Sonia O’Sullivan: Four into one won’t go as Irish sailors vie for Tokyo place

Former silver medalist Murphy and three others competing for sole Irish Radial berth

On Monday, I grabbed my bike and cycled the 15km or so down to Sandringham Yacht Club. I had been meaning for a while now to meet up with the Irish women’s’ laser sailing team who are training here but between one thing and another it hadn’t worked out.

I’m nearly glad it took this long, however, because it meant I got to check in with them in their last week before the World Championships, as the competition to decide which of them is going to the Olympics really kicks into action.

The situation is fascinating.

There’s an Irish boat qualified for Tokyo but it hasn’t yet been decided who will be the sailor on board at the end of July. In the World Championships in Melbourne next week, four Irish women will by vying for that one spot. It’s the first of three trial events over the next two months, moving on to Palma deMajorca in March and Hyeres, France in April. Nothing is guaranteed for any one of the four.


This is the boat in which Annalise Murphy won Olympic silver in Rio four years ago. She's going for it again but she is up against stiff competition from Aisling Keller, Aoife Hopkins and Eve McMahon. All four of them are gunning for the same spot and yet all four are training together here in Port Philip Bay.

Think about how that must be for them. They know that only one of them will go to Tokyo so they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t have some sort of selfish instinct in them. It would be only natural for them to keep little bits and pieces that they’re learning back for themselves to give them a better chance of being the one who gets the spot on the boat.

But they also know that the more they push each other, the better they make each other. And the better they make each other, the greater chance of a medal for Ireland and a better all round result for Irish sailing.

The ultimate goal is an Olympic medal for Team Ireland and each woman, no matter who is selected, will know how much they each contributed along the way, putting aside individual aspirations for the benefit of the sport, an individual pursuit in the laser boat built better through teamwork

I had the privilege this week to get out on the water and watch one of the final training sessions before the World Championships get underway. I have kept in contact with Annalise over the years, having met up in Melbourne around 10 years ago when she was training ahead of the London Olympics. I met her coach Rory Fitzpatrick back then as well. It seems very similar yet different, two Olympic cycles later .

Here, she’s part of a four-woman squad that has spent the last seven weeks training and racing in Melbourne, all chasing the one dream. It takes strong athletes to all row in together, all with the same national coach overseeing the work, guiding each athlete to their best performance. It takes a good coach to sell them on that idea too, convincing them that working together will help deliver the best possible result for Ireland in Tokyo.

High standard

Annalise has the experience, the medal, the years and years of training. The knowledge she can share is immense and just being in the presence of such inspiration and experience will help the others to improve. They are able to raise their level of training and measure themselves against a high standard every day.

Annalise knows that she also benefits being back around the girls who have been inspired by her success. After her Volvo Round the World adventure in 2017 and dabbling in the 49er double boat less than a year out from the Olympics, returning to unfinished business in the Laser Radial is all the motivation needed.

Aisling Keller is the one who actually qualified the boat for Tokyo at the World Championships last July, her seventh qualification place finish meant that Ireland would have a representative in the 2020 Laser Radial race. But she wasn’t the only one – Aoife Hopkins was just two places behind at those championships, which would have been good enough to qualify if Aisling hadn’t done so well.

Eve McMahon is the youngest at the age of just 15. She’s in transition year in school and she brings raw talent to the team. Ideally placed to learn from her older colleagues, everything she takes on board is added benefit. She’s a World U-17 Radial champion and she’s experiencing life as a professional athlete here and could yet turn out to be the best of the lot.

I got to go out in the coaching boat with Rory on Monday to try and get some understanding of the training session. I was told what the girls look for, dark water, changing waves and winds – they were invisible lines as far as I could see, similar to the bluelines we take as runners through a park always feeling out the better ground. What I could see was the benefit of a group working together, pacing each other, practising race starts against each other.

That’s the beauty of a good training group. You push each other to get the work done but then you create a little race at the end – lighten things up, a bit of fun, to practise the starts and refine tactics. Something you never experience when training alone. Just watch the competitiveness emerge, the natural instinct what makes all athletes great. But then you can also have a laugh and relax together afterwards, knowing the work is done and the fitness is there and the race awaits.

Rory suggested I get in one of the boats to get a feel of what they’re like. We pulled up alongside Annalise and I thought it was a mad idea because the laser looks so small. I thought with two people, the balance might be all off. But then I just sat back and let Annalise do what she does best, we caught a few waves and picked up some speed. There were a few nervous duckings under the boom when moving the sail and our weight to opposite sides of the boat, yet it was unexpectedly quite exhilarating .

It’s an exciting time for these women. They are pushing the boundaries and raising the standard for Irish women’s laser sailing. Annalise has set the standard in London and Rio and coming up behind her are two new generations of sailors looking to join her, pass her and continue a fine legacy.

Complacency is not an option for any of them. That can only be a good thing, all in this together.