'It has been a very long road," acknowledges Fiona Doyle of the pact she made to herself as a 12-year-old to one day swim in the Olympic Games. That pursuit has lasted well over a decade but when she steps on to the blocks for the 200 metres breaststroke in Rio this summer, she can, at the age of 24, strike it off.
“I didn’t understand what mornings were when I first started,” she laughs. “I didn’t understand the politics in sport or what it took from your social life.”
Few of us can understand the savage discipline it took to get this far and fewer still the motivation behind it. Doyle came from a swimming family but what began as a childhood vision has, to a broad extent, shaped her life. Her Christmas holidays in Limerick consisted of a three-day visit from Calgary in Canada, where she speaks now by Skype on a January day which began with the usual 5am trek to the pool, under darkness and in minus temperatures. In every Olympic year, the training schedule of Irish athletes is a source of marvel for a few months and then quickly forgotten about.
Doyle had an RTÉ crew filming her typical week before Christmas for a series that will be broadcast as the Olympics looms into view. The production team admitted to her that they were exhausted from just following her schedule and filming her. The life of any Olympic aspirant is extraordinarily demanding and in addition to her swim schedule, Doyle has had studies and coaching to contend with in Canada.
During term time, her Mondays and Fridays start at 5am. She swims from 6-8am and from 2-4pm with a weights session from 8-9am. Tuesday and Thursday swims are 7-9am and 2-4pm. Wednesday is reserved for running and weights. Saturday morning is all pool work. So her months are reduced to weeks and days which are in turn reduced to units of time in which every waking moment is accounted for.
The obvious question is: why do they do this? Why does she do this? For all but a handful of athletes, swimmers receive only the most fleeting recognition for careers which are based around unparalleled levels of dedication. For instance, Doyle has been a national swimmer for over a decade but has long become accustomed to the fact that few in Ireland are aware of who is on the swim team.
“I do think it is one of those sports that people don’t want to know until the Olympics,” she says.
“And then they see: oh, so-and-so missed out on their second swim and they are terrible and why give money to swimming. For me, that is sad. Even last summer when I won silver and bronze and the World University Games people would say: I have no idea who you are. That, to me, is shocking, because I have been on Irish teams for pretty much 11 years. I have been to the semi-finals of the World Championships twice. So I think people just take snippets in and just from the Olympics. And we may finish first or second in our heats and still not qualify. There is no buffer zone. I feel we don’t get as much coverage as we maybe deserve. So one of my goals is to put Irish swimming on the map.”
She has had her internal battles with the sport, no doubt. A nagging feeling that she wasn’t in the right environment led to her decision to quit Ireland and take up a scholarship in Canada. She says that if asked about Irish swimming two years ago, her attitude would have been much more negative than it is now. Distance has given her perspective.
“I do think in the last two years Swim Ireland has done a good job to try to promote it. At home, coaches say there is no time or pool space. And it is true. But there are limits everywhere. There is no reason you can’t train on dry land or skip or run. Nowhere is perfect. There are more 50-metre pools in Calgary than Ireland. But there are 500 swimmers in our club alone so the coaches have to figure another way to train swimmers when the pool time isn’t there.”
Doyle has questioned why she is doing this lots of times. When she threw herself into competitive swimming as a teenager, she had no real clue of how insistent the pool could be – that you show up every morning, that you constantly improve, that you don’t let up.
She watched 16-year-old swimmers compete in the Beijing Olympics and missed out on qualification for the London Games, so close she could almost hear the cheers. The next four years seemed terribly far away during that fortnight. But since London things have fallen into place for her. She became the first Irish swimmer to qualify for Rio in June. She completed her studies in Calgary late last year. Both achievements mean she can concentrate on peaking for Rio. "It was like a weight had lifted and I could just relax," she says.
The fascinating – and unforgiving aspect of swimming – is that the actual event goes by in a blink. She knows there is a fine line between absorbing the occasion and magnitude of the event and making sure she doesn’t get caught up in it. The thousands of hours she has amassed in the pool over the past decade have, in essence, all been dedicated to 60-something seconds she will race in Rio. It is a lot of one’s life to give for such a brief return.
“Yeah, my event is one of the longest in the pool but it still just takes a minute and seven seconds to get from one end of the pool to the other. When you put that into perspective of how much training you do just to shave half a second off that time, I don’t think people realise how much effort goes into it. When you stand on those blocks you get that time to prove yourself. It is all or nothing. At least for me I get one shot at the Olympics. Ten thousand athletes will go to Rio and only 900 are swimmers and half of those are female. So it is difficult to get there. And, yeah, you have to peak for that race. Once it is done, it is done and you can’t go back. It is something you constantly think about but it is exciting to have that chance to show the world what you can do as well.”
She believes an Olympic semi-final to be a realistic ambition and isn’t afraid to state that a place in the Olympic final is her ultimate ambition. “And if you are there, anything can happen.”
Either success will probably involve her swimming faster than she ever has done in her life, a prospect she has talked through with her coach in Calgary, Mike Blondal.
“We have discussed that. Swimming is one of those events where the 16 who go through can come out of the first two or last two heats. You could be unfortunately in a slower heat and not realise it so we have a plan, yeah. But I would be trying to do a best time, yeah.”
Her current personal best stands at 1.07.15, clocked in Korea last June as she swam to bronze in the World University Games. The current world record stands at 1.04.35, set by Olympic champion Ruta Meilutyté at the World Championships in 2013 in her semi-final race. Doyle had swum in the heats and watched the Lithuanian write herself into sports history.
“It was an unbelievable swim. It definitely gives you a goal. It is super exciting to watch the direction swimming is taking and it does give you a drive as well. Look, she is human too. I have been up close beside her and spoke to her. She is not seven feet tall or four feet wide. She is like anyone else up on the blocks. She has a talent and is doing something in training that maybe we are not doing. She is really nice, actually very shy.
“Generally we are familiar with one another and race a lot. For instance, there is a meet this weekend and seven of the girls who made the finals at the worlds will be there so you see the same faces. And we are able to joke around and have conversations and it is nice to have that familiarity. It relaxes you knowing they are in the same boat as you.”
She expects the weeks between now and Rio to race by and is adamant that more than anything, she wants to change the stereotypical view of Irish swimmers. “That we are only there for fun. Or to participate. I’ve never felt that way. I don’t want Irish kids to feel that way going to European Junior Championships. Getting to Olympic semi-finals or a final; that is do-able.
“If everything falls into place, there is no reason I shouldn’t get into the final. And then it about whoever can put all that work – a lifetime of practice – down into this race. Then, it is anybody’s game.”