Olympic dream still burning bright for versatile O’Flynn
Former international hockey player-turned Ireland Sevens star is targeting Tokyo 2020
Audrey O’Flynn in action against New Zealand in San Francisco last summer. “When I played hockey, all I ever wanted was to play in the Olympics. And my ambition is exactly the same now with the Sevens.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Audrey O’Flynn found herself in London last summer wearing Annalise Murphy’s Olympic gear while watching the Irish women’s hockey team in the World Cup semi-finals and final.
Back up Audrey. What?
“Well, I watched the quarter-final in Gleeson’s pub in Dublin with my friend Kate Kirby [head of performance psychology at the Sport Ireland Institute] and when they won she says, ‘come on, we’ll go over for the semi-final’.
“I said I couldn’t, I was in the middle of moving house, I was staying with Kate, I had to go to a wedding the next day, I had no clothes with me. She said she’d give me clothes, I said ‘Kate, I’m twice your size’. She said she’d sort something. She got on to Annalise and she lent me her Olympic kit.
“So I went to the wedding, got back to Kate’s house around half-three in the morning, we left for the airport at six, and we made it. And for the final, when some people were paying 100 quid for a ticket, I just walked past security and got in for free.”
Was it the Olympic kit?
“Maybe,” she laughs.
And how did it feel, watching the team?
“It was weird. At first I was thinking, ‘ah Jesus, look what I’m missing out on’, I was green with envy. When I was in the fanzone, just seeing all the other former Irish players, I knew every single of one of them was probably thinking the same.”
Having amassed 120 caps for Ireland, O’Flynn, 31 and a native of Dripsey, Co Cork, had called time on her hockey career at the end of 2014, soon after taking up rugby Sevens having been one of a group of sportswomen from other codes offered the chance to try it out.
“I hadn’t been enjoying hockey for about a year, I’d been humming and hawing about calling it a day up until then. It had reached a stage where I just felt flat and stale, I needed to move on. And I’ve no regrets at all, I haven’t looked back since taking up Sevens, I’ve loved every minute of the challenge.”
“But it was a strange feeling in London. I played with the majority of the players, Shirley [McCay], Anna [O’Flanagan], me and Nicci Daly got our first caps on the same day. I knew what they had all been through to get that far, so I was absolutely thrilled for them.
“I was kind of laughing about the younger players in the team who hadn’t experienced all the disappointments and near misses we’d been through, and them thinking ‘God, this is easy. Get a few caps, get a silver medal in the World Cup’. But the fact that they only know success now is a good thing for the team going forward, they’ll believe anything is possible.”
Her hockey days might be long behind her, but O’Flynn shares precisely the same sporting goal as her former team-mates: qualification for the 2020 Olympics. And after arriving back home from Sydney on Monday with the Irish Sevens squad she’s able to reflect on what was an encouraging tournament, one in which Ireland achieved their first ever top-four finish in a World Series.
“It was a brilliant tournament for us, although we felt deflated after losing the bronze medal play-off against the United States, we really believed that match was there for the taking – but that we were disappointed is a sign of how far we’ve come.
“But we had some good results, we drew with Russia, then beat Canada [the 2016 Olympic bronze medallists], Fiji and Spain, and made a game of it against Australia [the Olympic champions] in the semis.
“We’ve improved so much, we had two players in the team of the tournament [Eve Higgins and Lucy Mulhall], and it should have been three, Amee-Leigh [Murphy-Crowe] deserved to be in there too. We know how much potential we have, we’ve got a talented bunch, it’s all about consistency now.”
Sydney was the third 2018-19 World Series event with three more to go, in Japan (April), Australia (May) and France (June). The top four – currently New Zealand, the United States, Canada and Australia – qualify automatically for 2020, so Ireland, in sixth, have work to do on that front. There will, though, be further qualifying opportunities down the road, and O’Flynn remains confident the squad is capable of making it to Tokyo.
“I think we have a very good chance, although we know it’s not going to be easy. There’s a lot of money being pumped in to Sevens now because it’s an Olympic sport and the feeling is it’s an easy medal – which it’s not. Russia have put in a lot of investment, France are heavily funded too, so it’s hard to compete with that.
“But 11 of us have been contracted to the IRFU since October, and then there’s about 10 development contracts, so we’re able to focus on it full-time. We’re all based in Dublin and it’s full on from Monday to Friday, we use Lansdowne Road at the moment but from the start of April we’ll be out in Abbotstown, the facilities will be great.”
“There’s a long road ahead, but I really do believe we can do it. When I played hockey, all I ever wanted was to play in the Olympics. And my ambition is exactly the same now with the Sevens. If both teams could make it, that’d be something else.”
And she’d have her very own Olympic gear too.