Nicholas Quinn: ‘Swimming became how I dealt with grief’

Olympic swimmer on the tragic death of his father and his dilemma over postponement of Games

Ireland’s Nicholas Quinn after winning his heat but failing to qualify during the Rio Olympic Games. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland’s Nicholas Quinn after winning his heat but failing to qualify during the Rio Olympic Games. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho


Tokyo. For almost two years, the name had been bouncing around in his head not so much as a city but as a glittering idea for him to chase towards. It has been there through stroke after stroke, breath after breath, through hundreds of hours in the pool and through the usual montage of images – those faces, those questions – popping up on the tiled floor of the swimming pool, questions which have been there in the absolute jumble that life has been for his family through the two years since his Dad, since John Quinn, the most reliable and conscientious person anyone could meet and whose preparations were a kind of running joke in the family, had the most everyday kind of stumble and slipped and, to their disbelief, died.

It’s Tuesday lunchtime in Edinburgh now and that arrow has suddenly stopped mid flight. Tokyo, all of that, is gone like a puff of smoke.

A Mayo man in Scotland, just one of billions whose personal life and certainties have been thrown into absolute chaos

“Relief,” Nicholas Quinn says of his abiding feeling when he heard that the Olympics had finally been postponed. Like everyone else, the Mayo swimmer is in lockdown. He is exercising in the living room of his apartment, filling the hours with study and getting out for a run. “Not for my fitness. For my sanity,” he laughs. Deep down, he knew for days before the announcement came. He’d watch the news and keep tabs on the surreal, harrowing stories from Ireland, from the world in its slow, strange freefall. The very idea of “the Olympics”  seemed increasingly strained, even wrong. So when the idea was rubbed out, he felt okay.

“There are so many people disappointed because different things aren’t happening,” the 26-year-old tells you by phone.

“But when I heard my main thought was: Look, I don’t have to put myself in a position where I put myself at risk or inadvertently put others at risk. It was more the anxiety of that. And the relief of being able to say: this is far more important and that I can play my part and do as much as I can do in this huge global thing that we don’t have much control over.

“And yeah, Dad’s dying gave me the perspective that I am just lucky to have had the opportunity to do this. To try and be the best I can. The Olympics are massive and for the people who are trying to get there to compete. And for the people who do get there, it is the pinnacle of what they have done. But . . . not at the expense of human life or putting anyone at risk. Athletes are blinkered and they will do what they can as long as there is uncertainty.”

So here he is, a Mayo man in Scotland, just one of billions whose personal life and certainties have been thrown into absolute chaos. We had been talking over the previous month, conversations which were originally about his preparations for the Irish Olympics trials scheduled for April 1st, through those weeks when the Covid-19 crisis was transformed from something remote to life-changing.

He’d put the jigsaw together himself, calling his mother, Mary, who lives in Strasbourg along with Darragh, his brother, through those weeks when she told him that everyone was confined to indoors there except for strictly necessary trips to the shop.

Ireland’s Nicholas Quinn in action during the men’s 100m breaststroke heats during the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Ireland’s Nicholas Quinn in action during the men’s 100m breaststroke heats during the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images

And he’d talk to his sister Fionnuala, who is a physiotherapist and has a good handle on what’s going on in the medical services. He’d chat to people at home in Castlebar and they’d be telling him about the strict measures already in place on the streets and in the shops. And then he’d wander around Edinburgh through last week feeling uneasy about the way people were pretending that life was still normal: still thinking hard if they wanted that latte with oat or almond.

Swim Ireland inevitably cancelled the April trials and spoke of an alternative date, sometime in June. When you’re an elite swimmer, dates are sacrosanct. You get a date, dip it in gold and go chase it through routine and diligence and training away in obscurity. 2:10.35 was the magical time: the qualifying numbers for the 200 breaststroke. He knew it was in its grasp. But day by day Tokyo itself – the five hoops, the grandeur, the thrill – became a lot more insubstantial.

In normal times, he should be returning from a training camp in Spain this week. He knew well over a fortnight ago, watching the news bulletins of the terrible new reality in Italy and on the continent that his trip wouldn’t happen. And he probably figured that idea of an Olympics in this plagued summer was wrong.

Now, this week, he has to sit down and think about whether he wants to keep this dream going for another year. 2021. Right now, it seems further away than a mere calendar year.

“Swimming is what I know and what I’ve done for the past 10 years,” he explains. “And I know the toll it has taken on my body. That is part of swimming at a high level for 10 years. So it was about staying fit and healthy to give myself a chance. Can I do that again? There is no reason in my head I can’t keep going and be better. But it is very easy to say now, yeah, I’m going to do it. But what I’ve learnt from the last four years is that there is a big difference between doing it and actually being in it. I need to make sure I am ready to be in it.”

