAINING AND PUSHING HER BODY TO THE LIMITS IN PREPARATION FOR THE BELEAGUERED TOKYO OLYMPICS

It’s the day after the country starts reopening, and Annalise Murphy is reminiscing about the last year. The Olympic sailor spent the first lockdown (“the big one”) on her own with only her dog, Lyza, for company. She went “a bit mad,” she says.  

“I just basically became a Labrador, you know,” she says, speaking over Zoom from her family home in Rathfarnham. “Lyza was my only point of contact. I’d be there and I’d be like, ‘Lyza, will we have a roast chicken for dinner tonight?’ And then I’d cook a whole roast chicken and give Lyza four main meals. Then she went on strike from dog food for about three months afterwards because she was like, ‘no, I only eat chicken’.”

At times it was lonely. But on the plus side the weather was good.

“I remember I had set up a little gym in the back garden,” she says. “And I was able to do gym sessions in shorts and a T-shirt in my back garden in March, April, May. This year you’d be getting hit in the eyes with hailstones if you did that.” 

Lockdown upended many people’s routines. But for would-be Olympians it was especially discombobulating. Last April, Tokyo 2020 was postponed due to the pandemic, throwing a wrench into athletes’ carefully calibrated four-year plans. Athletes who had spent years sleeping, eating and dreaming of the Olympics were now faced with another year of waiting. Not to mention another year of having to stay fit, healthy and motivated against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic. To call it challenging would be an understatement. 

Olympic sailor Annalise Murphy: “I think this will be my last one.” Photograph: Tom Honan
Olympic sailor Annalise Murphy: “I think this will be my last one.” Photograph: Tom Honan

“That’s been the biggest stress for the last year,” says Murphy. “[You’re] training so hard but in the back of your mind when you’re having bad days, you’re like, ‘why am I doing this? The Olympics might not even happen’.”

At the beginning of lockdown Murphy threw herself into training. She bought herself a turbo trainer bike and joined Zwift, an online cycling platform. She regularly went on virtual cycles with friends, acquaintances and strangers. Often she heard from people who were excited to be cycling with an Olympian.

“A lot of people would message into the group being like, ‘oh, it’s so amazing getting to cycle with you Annalise, you must be so motivated!’ And then I would feel obliged to not quit. I just had to keep on going because there were all these people that thought I was super-motivated. And I wasn’t. It was just this guilt of like, ‘I can’t quit or they’re gonna think I’m a quitter’.”

I know my training is hard, but it’s also not hard at all compared to what everyone else is having to go through
 

By the summer elite athletes were given dispensations to resume training. This enabled Murphy to return to her base at Irish Sailing Performance HQ in Dún Laoghaire. Among other things, the set-up includes a gym located inside a converted shipping container. “I went to my gym sessions there and it made a big difference.”  

She has since got to travel abroad to take part in training camps and competitions. She spent the first three months of 2021 in Lanzarote. There she was able to put in a “massive training block” that would not have been possible in Ireland at that time of year. The good weather enabled her to spend several hours out on the water each day and undertake fitness training outdoors. She is acutely aware of how many Irish people would love to go overseas after the year many have had.

“I’m talking to [my best friends] all the time and I’m just like, ‘I’m so sorry’!” she laughs. “I know my training is hard, but it’s also not hard at all compared to what everyone else is having to go through. I think most people would actually take up being an elite athlete.” 

Now, following a protracted Olympic cycle, Murphy can finally look forward to Tokyo 2021. 

“Now I’m excited because I’m like, ‘okay. All the work, I think it’s been worth it.’ I think at this stage it should go ahead.” 

Annalise Murphy was born in 1990. She grew up in Rathfarnham, Dublin, with her parents, sister and brother. Her mother Cathy was an Olympic sailor and represented Ireland in the Seoul Olympics, while her father Con is also heavily involved in sailing and served as a race official at the Rio Olympics.

She started sailing as a youngster, and quickly showed promise. By 15 she was sailing Laser Radial and was soon competing internationally. After secondary school she went to UCD to study science, but later dropped out to sail full-time. 

