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Rachael Darragh’s anxious wait over as Paris Olympics place confirmed

Donegal woman comes from a famous badminton family and will now follow in the footsteps of her illustrious aunt, Chloe Magee, who competed at three Games

Rachel Darragh at the Sport Ireland Campus, Dublin. Her lifelong quest was to qualify for the women’s singles badminton at the Olympics. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Before the phone call came last Friday afternoon, Rachael Darragh had the same five words racing around in her head, “what if I don’t qualify . . . what if I don’t qualify”. Through every waking hour and some sleepless nights too.

Her quest was to qualify for the women’s singles badminton for the Paris Olympics – and not just during the year-long qualifying period, as this has been a lifelong quest of sorts, given the now 26-year-old was born into the most famous badminton family in Ireland.

At the end of the qualification period, on April 30th, only 38 places would be offered, some reallocated depending on country quotas, and Darragh had secured the last of them.

When that phone call came, she was on holiday in Albufeira, planned weeks before to coincide with a break in the season, and it was her uncle Dan Magee, the former Irish international and now High Performance director with Badminton Ireland, who made it.

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“Before I found out on Friday, the list of names was up, but no list of numbers, just the ranking system I’d been following all year,” she says. “There were 38 going, so I didn’t know where I’d end up. The men’s singles went to 41, the women’s singles went to 38, so I didn’t know what to expect.

“I think I told my parents ‘I’m in the pits of despair, I don’t think I qualified . . .’ Then to get that call from the HP director on Friday, I was like ‘is it real, am I actually going to the Olympics?’ It was definitely a rollercoaster of emotions the last couple of weeks.

Rachel Darragh: 'To get that call from the HP director on Friday, I was like ‘is it real, am I actually going to the Olympics?''. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Her mother Naomi is also a Magee from Donegal, the family that started up the renowned Raphoe Badminton Club, in her home town in Donegal. She’s also the second family member to qualify for the Olympics after her aunt Chloe Magee (just eight years her senior, who competed in Beijing, London and Rio).

It’s now six days later, and Darragh is wrapping up an open training session at the Sport Ireland Arena in Abbotstown, before she tells the tale, with some clear relief.

“I experienced every emotion under the sun in those two weeks. I’d had a really good year, ticked off a lot of boxes, and to do everything I’d written down on paper, and still to be on the very, very edge . . . it was a very difficult year for women’s singles. There’s not a lot of extra spots as there has been in other years. It was a tough wait.

“The fact we had no real break the whole 12 months trying to qualify, then had two weeks off, I was forced to sit and think about things a little bit. There were nights you’re waking up three or four times, it’s all that’s in your head, it’s your goal since you’re a kid. You’re on the edge, and the amount of times it’s in your head ‘what if I don’t qualify’. It’s difficult, things people don’t know because they don’t see.”

She’ll join Nhat Nguyen in Paris, qualified for his second Games in the men’s singles, and while Darragh is the second from her family to make the Olympics, the list of Irish names is short; Sonia McGinn was the first to qualify, Scott Evans is also a triple Olympian, and that’s it.

Rachael Darragh: 'Of course I want to turn up in the best shape possible, perform the best I can there.' Photograph: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Another uncle, Sam, is a three-time European Games bronze medallist: “Because I’ve had my whole family involved in badminton, it’s a nice thing, I could feel [Dan] was extremely happy for me, same as he was for Nhat. It makes it a little more special.

“It’s been really, really helpful throughout my whole journey in badminton. I think one of the first times I said I wanted to go to the Olympics was watching Chloe in Beijing, when I was 10, on the TV in my kitchen. And I was playing years before that.

“For me, that was my goal for so many years, and I knew Nhat had qualified and was really happy for him. But you come here [to Abbotstown] and everyone is training for the Olympic Games, and you think ‘have I failed in that?’, not fulfilled my dream essentially.

“When I heard I made it, I came home and couldn’t sleep on Sunday night, was dying to get back into training. Of course I want to turn up in the best shape possible, perform the best I can there.

“And Raphoe is such a small place, you go to the shops to get some milk for your parents and three people ask you, ‘how is Olympic qualifying going, I haven’t seen you all year?’ and I’m like ‘I’m still waiting’.”

Not anymore.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics