Olympic families: ‘I wouldn’t be boxing if it wasn’t for them’

Boxer Emmet Brennan pictured with his mother Bernie, father Christy, and sisters Christine (right) and Caoimhe. Photograph: Tom Honan
Ireland’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes are headed for Japan, but without their families

After all the doubt, the will-it-won’t-it anxiety, Ireland’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes can rest easy knowing one thing is certain: the Games are set to begin.

The procedures that will allow the greatest show on Earth to go ahead are as strict as you might imagine, with athletes told to eat alone, refrain from talking in confined spaces and forced to undergo daily testing for Covid-19 – concessions they’re happy to make to reach the sporting pinnacle.

A call was made earlier this week to hold the Games without spectators, but a decision earlier this year to ban foreign fans from attending already meant there would be something missing for members of Team Ireland in Tokyo: when they step into the ring or out on the track, they won’t see or hear their usual supporting cast in the stands.

Most athletes have already departed for Japan, hugging their families goodbye in recent days, and the next time they meet their dreams could be shattered into pieces or have finally come true. Cathal Dennehy caught up with five athletes and their loved ones as the biggest festival in sport prepares for ignition.

Chloe Watkins (hockey)

Chloe Watkins, Irish Hockey international player pictured with her parents Pascal and Gordon and brother Gareth at home in Killiney, Dublin before she departed for the Olympic games. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Chloe Watkins, Irish Hockey international player pictured with her parents Pascal and Gordon and brother Gareth at home in Killiney, Dublin before she departed for the Olympic games. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Before her daughter takes off for Japan, and again after she arrives, Chloe Watkins’ mother Pascal will say a prayer. “Please God, let them walk out and let it happen for them,” she says. “Let them all be safe and sound.”

For her, as for so many parents, this is a nervous time. No matter how grown up their offspring may be, how accomplished in the elite echelons of sport, the stress of being a parent never goes away. But the biggest emotion they feel right now is something different – pride.

“You realise the effort they put in,” says Pascal. “Their life really goes on hold to compete at that level. For Chloe to have that mettle and determination to stick with it, that’s what I’m proud of. She certainly didn’t get any of that from me.”

It’s a point Chloe herself would dispute. The 29-year-old Dubliner has been a key cog in the wheel of the Irish women’s hockey team for over a decade, and she knows none of the success she enjoyed would have happened were it not for her family’s obsession with the sport.

Her father Gordon and brother Gareth were both internationals while sister Courtney has been a long-time stalwart for Hermes-Monkstown. Chloe’s mother didn’t have a hockey background but she was always there, supporting, encouraging, and over the years she has developed an in-depth knowledge of the sport’s intricacies.

“They understand the game, the emotions of it,” says Chloe. “You can have honest conversations with them. I hate being told you did great when you didn’t and I don’t want to be blown up if I had a bad game.”

Her parents typically travel to every international tournament, no matter how far flung, and they had everything in place to be in Tokyo last year until the Games were postponed. Now that they’re unable to travel at all, Chloe knows it won’t quite feel the same.

“You can get the arm around you if you need it or the boot up the arse if you need it – that’s the part we’re going to miss most,” she says. “Anytime we’re in the fourth quarter and feeling tired, it’s always so nice to look up and [see] the green. It spurs you on. They’re always the loudest in the stadium so it’ll be a shame not to have them.”

Her mother would love to gather with others at Monkstown Hockey Club to watch the games but says they will “go with what public health tells us we can do”, which will likely mean watching at home with just the family.

Over the past few weeks, Chloe and her team-mates have been travelling to Belfast to spend time in a heat chamber, cranking workouts on a stationary bike at 35-38 degrees, preparing them for what’s ahead in Tokyo.

“We know it’s a huge deal, the first time ever an Irish women’s hockey team has made it, so we want to put our best foot forward,” she says. “We’re so, so excited.”

That feeling will be replicated almost 10,000km away in Dublin, as her mother sits down to watch a family dream finally come to fruition.

“The Olympic games, it’s the pinnacle and I’m very proud she had the fortitude to stay with it and that it’s happening,” says Pascal. “It’s actually happening.”

