Fiona Doyle changing attitudes one stroke at a time

Limerick athlete says she is not going to Rio Olympics merely to participate

Not long after winning her second swimming medal at last month's World University Games in Gwangju – securing a Rio Olympic qualifying time in the process – Fiona Doyle was scrolling through some of the congratulatory messages on social media.

One of those perfectly well-intentioned messages expressed their delight for Doyle, before pointing out they’d never heard of her. “I was a bit surprised to read that,” she says. “I’ve been on Irish swim teams for the past 10 years. And thought we were putting ourselves out there a little more.

“I know swimming is not the most exciting of spectator sports and people just start to get excited for the Olympics but I haven’t just popped out of nowhere.”

None of this puts her off. Indeed Doyle is telling me this at the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin, days before leading the small team of Irish swimmers to Kazan for this week's World Championships, where she'll swim the three breaststroke events (50m, 100m, and 200m) – also knowing that unless she wins a medal there, she won't cause much of a ripple within the pool of Irish sporting media.


“And I know some people might watch Rio next summer, and depending on how I do, might say, ‘God, she’s kind of useless . . . ’ And that’s sad.”

Starting point

Again, none of this puts her off. If it did, Doyle would be going nowhere near Rio. Because if every Olympic journey has a starting point, Doyle can trace hers back 11 years already. Only if she knew then, what she knows now, she might never have pursued it. Which is also why she puts the Rio qualifying time in the 100m breaststroke (achieved in her semi-final in Gwangju) ahead of the bronze medal she won in Gwangju (before adding silver in the 50m breaststroke, a non-Olympic event).

“It’s always great to win a medal. Because that’s not just for me. It’s a boost for everyone at Swim Ireland, in that it boosts morale, builds some excitement. But personally, getting the qualifying time for the Olympics was probably slightly better than winning the medal. I’ve been trying to do this since I was 12. For Beijing in 2008, I was about a second off qualifying. For London I was about half a second off qualifying. So now to finally find myself at the other side of it is a pretty nice feeling.”

As in track and field, there are no Olympic A and B standards anymore: Doyle needed to clock under 1:07.85; she hit 1:07.67 in her semi-final, before improving that, and her Irish record, to 1:07.15 in the final. She’s currently ranked 12th in the world going to Kazan (the same venue, incidentally, where she won World University Games silver in 2013), and now aged 23, part of her evolution since missing out on Beijing and London has been embracing this ranking for what it’s worth.

"I feel Irish athletes are starting to get better at promoting themselves, especially women athletes. Katie Taylor is a great example, because she's really highlighted the fact that women can be just as successful as men. In swimming, we need more of that confidence. Like I still feel a little embarrassed to say I'm ranked 12th in the world. That shouldn't be the case. It should be, yes, I'm 12th in the world.

“And I have big goals for Rio. For me, it’s not about going there to participate. I expect a second swim. At the very least. That’s all been in play the last two years.”

Strictly speaking this has been in play since she was 12 years old, when Doyle was sitting at home in Limerick with her parents, watching the swimming at the Athens Olympics, when she suddenly looked over at them and declared: “I’m going to swim in the Olympics . . . and I’m going to do just as good.”

Now, the Doyles being a swimming family (her grandfather had founded the St Paul’s club in Limerick), this statement was greeted with mixed feelings: yes, swimming in the Olympics would be fantastic; yet had she any idea how difficult it might be?

“No, absolutely not,” she says. “I just told them, ‘I’m going to swim at the Olympics . . .’ And they were great with that. They never said ‘eh, no’. So, in my own head, it was always achievable. I just had no idea what it actually took to achieve it. And if someone had told me then, would I have still taken it?

“Well, probably being as stubborn as I am, I probably would. But I don’t think many people would have turned around and said yes, and still commit to it. Although I was so naive about the whole thing. To me, it was always achievable.