When he is talking about being “in it” he is nominally talking about split and finish times. But really, he is talking about how life has changed irrevocably for the Quinn family since that weekend in May in 2018. Up in Edinburgh, at his last meet, he swam in the 200 breaststroke, his tailored event, in 2:13.5. Three of his four fastest in-season times have come this season. That was the fastest he swam since the night in April 2016, when he qualified for the Rio Olympics. How often has he returned to that Sunday night in Eindhoven? What he remembers now, of course, is the unapologetic, unembarrassed pride and joy of his parents up in the spectators seats after he’d qualified. What he remembers is this crappy phone his father had brought along.

“And he kept taking photos of me. Eating a cereal bar or getting changed. He just kept taking photos because he didn’t know what else to do. He was just so proud. And I remember turning to Mam and saying if you don’t take that phone off him I’m gonna kill him.”

But he understood, too, why John Quinn was so thrilled. His father had been there from the start, giving him swim lessons with the other kids in the community pool in Castlebar and persuading the chief instructor to nudge him up a grade because he could see his boy was becoming bored. Outdoor water was his father’s passion: winters and summers at the pier in Lecanvey near Louisburgh or out at Mulranny or diving off Achill.

John Quinn was part of the Grainne Uaile sub-aqua team and each Sunday revolved around dives in the perishing Atlantic waters off Mayo. And then, every so often, they’d be called upon for the grim task to search for someone who’d gone missing. Nicholas would sit in the back of the car some days with Fionnuala and Darragh. On fine days they’d fish for crabs off the pier. And the fishing was fine. But always, he wanted to be in the water.

“With diving I have a big problem with my ears and to be honest I still do. It is probably something I will do again later because it is a whole different world down there. I guess I have only done one proper dive to about seven of eight metres. But I even notice in a pool if I am the first in, I turn onto my back under water. And there is a silence that you can’t get anywhere else. And you can see your own reflection in the pool. And in the sea, that is taken to another world. In the water you are completely removed from our world.”

Nicholas Quinn with his father John and mother Mary.
Nicholas Quinn with his father John and mother Mary.

All the Quinn kids swam at a high competitive level through secondary school but by his Leaving Cert year in St Gerald’s, he wanted to keep going. And in 2014, in his first senior race, he finished two and a half seconds outside the ‘A’ time for Rio. And it triggered something. He suddenly understood it was possible. His father was never particularly vocal or big on speeches. But he’d drive any of them anywhere and everywhere. And there’d always be a message popping up on the phone. “Good luck”, “Believe in you”.

“He probably had more faith in me than I had in myself during those times,” Nicholas says now.

So, yeah, of course his folks went a bit daffy that night in Eindhoven and the few months in the lead-up to Rio was a kind of magical thing for the family. Being a swimmer in Mayo is not the same as kicking frees in the Connacht championship. It’s a more obscure road to sporting excellence. And he never even thought about that so the outpouring of local pride took them all aback.

“It is that thing. It is the Olympics. It seems to grip the imagination of people who don’t know that much about the sport of swimming. Especially at home in Mayo . . . the lead-up to the Games was quite special. I was over here for most of the time training. But a few times I did go home the support was made clear for me. I have always been very proud to be from Mayo but I was genuinely shocked at the support I received. The outpouring was incredible.”

And it kept rolling. After Rio, life changed for the family. Nicholas went to college in Scotland. His Dad had become disenchanted with the routine of work and when an opportunity arose in the Council of Europe, his parents decided to go for it and move there. It would be an adventure. The family would meet regularly, in France, in Edinburgh and then at the home house outside Castlebar in summers and Christmas. As it turned out, all three of the children and Mary Quinn were together in Edinburgh on the weekend of John Quinn’s accident. Nicholas had been in the pool that morning. When he finished his session, he saw a series of missed calls.

“The news was really sketchy. We didn’t know what had happened other than Dad had died. We knew he had fallen but not how.”

In the weeks afterwards, they began to put the pieces together. In short, their father had organised one his regular weekend walks for friends and colleagues in the Vosges Mountains. The plan was to walk two trails, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. There was a viewing point 10 minutes into the first hike. That weekend – in mid May, the views were panoramic. Everyone was taking photographs. John Quinn was co-ordinator – he had taken evening classes to become qualified as a guide – but it was all very relaxed: just a beautiful day for a pleasant hike. One of his rituals was to bring along bags of oranges for the hikes. “Maybe two packs of 16,” Nicholas says.

“He would cut them up at lunch time and pass them around. But he had spares of everything in his back pack in case someone was missing equipment or something. So his backpack was really heavy.”

Later that summer, Nicholas visited the spot. The scenery was as he’d heard. There was a of a three-metre lip at the edge of the spot. And they believe now that when everyone was leaving, John must have lost his footing as he was turning and that the weight of that backpack must have pulled him over the edge. It’s a 30-metre drop down. He died instantly. In all the years diving, they sometimes worried. Things can go wrong in the ocean. It’s a pursuit that demands precision and absolute care and even though their father had an abundance of both, they still worried. He had only taken up hiking after developing a problem with his ears through all those years diving. And in comparison to diving, walking hills had seemed like the safest pastime in the world.