Thomas Barr (athletics)

Thomas Barr with his family, from left, Jessie, Tommy, Martina and Becky at the Homecoming of the Irish Team from the European Athletics Championships in Berlin in 2018. Photograph: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Thomas Barr with his family, from left, Jessie, Tommy, Martina and Becky at the Homecoming of the Irish Team from the European Athletics Championships in Berlin in 2018. Photograph: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

One of the big things he’ll miss is the post-race meeting. At just about every championship he’s been to, Thomas Barr walks off the track, gathers his gear, and the first call he makes is to his parents, Tommy and Martina.

Usually they’ll be roaming around outside the stadium, trying to co-ordinate a meeting point, and no matter how the race went they’re the two people Barr wants to see first.

“It’ll be really strange not to have that in Tokyo,” he says. “Whether it goes good or bad, it’s always nice to have my mum or dad there to comfort or celebrate after the rounds.”

They were there at the Rio Games in 2016, the entire family enjoying a dizzying whirlwind adventure as Barr ran the three best races of his life in four days, becoming the first Irish athlete in 84 years to reach an Olympic sprint final. He finished fourth in the 400m hurdles, just one 20th of a second outside the medals.

“Rio was wonderful,” says Martina. “It’s something Tommy or myself will never forget. The night of the semi-final [which Thomas won] we were at the very top in the stands, nobody around us, and we were wildly excited. That’s why it’s a shame we won’t experience it again. We hadn’t a clue what was going on at home when we were in Rio, it was only when we came home we realised the buzz it created.”

Martina is typically a nervous wreck when her son races, a feeling she expects to be heightened when she’s forced to watch the action in Tokyo from her home in Dunmore East, Waterford.

“I hate watching him on a screen,” she says. “When you’re out there you get caught up in the whole thing – I’m still an idiot when we’re sitting in the stands – but I don’t know how it’ll be watching on TV. I know one thing: I want it to be just our own family so we can stress and react any way we need to.”

Thomas won’t be alone in terms of family support, though, as his sister Jessie – an Olympian herself in 2012 – will be there as a Team Ireland psychologist.

“We’re delighted about that,” says Martina. “It’s reassuring.”

Thomas’s parents were both booked to travel to Tokyo before the Games were postponed, and they held out hope for much of 2021 they might still make it.

“Gutted,” says Martina of the decision in March to ban foreign spectators. “Not to be there for the Olympics, we’re sickened. But on the other side, we’re just glad they’re going ahead.”

Thomas will feel their absence, but his disappointment is more for them than for him.

“I’m hoping they’ll get just as much out of it for themselves watching at home,” he says. “I’ll miss them, but I’m glad it’s going ahead as it is.”

The usual Olympic experience will inevitably be diluted, with little interaction between athletes and plexiglass screens between them in the dining hall. But beyond all that, Barr knows the magic of the Games will remain.

“It’s the biggest stage of sport,” he says. “Because such a small percentage of athletes, let alone people, get to make it, it has that prestige. It captures the imagination and attention of the entire world.”

Greta Streimikyte (athletics)

Paralympic athlete Greta Streimikytewith her sister Emilija, parents Asta and Raimundas and brother Arnas. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Paralympic athlete Greta Streimikytewith her sister Emilija, parents Asta and Raimundas and brother Arnas. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Having your family there on the biggest day of your career can be a double-edged sword. When things go well, it’s glorious, the tears of joy flowing and a lifetime of golden memories banked for all concerned. But when things go wrong, the athlete can experience guilt, the effort, energy and economic investment by loved ones heightening their sense of failure.

Greta Streimikyte has experienced both sides. The 25-year-old Paralympian is a 1,500-metre specialist who competes in the T13 category, for those with a moderate visual impairment, and she finished a fine fourth at the 2016 Games in Rio. But at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai three years later, she expected to win a medal and fell short. The first meeting with her parents after the race was a tough one.

“I told them, ‘I need some space,’” she recalls. “’Mom, I love you but I have to go.’ When things go wrong, I like to take my 10 minutes because as an athlete, you feel guilty if things don’t go your way.”

