Annalise Murphy: ‘It hasn’t sunk in. I’m so happy’

The Irish sailor is just the fourth Irish woman to ever claim an Olympic medal

She couldn't stop her scream of delight even as she plunged into cold water in Marina de Glória. About the only mistake Annalise Murphy made after five days of punishing, nerve-wracking racing to a famous silver medal for Ireland was to forget to hold her breath when she leapt off her dinghy.

Who could blame her?

See her in that second, holding hands with Anne-Marie Rindom, who finished bronze in the Danish boat. The Irish woman was trying to absorb that she was an Olympic medallist four years after her deep, lasting disappointment at the same event in Weymouth.

All that vanished; she had a silver medal. She had, at one stage in this race, placed herself in contention for the gold. But most importantly, she had been true to the promise she made to herself in the morning: not to be tentative and not to repeat the inhibited, cautious approach that had seen her fall into a heartbreaking fourth place at the London games four years ago. She had raced the boat as she knew she could.

Candour and tears

Sailing is not a mainstream sport in Ireland, but Murphy’s candour and tears propelled her into the centre on that afternoon in Weymouth, when she was squeezed during the final two marks after having raced superbly all week.

Here in Rio, expectations were different. Murphy had come to Brazil believing she was one of at least eight women capable of finishing in the medal positions. In an event defined by moody, impetuous weather, Murphy had sailed astutely and was in that treacherous position of being in with a strong chance of making the medal podium.

Monday, the scheduled day for this final race in the laser radial, started off with listless sunshine and little chance of any sailing only to switch to sudden baleful gusts with perhaps an hour of light remaining.

It would have been perfect for Murphy like a moody autumn evening off Dún Laoghaire transported to Rio’s coastline. But the conditions were declared too dangerous. The day had been nerve-wracking and frustrating, and it meant she had to recalibrate her mind on Tuesday morning when the breeze was light and the sun shone strongly.

And she did it. She was in clear second place behind Sweden’s Josefin Olsson at the first marker and was perfectly placed after that turn, on the right hand side of the course, able to gauge the other boats and assess her strategy.

Best of all, the Dutch and Danish boats had fallen dramatically out of contention by the third leg, at one stage trailing the leading group by 150 metres. Unlike London, Murphy found herself in a position to capitalise on the vagaries of the closing race.

“I went out today knowing that I couldn’t treat it like any different from any other race. I was just going to attack it and not be afraid of losing because that’s what happened four years ago, I was afraid of losing instead of trying to win.

“I just went out and attacked the race. I sailed pretty well: it was light winds so it’s not conditions that really suit me. But I proved I was able to do it. I think I was in gold medal position for a while. I lost out a little on the last downwind but I’m just delighted.”

Peak years

Unlike four years ago, when she sailed as a 22-year-old under the burden of being one of Ireland’s medal favourites, Murphy’s preparation for Rio was not without its doubts. She wondered if her peak years were behind her. She didn’t feel she had been sailing especially well. And her thoughts are tumbling towards those around her, now that she has escaped all that.

Her training partner Sara Winther, who didn't get selected on the New Zealand team, came to help her prepare. "She made me so much faster."

Her mother Cathy McAleavey, who represented Ireland in sailing in Seoul in 1988, has been here all week along with her brother Finn. She says of Rory Fitzpatrick, her coach since her youth, "This is as much his medal as mine. He has stuck by me when I've probably been really difficult and I've had a pretty hard time this year." She talks about Kate Kirby, her sports psychologist and her team-mates and her dietician.

She was not quite able to manipulate the downwind breeze on the race to the finish; finishing first would have been beyond perfection. She finished fifth in the race but a comfortable silver overall.

For an athlete who must have been haunted by that day in Weymouth when the promise of four days of excellent sailing disappeared in minutes; for someone who held the pain of that long after the wider world had forgotten, what a moment.

"It's a completely different feeling," Murphy beamed, marvelling. The sun lit up the spectacular backdrop to Marina de Glória and Murphy's family and friends waved tricolours and waited to get hold of her. Week of delays She nodded and laughed again when reminded that this race makes her just the fourth Irish woman ever to win an Olympic medal. "It hasn't really sunk in. I'm just so happy."

That realisation will come with time. This first hour was just about handling the extreme joy after a week of delays, tension and unreadable weather. All of that vanished as she steered the boat across the line. And then she was jumping into the water: an Olympic medallist.

“I swallowed loads of seawater,” Murphy laughed. “Feel a bit sick now! I think I must have swallowed about three mouthfuls of water because I was still screaming.” Briefly submerged, but on top of the world.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a sports writer with The Irish Times