'Any events we did, Annalise was always a step above us. She was very determined'


As Annalise Murphy faces a decisive race in the Olympics today, friends and family in the Dún Laoghaire yacht club where she trained talk of her early years

AS THE breeze blows stiffly across Dún Laoghaire harbour, one of Annalise Murphy’s oldest sailing friends points to the type of craft the Olympic hopeful began her sailing career on.

Six-year-old Murphy began, at the National Yacht Club, on small sailing boats before moving on to a hard plastic “topper” in her teens. Then came the Laser Radial, a single-handed dinghy and Murphy’s competition vessel of choice, in which all of Ireland now hopes she will sail to Olympic success.

“This is where her toes go,” Jill Roy, a sailor and senior instructor, says, lifting a not-too-secure-looking strap from the bottom of the craft. “This is where the rest of Annalise would be,” she adds, pointing into thin air on the vessel’s port side, “all 6ft 1in of her”.

Roy, who has known Murphy since they were about nine years old, charts her friend’s rise through the club’s ranks: “She moved out of the smallest boat, the Optimist, quite soon because of her height. Any events we did, Annalise was always a step above us.

“She would always be up the earliest. Every Sunday we’d come down and our coach would say, ‘We’re going to run the pier’, and we’d all groan. It would be a Sunday evening, freezing cold and Annalise would be there, ready to go. She was always very determined.”

But it’s not just discipline and determination that have set Murphy on the road to success. Her family have serious form when it comes to sailing.

The 22-year-old Dubliner is the youngest daughter of Con Murphy and Cathy MacAleavey. Before Annalise was even born, in 1988, her mother sailed in the Seoul Olympics in the women’s 470 Class with Aisling Byrne. Her father, a pilot, is an international race officer and former Olympic coach.

Both parents helped set the current round-Ireland speed record in 1993 as crew on Steve Fossett’s trimaran Lakota.

Their love of sailing saw all three of their children, Claudine, Finn and Annalise, start at a young age in the National Yacht Club in Dún Laoghaire where today, down on the “hard” (the platform on which the boats are kept when not in the water), children are taking the same juniors course which the Murphy children attended: “Our second home was the yacht club,” Claudine says.

To really get an idea of Annalise’s competitive streak there is no better person to talk to than her older sister. Annalise overtook Claudine in the Olympic event she would have liked to pursue. There was “big rivalry” between the two when they were younger, her sister admits. But the girls also recognised only one of them could represent Ireland in the Laser Radial, so they reached a very mature decision: the sister who showed the greater potential would support the other.

“She’s my best friend in the whole world,” says Claudine, who flew in to support her last week from the Caribbean, where she is campaigning to take part in the next Olympics in kite-boarding.

She says Annalise is a kind person, someone who dislikes arguments and who is very fair. But it doesn’t take long for sailing to come back into the conversation: “She has always been very focused about her sailing,” her sister says, recalling the time their parents hired a sports psychologist to talk to the two girls.

“She asked us to draw pictures of ourselves in 10 years’ time. Annalise drew herself with a gold medal around her neck,” she says. “She’s always had this one dream.”

Although sailing isn’t the whole picture of what makes up the person behind the sportswoman – she’s also big into baking and films, surfs and finds time to dote on Lyza and Hazel, two guide dogs for the blind which the family are training – it is a huge part of Murphy’s social life. When she embarked on a science degree in UCD a natural port of call was the UCD Sailing Club where she met friend Katie Curtin.

“I admire her because she’s such a young person who, at just 22, has such determination and focus,” Curtin says, noting that Murphy has since postponed the course to pursue her dream of sailing. “It took a lot of strength and courage to do that – to go off to Australia and other places which are so far away from her friends and family. She has such self-belief.”

Back in the National Yacht Club the kids are ready to set sail. They are full of energy, scampering around in wetsuits as they noisily await their instructors. But the noise is nothing compared to the excitement last Tuesday when the youngsters brought their lunches up to the well-appointed main dining room to watch Murphy claim her fourth win in a row.

“We were shouting, we were cheering; every time we’d see the Irish flag we’d jump up,” says 13-year-old Susanna Mollen.

“I think she’s amazing. She’s so inspirational and she’s really, really good at sailing,” she adds with awe.

“She’s a fantastic role model to them,” says club secretary Helen Cooney, who organises the juniors having taken over the post from Murphy’s mother Cathy in 2010.

To this younger generation of sailors Murphy is not some far-off, inaccessible figure: “She’d come down at lunch-times to the junior courses and chat to the kids. They’re fascinated listening to her stories about where she’s been.”

As the kids take to the water, there is little doubt they are picturing themselves in Murphy’s place, sailing for their country.

“We had them making good-luck cards yesterday,” Roy says. “Some of the little ones were like, ‘I’m a real scaredy cat when it’s windy but you’re such an inspiration and some day I hope I can be like you’.”

But while the enthusiasm of the children and the hopes of the country are behind her, her sister’s assessment of the young sailing star is straightforward and sincere: “No matter what, we’re so proud,” she says.