Annalise Murphy readjusting her focus as Olympic dream is put on hold

‘You just don’t know. Is my next competition going to be as far away as the Olympics?'

Annalise Murphy: “You just don’t know. There’s no certainty. Two months ago I was basically counting down the days to the Olympics . . ..Now it’s just . . . who knows?” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Annalise Murphy: “You just don’t know. There’s no certainty. Two months ago I was basically counting down the days to the Olympics . . ..Now it’s just . . . who knows?” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

We interrupt this interview to bring you Annalise Murphy’s just-invented recipe for a scone for one. Seems only fair, since this interview interrupted her in the eating of said scone and she was good enough to take the call nonetheless. May as well let daylight in upon magic, given the intrusion.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘Aw, I’d love a scone right now’. I’m in the mood of making stuff that requires minimal effort and can be done very fast. It wasn’t the best scone in the world but it was still sort of a scone. I got a bowl and put in a bit of flour, an egg, milk, some raisins and a bit of baking powder and some butter and then mixed it all around.

“It wasn’t exactly scone consistency. It was somewhere between scone and pancake. I put it on a tray and put it in the oven and it came out and I ate it. And it wasn’t bad. I don’t know if it’s a good thing to find out I can make a scone for one in the space of three minutes and it’s out of the oven 10 minutes later. I’m not sure that’s great. But there you go.”

Such is the stuff of lockdown life.

In a parallel universe, Murphy is 12 weeks out from the Olympics and each day has been mapped out and detailed. Hour and minute, chapter and verse. Nothing exists beyond the last weekend in July and every meaningful thought she has in her head feels the pull of Tokyo in some way. The glorious mysteries of the scone for one don’t arise.

But we are when we are. Stuck in the here and now with no real sense of what the end of it looks like or when it might come around. The straws in the wind suggest that single-handed sailing might be one of the sports to come back sooner than the others, possibly even in the coming week or two. If so, she’ll be back on the water. For what purpose, however, is a far more complicated matter.

“Uncertainty has a big effect. Because you just don’t know. Is my next competition going to be as far away as the Olympics next year? Am I going to be able to compete in September or October? That’s something you don’t know. I am just going to have to keep semi-fit and then when I’m able to get back out on the water, start sailing by myself. And then hopefully be able to start sailing with the other Irish sailors in time. And then maybe by the end of the year be able to go away somewhere and train.

“You just don’t know. There’s no certainty. Two months ago I was basically counting down the days to the Olympics. I knew all the points I had to be at, I knew what the next six months would entail for me to get there. Now it’s just . . . who knows?”

The not knowing takes some adjusting to. When you pour every bit of you into something that comes around once every four years, shifting gears is no simple task. Murphy hadn’t yet guaranteed herself the Laser Radial spot reserved for an Irish woman in Tokyo but she was asserting herself in the field of four who are in contention. She was rounding into form and very nearly nabbed a world title in Melbourne in February.

But then everything stopped. For those of us on the outside, it’s easy to think of the sports world just now as one where the tap has been momentarily turned off. But for the people who are actually involved, it’s more that sport has frozen over on the way down. The tap is still running through them, there’s just nowhere for it to go.

Sailing well

There are bigger problems in the world, of course there are. And yet this is something all sportspeople are trying to square just now so it’s surely worth examining. How do you wrap your head around it? There’s no manual for this kind of thing, no seen-it-all, been-it-all ear to bend. And every human is different. Everyone’s timeline has its own squiggle.

“I think a lot about the Olympics,” Murphy says. “I finished the World Championships in Australia in February and I was so disappointed on the last day. I basically just messed it up. I had this chance to win the worlds and I didn’t. But I was able to also accept it because I was sailing really well and I was on the edge of breaking the rules and I got caught and I got disqualified. That’s racing – you have to be pushing to try and win.

“So I came home from it feeling pretty good. I was able to say to myself even that it was maybe a good thing. Maybe if I’d won the worlds, I would have been complacent going into the Olympics six months later. I could have spent those six months thinking I was class and not really having the right tools to actually go and win.