The Irish public first got to know Murphy when she competed in London 2012. There she won four preliminary races and at one point was in contention for a gold medal. In the final medal race, however, she was overtaken and finished fourth overall. The most cruel position of them all.

“Finishing fourth is definitely the worst,” she said in a tearful interview with RTÉ. “I’m going to work so hard for 2016 and hopefully I will be able to come good then.”

And come good she did. At the Marina Da Glória in Rio de Janeiro, she finished second overall and secured herself an Olympic silver medal. On the podium, she beamed. For her efforts she was named Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year.

Since her Olympic triumph Murphy has dabbled in different sailing disciplines. In 2017 she took part in the Volvo Ocean Race, the iconic round-the-world yacht race. Shortly thereafter she decided to move to the 49erFX, a two-hander boat. She partnered up with fellow sailor Katie Tingle and the pair competed together with a view to qualifying for Tokyo. After a series of setbacks and below-par performances, however, they decided to call time on their bid in 2019, and Murphy turned her attention to the laser radial once more. 

When we speak Murphy is in the thick of Olympic preparation. Thanks to support from the likes of Sport Ireland and Irish Sailing Foundation as well as Collen Construction and Mercedes-Benz Ireland, Murphy is a full-time athlete. (She temporarily lost her Sport Ireland funding in 2019 due to an absence from international competition, but has since regained it.) 

Annalise Murphy competing in the Rio Olympics in 2016. Photograph: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
Annalise Murphy competing in the Rio Olympics in 2016. Photograph: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

Her training regime is all-consuming. On any given week she will usually put in around 30 hours of training. “That’s 30 hours of exercising every week,” she emphasises.

Her programme includes everything from weight training to cycling to sailing to yoga. And then there’s all the other stuff: logistics, briefings, watching video analysis, boat work. 

At the moment she is busy preparing herself for the Tokyo heat. She has converted a small room in her house into a makeshift heat chamber. She got her Mum to ask her WhatsApp groups if anyone had a Dyson heater they could borrow. Several people came back with offers. Now she has a room filled with portable heaters. She turns them on to 37 degrees and cycles for an hour.

“It’s just basically acclimatising myself as best I can so that when I get out to Japan I’m not, you know, the Irish person who’s just bright red and pouring sweat the entire time.”  

It’s full-on and she seldom takes days off. On the rare occasion she does she will typically relax, cook and watch something on the television. Recently she watched Line of Duty (“I was a bit disappointed by the old final episode”) and Nomadland (“I really liked it. I was kind of sad but happy at the same time watching it.”)

I don’t know if I can put myself through that one more time
 

One of the downsides of Olympic preparation? Having to restrict her eating. 

“I’m basically too heavy for the Laser Radial because I’m six foot tall and my natural body weight is nowhere near the right weight for the boat. So I’m always trying to just watch what I eat and be very strict with my nutrition, which I also find really hard because I absolutely love food. And when you’re training so hard the one thing that you want to be able to reward yourself with is food.”

Ahead of Rio she lost a significant amount of weight and found herself having to contend with ill-informed comments about her appearance. 

“I think something that I really struggled with was that people would come up to me and be like, ‘oh, you’re looking so fit, you’re looking so lean.’ And it would really annoy me because I’d have to tell people, ‘I’ve actually had to cut down on my training to be this lean so I’m actually less fit than I was when I was a normal body shape.’ So it’s people’s perception of what fitness is that sometimes annoys me.” 

She struggled with her body image after Rio. She worried that once she returned to her normal weight she would no longer be seen as “athletic”. 

“[I worried] that I was not going to be seen as this Olympic silver medallist athlete. And that people would be like, ‘oh, she’s not looking very fit at the moment’. But it’s all just in your head, isn’t it?”

Now 31, Murphy does not know how sustainable this way of life is. 

“I just don’t know if what I’m doing at the moment, I don’t know if I can put myself through that one more time. Trying to cut down to be the right weight has been such a big part of my life for basically the last 12 years. Since I was 19 I’ve been having to be something that I have to manage. And it’s something that I’m really looking forward to not having to do anymore. I always just wish like, ‘if they just had a boat that was for someone a little bit bigger, I’d be perfect’.”