“It is strange kind of thinking back. You are just running from one thing to the next. It was disbelief, of course. When we went to France, so many people we didn’t know knew Dad there. And you are meeting them for the first time.”

The family at the Rio Olympics.
The family at the Rio Olympics.

They moved between France and Castlebar that summer, reeling and responding to the weeks as they occurred for the rest of the year. The peculiar thing was that 2018 had been a poor year for Nicholas in the pool. He hadn’t qualified for the European championships, a setback which meant that he found himself home in Mayo for 10 days in late April. His parents had booked time off work in the expectation of watching him swim.

“So we ended up at home. And I had those days with Dad which I would never otherwise have had. And for whatever reason, we decided to walk Farbreiga, just outside Castlebar again. It was only the second time I have ever done a hike with him. The first time we did this walk was when I was 12 and I just wasn’t into it. And it was good to be out in the air with him. You know, he was in Strasbourg while I was in Edinburgh so I would only see him at weekends or during main holidays. So I ended up feeling lucky to have that time because the swimming hadn’t gone well. It’s weird how things work out.”

He’s gone over the conversations a hundred times. “Unfortunately my swimming was probably the main topic,” he laughs now. But it wasn’t just that. They drove to Limerick to meet the performance director one afternoon. Hours in the car, no rush on them.

“He was telling me doubts he had about where he was in Strasbourg and doubts where he wanted to be. And, you know, my granddad died when he was 60. And Dad was talking about the fact that he would be turning 60 in October and that his own dad died at that age. And the whole situation, thinking back, was a bit surreal. Dad thinking a month before he died about his own mortality. And different conversations like that . . . I guess I feel I was incredibly lucky to have those 10 days with him.”

And he can see now that when he got back into the water that summer and winter with no clear perspective other than to swim – because he was a swimmer. He still had classes, studying performance psychology. The pool gave him space and time with his thoughts. “But my heart and head weren’t fully in it.” It became a routine without a set objective, which can be fatal for an elite swimmer. When the calendar rolled into 2019, he knew he had a decision to make. Two years had passed since he had swum anything like his best. He made a plan with his coach and he flung himself into it and thought he was swimming with a new motivation, but even that proved tricky.

“Because it was far too emotional. It felt like this was my last chance, that we didn’t have much time. It was too much. I don’t think I ever fell out love with swimming but I think a big part of that was the flexibility I gave myself. It became a big part of how I got through my grief. My default is just to go to the next thing without giving proper time to think. It was: Let’s do this for Dad.

“And I think that is why I was struggling. Good intentions were there. But my energy was put in the wrong direction. And that was part of my realisation over the past year. Dad was proud of me no matter what. Yeah, he is proud of what I’ve achieved but hopefully of who I am too. And whether I make another Olympics or not was never going to change his perception. And I realised then that I had never swam for Dad. I had never swam for anyone. I think I needed to come back to that. And I don’t feel like I have finished. I don’t think I have shown the very best version of myself in the pool yet.”

So that’s where he is poised, now, in late March, as the lights go out on everyday society across the globe. You talk to Nicholas Quinn and you hear someone bright and positive, engaged and fiercely committed to their sport. A gigantic question mark hangs over the world he had concocted for himself. The water will always be there. Both Fionnuala and Darragh are free divers. They will always swim. But you sense no matter what he decides in the coming weeks, even if he doesn’t get a chance to make that golden time in his mind’s eye, even if Tokyo remains a what-if, none of Nicholas Quinn’s long lone hours in the pool will have been wasted.

“I see myself as incredibly fortunate. Whenever I finish my career in swimming I will never be in that physical shape again. And the opportunity to see how good I can be is what it was always about. And I think I was in a good place. It is disappointing I don’t get to see what that is. But the journey of getting to that point is not wasted.

“In all the emotions of the last few weeks, that was not one of them. I think that perspective has definitely come from the things that have happened with me and my Dad and the family. To be able to do what I have been doing is pretty fortunate. And if I can do that next year, for the right reasons, I will be fortunate too. But I need to do it for the right reasons. Or else I will regret it for the rest of my life. And right now I know I could walk away – and I’m not saying I will – and have no regrets about the past 18 months.”

So he’ll think it through. On this Saturday, Fionnuala is in Glasgow. His mum Mary is back in Castlebar, figuring that isolation-Irish style is probably easier. Darragh is in Strasbourg. They’ll talk it through, will be okay.

“Life is tough,” Nicholas Quinn says finally. And he could, of course, be speaking of both the past couple of years for his family and of the turmoil and fear coursing the planet.

“You never know what people are carrying.”

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