“And from a very early age, myself and my twin sister [Eimear] were always in the water. And because I was always so competitive in everything I did that just happened in swimming too. Even in training I wanted to beat everyone around me. And I still say I’d rather be inside getting wet than outside getting wet. It’s one of those things. Once you’re in the pool it’s just you in your head. And I kind of like that. I like blocking out other senses and trying to push yourself as hard as you can, harder than you’ve ever pushed before. And then feeling sick, but at the time feeling good about it.”

Mixed feelings

Just a year later she was well on track for the Olympics, qualifying at age 13 for the 2005 European Youth Olympic Festival in Lignano, where she finished fourth. Doyle also remembers telling one of the coaches she intended on being on the medal podium the next time, another statement which was greeted with mixed feelings.

“It was almost as if this sort of confidence wasn’t encouraged,” she says, not realising this was also her first taste of some of the politics of Irish swimming which would later came back to bite her.

“For years, we were almost told not to promote themselves. Maybe some people still felt hard done by, because of what happened with Michelle Smith. I just wanted to promote swimming. That’s also why it’s hard for me to hear some people saying I’ve come out of nowhere. I’m trying to promote the sport a little more, and not be afraid to express that. With Michelle Smith, I have my views on that. But unfortunately that question still comes into people’s minds, like, ‘are they on something?’

“But I know I’ve been stubborn. And determined. And it has been a struggle. Like at age 12 you can’t imagine that politics of sport might come into it. And that you have to play those politics. I was a little hot-headed for a while, and when the situation got so bad in Limerick, I had to get out of it. So I went through a number of coaches, and some of them were pretty negative. Some coaches were actually telling me to forget about qualifying times. Another actually laughed at one of my performances.”

At lot of that is now water under the bridge, although the problem for Doyle started when Steve Price, who had been appointed high performance coach of Swim Ireland in 2007, returned to his native Canada. Doyle then moved to Dublin, linking up with Peter O'Brien at the Portmarnock Swim Club, and then, via Price, getting a part scholarship to the University of Calgary, where for the last four years she's worked under their college coach Mike Blondal.

Pushing each other

“Swimming is such an individual sport, but there’s a great team environment about it too. At Calgary we have 35, 40 on the varsity swim team. And everyone is pushing each other.

“But moving to Canada was really about getting my head in the right place again. I think it came a little too soon for London, because I still had some issues with injury. And I was blaming everyone but myself. I was .48 of a second off the time for London, in the 100m backstroke, whereas in reality, there were a lot things that I needed to deal with myself.

“So, in one sense, missing London was the best thing that happened to me. I got a stern talking to from my family. If the Olympics were really and truly a target, I needed to change some things. It was partly an attitude thing. I would be going out maybe one or two nights more than I should have. No more than any ordinary person. But a night too many for an elite swimmer.

“I started back in Calgary in September 2012, after missing out on London, and realised only I could work for this. I started analysing races a lot more. And finding things that were positive about the race. Not just negative. Like if a race didn’t go well, still find something that did go well, and work on that. It was about baby steps. One baby step at a time.

“Then in 2013 I had a great year, medalled at the World University Games, making two semi-finals at the World Championships.”

Doyle still has one more semester in Calgary to look forward to (she’s studying human kinesiology and sports science), which will provide the perfect lead in for Rio next summer. She expects to be at her peak.

“I always say I’ve been training the last 10 or 11 years for these Olympics. From a young age, 20 hours in the pool a week. And the gym work on top of that. Those mornings are still tough. People think we must get used to them. But we don’t. When that alarm goes off, at 5am, you still curse it.

“And hopefully now I will be in a better position to really do well. Still some Irish swimmers are almost afraid to admit that, and when they get to the Olympics, feel a little daunted, when actually, every swimmer has the same two arms and two legs. And they’re just as nervous as we are. There’s no reason we can’t compete. And we don’t work this hard just to participate. We need to change that attitude.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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