Ireland’s top swimmers back in the water: ‘It was like first day at school’
Olympic hopeful Brendan Hyland returns to training with a year of possibility ahead
Brendan Hyland back in training at the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
They got out of their cars in their swimming togs and walked around to the back of the Sport Ireland National Aquatic Centre in order to avoid going through the changing rooms. They sanitised their hands, then gave themselves over to the thermal scanner to measure their temperature before moving to their personal stations.
Twenty or so chairs with a basket spaced two metres apart, more sanitiser, and Ireland’s top swimmers were back in the water for the first time under dramatically changed circumstances. But at least they were back.
It was mid-March when the Irish team were in Dublin airport on their way to an international swimming event in Edinburgh. They had gone through to the departures area and were ready to board the plane when the clap of thunder arrived from Leinster House, and Ireland was in lockdown. No one was travelling anywhere.
While the pool in the National Aquatic Centre remained open for a week or so after that, Brendan Hyland has not been in the water for almost 11 weeks. By his own reckoning, it’s the longest spell out of a swimming pool he has had for 10 years.
“Maybe I had eight or nine weeks off when I was 15, and I’m 25 now, so 10 years ago,” he says. “Definitely haven’t had that long off since then.
“You do feel different [coming back]. It was like waking up at my first day at school coming in this morning. I was wondering if I would feel the same because I’ve never had this much time off. But it was okay. You know, I’ve been swimming for a club since I was seven, so 16 or 17 years. Yeah, it did feel a little weird, maybe just a little unfit. But yeah, I still remember how to do it.”
With his 6ft 3in frame, Hyland might have boxed with his cousins Eddie, the Irish super featherweight champion, Patrick, the WBF featherweight champion, or Paulie, the Irish and European Union bantamweight champion. Or he might have played rugby in Templeogue College.
Nights in the National Stadium watching his older cousins win national titles and he could have easily slipped into the Dublin boxing scene with the family DNA. But his parents never ushered him in that direction. Their approach was, if he wanted to climb into the ring they would give him a leg up, but they would not push him.
The agreement was if I asked to join a boxing club they weren’t going to stop me. I suppose I never asked
“Yeah, cousins Eddie, Patrick and Paulie, they are all a bit older,” he says. “The whole family are boxers. I looked up to them. Obviously they were winning loads of Irish titles. But my mam didn’t want me to be a boxer particularly.
“The agreement was if I asked to join a boxing club they weren’t going to stop me. I suppose I never asked. I still think I had that competitive edge and that’s how the swimming started off, from watching my cousins and their success growing up. I used to go to the National Stadium and watch them when I was little. I remember all that the excitement. It was cool.
“I’m six-foot-three. I’m bulked up a bit for the summer. I’m usually thinner. I’m 85 kilos now. If I was boxing 80 kilos, maybe 79 kilos. I’d probably stay out of the heavyweight division because I’m not that big. Know what I mean? I’d be better off trying to cut under that.”
The World Championships last year in South Korea were both kind and cruel to Hyland. He ripped though Irish records, bettering his own in the semi-final of the 200m butterfly, where he came sixth in a time of 1:56:55. A great swim but also seven hundredths of a second outside the Tokyo qualifying mark.
The scheduled Irish trials were to be held in April of this year, but those too were knocked into the future, leaving Hyland with seven hundredths to find somewhere between now and next summer. The close-but-no-cigar performance was a blow but it opened his mind to how fast he could swim. Gwangju was a minor epiphany.
“It was such a mixed emotion. I was absolutely gutted because the Olympics have been in my dreams for as long as I can remember. I remember watching Michael Phelps when I was nine in Athens,” he says.
I was heartbroken. But I feel that I’m still hungry. I feel like I’ve something to chase
“I was aiming to qualify in the summer. But I didn’t fully believe. It was, I’d love to give this a crack. Then when I dropped so much time and came 11th [in the world], it was ‘oh my god’. I always thought I could be that good and then to be 0.07 seconds off. It was ‘oh my god’. But it was probably the best experience of my swimming career.
“So on one hand a performance like that was as big a performance I ever would have dreamt of. Then I look at the clock and go, ‘ah Jaysus.’ seven one hundredths. I was heartbroken. But I feel that I’m still hungry. I feel like I’ve something to chase.”
The number 156 is etched on his mind. The 1:56.55 is his time. The 1:56.48 is the Olympic qualifying time. Half a second quicker would put him in the top eight.
A pivotal year of possibility stretches out ahead. At least now he is back in the water.