Annalise Murphy in action on Dublin Bay. “I worry about if I’m going to have the right motivation to keep on training at the same level, to be in the best possible shape of my life, to have the best possible mental attitude for the Olympics if they do happen next year.” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Annalise Murphy in action on Dublin Bay. “I worry about if I’m going to have the right motivation to keep on training at the same level, to be in the best possible shape of my life, to have the best possible mental attitude for the Olympics if they do happen next year.” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

“And I was also thinking, ‘I can be world champion some day’. Initially, I was very much thinking I was going to retire after the Olympics. But after the worlds I was going, ‘Well, I don’t know if I can retire now – I need to go and try to win a worlds before I retire.’ So actually now I’m going, ‘Oh shit, I really wish I had won the worlds because I don’t think I’d have been complacent for 18 months!’”

Like the rest of us, she has a lot of thinking time now. Unlike the rest of us, she has had a bit of training for it. Doing the Volvo Ocean Race in 2018 provided her with months of experience in the fields of isolation, monotony and getting through a day. This is like that, she says, but with added Netflix, decent food and the ability to shower whenever she wants.

“Which, it turns out, isn’t that often! Who needs to wash your hair? You’re not going to see anyone!”

But the mind, in its lonesomeness, will pick at us all. Every Olympic event has been moved by 364 days but nothing is that simple. First of all, it remains entirely possible that they won’t happen at all. Second of all, even if they do, who will she even be come July 2021? You never step in the same river twice.

“I worry about if I’m going to have the right motivation to keep on training at the same level, to be in the best possible shape of my life, to have the best possible mental attitude for the Olympics if they do happen next year. Am I going to have that right kind of drive? I do worry about that a little bit alright.

It’s hard. When you’re not in the full thick of it, you realise how full-on it is.

“Like, I do really miss sailing right now. But there are definitely days when I find myself thinking, ‘Actually, it’s quite nice not to have to go out on the water every day’. And that also freaks me out! As in, maybe I’ll just get used to not going sailing and then I won’t want to go sailing when the time comes. It’s hard. When you’re not in the full thick of it, you realise how full-on it is.”

Still, she trains away. Every day. It might take until eight o’clock in the evening for her to go out into the garden for a gym session but she’ll get there. She’s not always sure why but even so, she hasn’t gone a day without training in almost eight weeks. Some of it is out of habit, some of it is jonesing for endorphins, some of it is just because she doesn’t know any other way.

“I think if I was to stop, I would be really miserable because I just wouldn’t be used to it. But then, some days I’m there and I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Sometimes I think it’s probably just peer pressure. There’s a virtual cycling app call Zwift. I did three and a half hours on Saturday morning and three hours on Sunday on it. And the only reason I kept on doing it was because I was cycling with other people.

Some slack

“In my head I was going, ‘If I give up here, they’re going to be saying that Annalise The Olympian has just quit’. So I couldn’t quit. Even though 20 minutes into both sessions I just want to get off the bike. It’s actually awful. People presume I have this incredible level of fitness and stamina and like, ‘Aw, Annalise is able to do this no problem’. Meanwhile, the whole way through it I’m going, ‘Ugh, why am I here?’ And feeling like I can’t quit because then the others will go, ‘Why is Annalise quitting? If she’s quitting, I’m quitting’.”

There comes a time, all the same. You can train away every day but you can’t fool yourself that this is normality. Or that that your reaction to it should be to continue your regime as if you will automatically just be one year better, fitter, stronger when it’s all over. Experience is the name we give to our mistakes. She’s at it long enough now to know when and how to cut herself some slack.

“Something that I find really hard is, I’m not the right weight for Laser Radial. I’m always having to watch what I eat. This was something I had been working really hard on from last September up until the end of February, I was on a really good track and I knew that by the time I got to the Olympics, I was going to be the right weight to compete, the best possible weight I could be to be competitive across all the conditions. And now I’m like, ‘Well, I guess I can just eat cake for a while’.

“It was hard, those six months, it really was. Christmas dinner, I was just going, ‘I’ll just have a bit of turkey please’. And so part of me is going, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want to have to go through another Christmas dinner like that. Am I going to have to do that all over again next year?’

“For me, it was really a case of what I was doing wasn’t sustainable. For me, at least, it wasn’t sustainable that I could keep that level of watching every single thing I’m eating and the entire time being a little bit hungry, which is how it was for me all the way through those six months. I couldn’t do it indefinitely, especially when there’s no real certainty over when the date is going to be.”

That’s the thing with pressing pause on your life – there’s no way of knowing when you’ll get back to it. In the meantime, you fill your days how you can. Train in the garden. Walk the dog. Invent a scone.

Whatever gets you through.

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