Keeping Ireland's Olympians in shape


Aidan Woods would love to have competed in the Olympics, but being the Irish athletes’ physio is as good as qualifying, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

MOST TOP athletes will tell you the most important thing about a physiotherapist is not necessarily their qualifications, but their experience. When it comes to the Olympics they also want to be in good company as much as a safe pair of hands.

Aidan Woods qualifies on all counts – and just as well, given his role as leading physiotherapist for the Irish team at this summer’s London Olympics.

If we are to come home with any medals then Woods is the man ensuring that everyone competes at their fastest, highest and strongest.

Aged 36 and still exceptionally fit, Woods could be mistaken for an Olympic athlete himself, and certainly has the sporting background worthy of the role.

He admits that for any sports physio, getting to work at the Olympics is as good as an athlete qualifying, a similar pinnacle in their own career – although that’s not saying he doesn’t appreciate the extraordinary talent and dedication required to actually compete in London this summer.

“I suppose I always had lofty aspirations to compete at the Olympics myself,” says Woods, “but when I saw how hard our Olympic athletes trained, like when I first worked with the Irish rowers, and the level of talent they had, the discipline and focus, it was light years ahead of what I ever had.

“So the next best thing really was to work with the athletes. Competing in the Olympics is still the ultimate, but from a physio point of view, getting to be a part of the team is in some ways the equivalent of an athlete qualifying, because it is what most of us sports physios aspire to.”

London will actually be his third Olympics, as Woods was also part of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) medical team in Athens in 2004, and again in Beijing in 2008.

Even before that, Woods got his first taste of what the Olympics are all about in Sydney 2000.

While studying at the University of Queensland for an MSc in musculoskeletal medicine, Woods made a couple of trips to Sydney, and got to witness Sonia O’Sullivan winning her 5,000-metres silver medal.

Now, 12 years later, they’re on the same team, as O’Sullivan is the OCI chef de mission, and will be working closely with Woods to ensure every Irish athlete remains in peak physical condition.

His love and passion for Olympic sport goes back to his childhood, growing up in Clones, the small Monaghan town that boasts two Olympians in boxers Barry McGuigan and Kevin McBride.

“My father helped form the first athletics club in Clones, so I grew up around the sport, travelling the country to all the different events.

“I suppose that gave me the grounding from a very early age.

“Then I attended St Macartan’s College in Monaghan, where the current GAA director general, Paraic Duffy, actually taught me. That school encouraged sport in a big way too, and in ways introduced me to sports physio, the possibilities of making a career out of it.

“So on leaving school I decided straight away that’s what I wanted to do, and got into UCD to do the BSc in physiotherapy.

“I actually graduated at age 20, and worked in hospitals at first, but it was always my intention to combine the physio work with my sporting background. I always felt the two worked together anyway.”

During this time Woods continued to compete, captaining the Irish under-23 cross-country team in 1997, and soon branched out into cycling and swimming, and inevitably the triathlon, later finishing fourth in the Irish championships in 2005, while also winning a national duathlon title (running and cycling) in 2004.

He also credits his year spent in Australia with giving him the extra layer of experience to go with his four years of undergraduate study in UCD.

“The advantage with a university degree is that you have to do the respiratory work, the neurology, paediatrics, and elderly care too. You think it is only orthopaedics that really applies to sport, but it’s important to get the full background too.

“Some of the athletes I would have worked with ended up having respiratory problems, or neurology problems, so with the physio degree, you get the grounding in everything.

“It was only later, in Australia, that I tried to specialise more in orthopaedics, which is joints, the muscles and bones.

“The Australians do have a great reputation for their quality of physiotherapy, and the 18 months I spent out there was very intensive.”

On his return home Woods began working at the Dublin Spine Sports Physiotherapy Clinic, under Eileen Murphy, who happened to be a former lead physio with the Irish Olympic team.

“She was a wonderful mentor to me, taught me a fantastic amount of knowledge on Olympic sports.

“At the time, Fiona O’Toole was also working in the clinic when rowing in Ireland was very, very strong. She knew of my interest in Olympic sports, and asked me to get involved with the rowing team. So from 2001 until 2008 I was with the rowing team, who had several world champions at the time.”

Woods has also spent time working with the Irish athletics team, Irish canoeists, and also our boxers, shooters and even Irish surfers. It’s given him such a range of experience that when the role of lead physio for London 2012 became vacant, Woods was the leading candidate.

His role in London will be to oversee the physio requirements of all the athletes across all sports, which he knows will make for a nervous if not extremely busy assignment.

“In my previous Olympics I would have worked very closely with some individual athletes. If you take the example of the Olympic rowers in 2008, I travelled for five months with them before Beijing. It’s usually the coach, a manager, a physio and the athletes, all working closely together. So you’re with them on a daily basis.

“Very few athletes train for an Olympics without getting some injury or, more specifically, may be carrying over some weakness from childhood. So a lot of the work is keeping them in peak physical shape, but also looking at any weaknesses, such as posture, to minimise the weakness.

“The big fear is that they will sustain some acute injury that might threaten their participation, although thankfully that doesn’t happen too often. But you have to put the health of the athlete first.

“You’re an independent body, really, and you have to be honest with them. But you also liaise with the rest of the medical team, such as Dr Seán Gaine, our team doctor for London.”

Woods now operates his own practice at Pearse Street Physiotherapy Clinic, which he opened in 2006, but this summer is all about London. He realises it’s going to be a stressful time, but in ways that’s how he likes it.

“We’ll have a whole team of physios, in that most sports have their own leading physios anyway. So it’s about working together, really. My main role is to oversee the work of the other physios, and be involved with all the sports, to some extent.

“For example, if you take athletics, someone will be at the track, others back at the village, others in competition, so you try to provide cover in all areas as much as possible.

“But the Olympic physio is not so much about treatment, more prevention, or maximising performance. The ideal is that none of them will be actually injured, but at full physical health. So it’s more about helping with pre-competition routines that athletes go through, loosening them up, general prevention, but also everything else from carrying bags, helping with drinks, food, or whatever.

“So really it is a 24/7 assignment, quite hard work, and what you actually have to do is force yourself to take a break. It’s no good just going flat out for a whole month. You have to be at your best too. So you don’t really get to enjoy the Olympics in any great way. You enjoy it in retrospect, looking back, but I think it’s that passion for Olympic sport that really helps me gets me through it.”