Sonia O’Sullivan: Irish medal chances in Doha another step towards peaking in Paris

Mona McSharry and Daniel Wiffin can realistically target the World Aquatics Championships before turning their focus towards the Olympics

Part of the challenge for any elite athlete is trying to peak twice or even three times in the same year, especially in an Olympic year, and there were plenty of reminders of that this week when doing some reading on the World Aquatics Championships in Doha.

With the headline swimming events set to start on Sunday, and plenty of Irish interest too, it’s already an odd one in that it’s the first time they are faced with a World Championships in an Olympic year. Apart from those needing to post potential qualifying marks, it’s not essential for many of the top swimmers to even race in Doha, so many are staying away.

It’s a bit like the World Indoor Athletics Championships taking place in Glasgow next month. There will be opportunities for athletes to have a slightly less difficult route to the finals, and with that a chance to pick up what is still considered a global championships medal. For others, the Paris Olympics is the one and only peak that matters this year.

Just like in athletics, swimmers also already know the time standard that they need to achieve to qualify for the Olympics, and with that put themselves in the best position for selection.


Ireland has already qualified three swimmers for Paris with standards from last year’s World Championships in Japan. Mona McSharry secured her qualifying time in the 100m and 200m breaststroke, her second Olympics having finished in eighth place in the 100m breaststroke in Tokyo.

Ellen Walshe has also qualified in the 200m individual medley, although she is skipping Doha, while Daniel Wiffen has qualified in the middle-distance swimming events, the 400m, 800m and 1500m, having also broken the world record over 800m at the European Short Course Championships in December.

When you spend a lot of your time chasing up athletics results and statistics, it’s a bit harder to figure out exactly what’s going on in swimming, although McSharry and Wiffen are clearly both ranked in medal positions.

I’ve also always considered myself more of a land athlete, even though I have found myself in the pool and sea at times. There are probably less people that can relate to swimming records and race paces, at least compared to running events. Even regular runners can sometimes line up alongside the elite in mass competition races, and get a real understanding of elite pace, and what it takes to achieve that pace.

The other thing that can be hard to get a handle on is the amount of time elite swimmers spend in the pool training. Often they can swim as many kilometres as middle distance athletes run in a week, only for them it’s up and down the pool, with very little variation outside of the pace, and the different strokes or drills.

I can’t imagine if you told a distance runner that all of their training would take place on a track, just following the white line, the equivalent of the black line at the bottom of the pool. It’s hard to fathom the discipline it takes to maintain such high levels of training, especially across multiple Olympics.

Michael Phelps is reported to have covered 80km each week in training, with many swimmers averaging 15-20km per day depending on their programme. The one advantage is the conditions in an indoor pool will be consistent, though if the weather is nice, it would be so much more appealing to go to the outdoor pool.

It’s certainly an exciting time for Irish swimming, with 13 athletes competing in Doha, most chasing the elusive Olympic qualifying standards. If medals are won in Doha, that will bring an increased level of expectation ahead of Paris.

At those World Championships last July, McSharry finished in fifth place, while also achieving her Olympic qualifying standard. Wiffen placed fourth over 800m, the same event where he broke a world record in the 25m short course pool, and fourth again in the 1,500m. Walshe had to set a new Irish record and placed ninth overall to ensure her qualification.

It’s not just in athletics where the bar is clearly and continually being raised. In swimming, the qualifying standards are also edging that little bit faster each time the Olympic cycle comes around, but it doesn’t stop the athletes rising with the tide and matching the required standards.

In Tokyo, nine swimmers represented Ireland, including a relay team. This coming week there is an opportunity for more Irish swimmers to be added to the automatic qualifying list and make a mark on the world stage.

These championships come at a time of year when, like athletics, swimmers would normally be more focused on strength training and building a solid foundation before introducing more race-specific training.

For athletes like McSharry, coming through the US collegiate system in Tennessee, the timing may be just about perfect and slot in with their preparations for the NCAA finals scheduled for March each year.

It’s always hard to pass up on a championship when you are ready to race. It just means there will need to be a down period built in before refocusing on the build back up to the Olympics.

Another advantage for Irish swimmers is that, unlike countries with a greater depth of swimmers, there is no Olympic Trial race, so one less peak to worry about. No great pressure either, unlike say at the US Olympic Trials, where you really have to compete and deliver a world class result just to make the team.

No Irish swimmer has ever won a long course World Championship medal, and if that does happen next week, the talk will inevitably turn to winning an Olympic medal, and also back to what happened in 1996 in Atlanta.

There has always been a dark cloud of suspicion over the four medals won by Michelle Smith, when two years later she was suspended for tampering with a drug testing sample, and with that lost all respect for her previous swimming achievements.

For the likes of McSharry and Wiffen, neither of whom were even born during that period, none of that talk will matter, and they can remain focused on peaking again for Paris in July.