Meet the future Irish Olympians keeping hopes and dreams alive

A new OCI cholarship scheme is hoped to help more athletes reach the holy grail

Taekwondoin Jack Wooley at the OCI Tokyo Summer Scholarship announcement. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Taekwondoin Jack Wooley at the OCI Tokyo Summer Scholarship announcement. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

 

It’s strange how most of the people who think the Olympics have become a tainted exercise are the ones who never get to compete there. For those who hold the ideals strong, the dream is still alive and worth living for.

At least that’s the unmistakable feeling among some of the Ireland’s future Olympians, including those on their way towards qualifying for Tokyo 2020, now a mere 968 days away. The cycle is already in full spin. 

To help them get there, the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) is distributing 12 individual scholarships, plus one team award, all aimed at maximising the medal potential in Tokyo: the funding comes primarily from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), topped up by the OCI, an example perhaps they’re more than just a glorified travel agency. 

Among those to benefit is swimmer Mona McSharry, rower Denise Walsh, athlete Síofra Cléirigh Büttner, and Jack Woolley in taekwondo, all of whom weren’t far off qualifying for Rio 2016. The team scholarship is awarded to the men’s hockey team, who did make it to Rio, the first Irish team at an Olympics since 1948. 

Rower Denise Walsh, left, and swimmer Mona McSharry. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Rower Denise Walsh, left, and swimmer Mona McSharry. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Each of the scholarship recipients (seven men, five women) will receive approximately $625 per month up until the Tokyo Olympics, which begin in July 2020; they also receive a maximum of $5,000 to assist with travel costs in connection with qualification events. The team scholarship is worth $100,000, or $25,000 a year, and should help seal the Irish men’s hockey qualification, currently ranked 10th in the world. 

“It’s going to be very beneficial,” says McSharry, who made history in August when winning Ireland’s first swimming gold medal at the World Junior Championships, over the 100m breaststroke. Still only 17, McSharry came close to qualifying for Rio, and sees Tokyo as both a realistic and utterly worthwhile ambition. 

“Oh yeah, as a young child in the sport, even getting top in your county, everyone wants to go to the Olympics. In my mind as well it’s the same race as a World Championships, the same race, the same swimmers, so I wouldn’t be putting it up on a huge pedestal. It is my goal, and Tokyo 2020 would be an absolute dream come true, though in my mind I just go out there and swim my fastest.” 

Now in fifth year at school in Ballyshannon, part of her training regime involves coming to Dublin’s 50m pool at the Sport Ireland Campus: “Even though I do have a great home coaches, happy where I am, it is important that I get up to Dublin, and I wouldn’t be able to do that without this money.” 

All 36 National Governing Bodies associated with the OCI were invited to make nominations, which then went before the IOC for Olympic Solidarity funding: eight athletes, plus the hockey team, were selected, the OCI then adding a further €140,000 investment to bring the final number to 12. 

Since missing out on Rio by one spot, Woolley is now competing full-time in taekwondo: the 19 year-old from Jobstown in Tallaght is in the Ivory Coast this weekend for a Grand Prix event aimed at securing qualifying points for Tokyo, the OCI scholarship being his only form of financial support. 

“I teach taekwondo from 2-6pm every day, in my local club, and get about €100 for that, but this is my only real support,” says Woolley, who was ranked number one at 54kg, but since moved up to 58kg, having struggled to make the lower weight. 

“Of course, I’m putting everything into it. People talk about a social life, but I do get to train with my friends. I might not be going out drinking like everyone else, and I do put a lot on hold, but that’s what you’re going to do, if you want to make it.” 

Athletes, from left, cyclist Mark Downey, hockey player Alan Sothern, badminton player Nhat Nguyen, gymnast Rhys McClenaghan, swimmer Mona McSharry, rower Denise Walsh, hockey player Kirk Shimnins, eventer Cathal Daniels, taekwondoin Jack Wooley and Clay target shooter Ian O’Sullivan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Athletes, from left, cyclist Mark Downey, hockey player Alan Sothern, badminton player Nhat Nguyen, gymnast Rhys McClenaghan, swimmer Mona McSharry, rower Denise Walsh, hockey player Kirk Shimnins, eventer Cathal Daniels, taekwondoin Jack Wooley and Clay target shooter Ian O’Sullivan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

For Ryan, who hails from the now home-of-Irish-rowing in Skibbereen, Tokyo would be pinnacle of her career: “The World Championships too, but the Olympics will always be the main thing. It’s such an unreal experience, all the countries coming together. Fair enough you have the Worlds and Europeans, but the Olympics are still the highlight.” 

Also well on his way to qualifying is Irish badminton champion Nhat Nguyen, the 17 year-old Leaving Cert student at St David’s Artane, who has already spent two months at a training camp in Jakarta last year, and plays semi-pro with the TV-Refrath club in Cologne.

“The funding will help a lot with the travel, save my parents a lot,” says Nguyen, whose parents moved to Ireland from Vietnam in 2006. He won his first Irish senior title at 15, and hasn’t thought about anything beyond school yet except for Tokyo. 

“And I want to do well. I don’t want to just go there, to say I went to the Olympics. I want to medal, to win the gold. It’s a long, long process, but I think I’m ready for it.” That future, it seems, is in good hands.

IOC/OCI scholarship recipients for Tokyo 2020:

 Síofra Cléirigh Büttner (Athletics Ireland)

Denise Walsh (Rowing Ireland)

Mona McSharry (Swim Ireland)

Jack Woolley (Irish Taekwondo Union)

Nhat Nguyen (Badminton Ireland)

Liam Jegou (Canoeing Ireland)

Mark Downey (Cycling Ireland)

Ian O’Sullivan (Irish Clay Pigeon Shooting)

Cathal Daniels (Horse Sport Ireland)

Leona Maguire (Irish Ladies Golfing Union)

Rhys McClenaghan (Gymnastics Ireland)

Megan Fletcher (Irish Judo) 

Irish Men’s Hockey Team (Hockey Ireland). 

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