Does that mean this will be her final Olympics? “I think this will be my last one,” she says.

I have absolutely loved my life and what I’ve gotten to do in sports... But it isn’t a job. It's a passion

The World Championships are scheduled to take place in October. She may compete in them if she is feeling “really motivated” after the Olympics. Failing that, she might compete in next year’s edition of the World Championships. But Paris 2024 may be a bridge too far. 

She is ready to embark on a new chapter. 

“I have absolutely loved my life and what I’ve gotten to do in sports, travelling around the world, getting to compete at a really high level. But it isn’t a job. It’s a passion. I’m 31 and I live with my parents. I love them and they’re actually great but I think at some stage I do have to kind of move into the real world.”

That begs the question: what next?

Right now Murphy is unsure. Maybe something to do with food. She loves cooking, and completed the three-month cookery course in Ballymaloe after the Rio Olympics.

“Oh my god, I had the time of my life down there. I was just like, ‘you mean we get to cook a cake all day and eat it?’ Everyone was like, ‘oh, it’s a really intense course.’ And I was like, ‘this isn’t intense! This is the best thing of my life’!”

She is also keen to help younger sailors coming through. “There’s two of the younger girls, Aoife [Hopkins] and Eve [McMahon], that train with me. They’re kind of coming up and trying to get to the 2024 Olympics. And I definitely like to help them out a little bit along the way. You learn so many lessons over such a long time that I feel like I can’t just up and leave and not help the next generation through.” 

Right now, however, she has her sights firmly set on Tokyo. And she has got her eyes on the prize. 

“I think the reason why I’ve worked so hard for these Olympics is that in London and Rio I’ve been in the gold medal position in the final in the medal races and I haven’t managed to do it. So I feel like I need to try and get it one more time.” 

That means preparing as best as she can, and not leaving any stone unturned.

“My fitness program is pretty brutal, but I know that going into the Tokyo Olympics I don’t think there’s going to be anyone that I’m racing against that is going to be fitter or stronger than me. Sometimes I’ll see other people do training and they think that they’re doing a really good job. But I’m always like, ‘You could do so much more’!”

It also means being in the best possible head space and letting go of fear. Sailing is a hugely mental sport, one that is as much about strategy and decision-making as it is about boat speed.

“[It] is so much about confidence. And I generally have a bit of a confidence rollercoaster. So I just need to spend the next two months just building up my confidence so that by the time I get to the Olympics I’m like, ‘yeah, I’m great! I’ve got this’!”

My dream scenario is that I go into the medal race 19 points ahead of second
 

This conviction and consistency is something Murphy has struggled with at times. In London she “fully imploded” and finished fourth. At the most recent European Championships she finished 27th, a placing she attributed to “making too many mistakes” and being “a bit of an idiot at times”. 

By comparison, she was confident and determined in Rio. 

“In Rio I had a couple of bad races. They could have been two 40ths and I would have been out of the medals. But I managed to get a 17th and a 12th because I fought back through the race and ended up with not an amazing result, but a result that still kept me in contention. And that’s really important in sailing: to never give up. Because a lot of the time it comes down to one or two points at the end of the event.”

Murphy will be hoping to replicate that form and state of mind in Tokyo. Sometimes she fantasises about her best-case scenario. 

“In sailing we do 10 races and then a medal race. My dream scenario is that I go into the medal race 19 points ahead of second. So that means even if I come last in the medal race I still win the gold medal.” 

It’s a hard plan to execute. And one that requires her opponents making mistakes. But it’s what gets her through the tough days. 

“It’s what I think about every single day. Particularly if I’m doing really hard training sessions. Like bike sessions. I have this one session that I do, which is 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off. And I always do it on Cruagh Road, which goes up the Dublin Mountains. They’re horrible. You do the first three and you’re just like, ‘how am I going to do another 27 of these? These are so horrible.’

“But while I’m doing it I’m just thinking, ‘19 points ahead.’ Then I’m like, ‘you’re such a psychopath, Annalise’!”