But Streimikyte knows their support is unconditional, and it extends right through her family. She is a triplet and is as close to sister Emilija and brother Arnas as you’d expect. The feeling is mutual.

“If I have a chance, I’m always there to support her,” says Arnas. “She’s very focused, very disciplined in what she’s doing. Whether it’s college or sport, she always puts in 110 per cent. If she falls down, gets injured, she always gets back up. It’s just who she is.”

The whole family hoped to be in Tokyo but now they will likely gather at home in Bettystown, Co Meath, to watch her races. Ever since Greta smashed her 1,500m personal best last month, clocking 4:29.33, her brother has believed she will return with a medal.

“I expect her to get at least third place,” he says.

Greta grew up in Vilnius, Lithuania, moving to Ireland at the age of 15 to live with her father, who had relocated here in 2006 for work. She gained Irish citizenship in 2016 and since then has proudly worn the green at championships across the globe. Coached by Feidhlim Kelly, she has ascended to a new level over the past year, training alongside Olympic team members such as Michelle Finn, Andrew Coscoran and Mark English at the Dublin Track Club.

“We all do the work, we have our coffees after and have the craic,” she says. “That sense of community is important. When I joined I was very inspired. Everyone was about being the best we can be.”

Although this will be a heavily restricted Games, she doesn’t feel she’ll miss out given she had the typical Paralympics experience in Rio. “The main point for me is I’m there to compete and to race,” she says.

When the Paralympics get under way on August 24th, she’ll certainly miss having her family in the stands, but Streimikyte will nonetheless give it everything. Their absence could even work in her favour, lessening any sense of pressure as she toes the line.

“The goal is to perform as best as I can and to have no regrets,” she says. “If I can do that, whatever comes out of it is a bonus.”

Emmet Brennan (boxing)

Boxer Emmet Brennan with his family. Photograph: Tom Honan
Boxer Emmet Brennan with his parents Christy and Bernie and sisters Caoimhe and Christine. Photograph: Tom Honan

On the night he qualified for Tokyo, Emmet Brennan’s mother Bernie was pacing through Fairview Park on the north side of Dublin. It’s what she always does when he fights, feeling it’s a bad luck omen to tune in, knowing she’d experience a level of anxiety she could really do without.

“I do anything just to avoid it,” she says.

And so that Monday night in early June, she and her daughter Caoimhe left their home in North Strand, where the rest of the family had gathered to watch the 30-year-old Dubliner’s key qualifying bout in Paris. It was a close fight, with four judges ruling it a 28-28 draw, but the fifth gave it to Brennan, 29-27. Seconds later, the call came through from Bernie’s other daughter, Christine.

Emmet was going to the Olympics.

“We were running up and down, with people looking at us wondering, ‘What’s wrong with them?’” recalls Bernie. “We were crying, throwing our arms around one another, then we had to try run home.”

Meanwhile, Emmet’s father, Christy, had retreated to the backyard.

“As soon as his hand went up it was euphoria, the whole place went crazy,” says Christy. “There was nobody in the backyard but I was just screaming. My other son was bawling his eyes out, my daughter didn’t know where she was. It was absolutely brilliant.”

Before the pandemic, Christy had gone to almost all of Emmet’s fights, both at home and abroad. The family all planned to be in Tokyo, along with about a dozen of Emmet’s friends, but the light-heavyweight boxer now has to go it alone.

“It won’t change anything in terms of performance, but it’ll change the experience,” says Emmet. “I would have loved to experience it with my family, to have them all out there.”

Nonetheless, he’ll soak up what he can, a dream realised that had once seemed so unlikely. To get to this point, Brennan had to take a punt on his ability. In 2019, he was one of a horde of Irish light-heavyweights with the potential to make the Games but he knew it would require full-time commitment.

He was flat broke so he took a loan from the credit union, living at home with his parents where his mother did the cooking and laundry, his father the de facto taxi driver.

“Other people had grants, he didn’t have anything,” says Christy. “To go through all that and come through was amazing.”

It had been a tough period for the family, with Christy suffering a major heart attack last year.

“He probably shouldn’t be here but he is and he’s after turning his life around,” says Emmet. “He lost four or five stone, he’s out exercising, so I want to dedicate getting to the Olympics to him and the rest of my family for pulling around.”

Emmet is also quick to credit the influence of his brother, Greg. “He gives me constant encouragement, constant motivation, he always has my back. His two sons, Ollie and Harry, are part of the reason I do this. I want to be a good role model for them.”

When he stepped out of the ring in Paris after securing qualification, Emmet called them all immediately on Zoom and saw just what it meant.

“I was incredibly proud, more for them because I repaid the faith they put into me,” he says. “I wouldn’t be boxing if it wasn’t for them.”

But now that he’s made it to Tokyo, he has realigned his ambitions. He wants a medal.

“I’m not naive, it’s going to be a very, very tough task,” he says. “You’re going to have to be on your A-game every single fight, but I’m looking to go all the way and get a medal.”

Back in Dublin, his mother will have to make those same nervous walks in the witching hours, given the eight-hour difference with Tokyo, while his father and siblings will again be planted in the livingroom. They’ll be on the other side of the world yet they’ll also be right there with Emmet for every bob and weave, every duck and jab.

“I’m so proud,” says Christy. “Really, so proud.”

Barry McClements (swimming)

Barry McClements from Newtownards in Co Down with his parents Kelly-Anne and Barry Snr as well as brothers and sisters Madison, Cameron, Megan and Cruz. Photograph: Stephen Davison
Barry McClements from Newtownards in Co Down with his parents Kelly-Anne and Barry Snr as well as brothers and sisters Madison, Cameron, Megan and Cruz. Photograph: Stephen Davison

For so many years, through the central vein of his youth, the routine was the same: Barry McClements would wake up at 4am and hop into a car with his father, also Barry, by 5am, the pair making the 20-minute journey to the pool in Newtownards, Co Down.

He’d train until 7.30am, then get ready for school at 9am. Once that was done he was back to the pool again and – smack-bang in the middle of his adolescence – bedtime was no later than 8.30pm.

All of that, for this: a shot at his first Paralympics. The 19-year-old swimmer is set to compete in the 100m butterfly, 100m backstroke, 200m individual medley and 400m freestyle in Tokyo next month. McClements competes in the S9 category as his right leg was amputated above the knee when he was a 10-month-old baby, owing to a rare birth defect called fibular hemimelia. As a child, he found in swimming a sport where his disability mattered little, and it’s been his obsession ever since.

“His work ethic is very, very strong, especially for a young lad,” says his father. “He’s very level-headed, humble, but he wants to achieve so much. His time will come, but it’s about patience. Tokyo is a stepping stone.”

The teenager’s main goal is to beat his personal bests and he says “whatever comes with that is an extra, whether that’s a final or a medal.” At the age of 14, he just missed out on the 2016 Rio Games by two seconds, an agonising measure in a 400m race.

His dream was deferred but not yet denied.

His family had hoped to be in Tokyo, with his dad weighing up the exorbitant cost last year before the decision was finally taken out of their hands. They now plan to invite friends and relatives to their home in Comber, Co Down, host some late-summer barbecues and burn the midnight oil as they gather around a TV, screaming their support.

“We’ll try to make it as special as possible,” says Barry snr. “We’ll video it and send it to him.”

Having been there for every step of his son’s journey, he believes few truly appreciate the commitment required for athletes who represent their country on the global stage.

“Every one of them, even those who didn’t get qualifying times, deserves a standing ovation,” he says. “They’re young guys giving so much for their dreams. Their friends are going out and enjoying themselves and they’re having to go to bed at 8 o’clock. I couldn’t have done it.”

Having travelled far and wide to watch his son compete, it’ll feel odd not to be there on his biggest day, but Barry snr knows these Games, more than any, are not about the supporting cast.

“It’s all for the athletes,” he says. “For them to be able to compete is what’s important. They worked their socks off.”

But Barry jnr knows it’s not just about him. When he gets on those starting blocks in Tokyo next month and looks at that lane stretched out in front of him, he’ll be fully aware how many have helped him to make it there.

“Recently I’ve realised it wasn’t just me who made sacrifices,” he says. “My family did too. It’s about going out there and making them proud.”