Eve McCrystal interview: ‘the lockdown is the reason I won that medal’

At 42 the Dundalk woman has become national time trial champion

Eve McCrystal of Strata 3 Velo Revolution cycling team on her way to winning the senior women’s title Cycling Ireland Time Trial National Championships, Knockaderry, Co Limerick Mandatory Photograph: INPHO/Bryan Keane

Eve McCrystal of Strata 3 Velo Revolution cycling team on her way to winning the senior women’s title Cycling Ireland Time Trial National Championships, Knockaderry, Co Limerick Mandatory Photograph: INPHO/Bryan Keane

 

It was only 21 seconds but it was enough. In Eve McCrystal’s eyes, it was everything. A cycling career that started late is still stubbornly refusing to wind down and those 21 seconds the weekend before last meant that at the age of 42 she became national time trial champion for the first time.

Most likely, you know her better as a Paralympian. Her combination with blind cyclist Katie-George Dunlevy has been on the go for seven years now and they’ve carried pretty much all before them around the world since 2015. They won gold and silver in Rio and if Tokyo goes ahead next year, there won’t be many better Irish bets for silverware over there.

But as a solo artist, McCrystal has found the middle spot on the podium elusive. She won the road race at the 2018 nationals but otherwise it has been a litany of silvers and bronzes, some down-the-fields and never-weres. Not this time though. Eve McCrystal, Irish champion. Relief. Release. Rejoice.

Eve McCrystal picking up her award at the 2018 Irish Times Sportswoman of the Year Awards. Photograph: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Eve McCrystal picking up her award at the 2018 Irish Times Sportswoman of the Year Awards. Photograph: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

“It’s very important to me to win something like this on my own,” she says. “The road title that I won in 2018 and this time trial, to me they’re just as important as the medal in Rio. In different ways, yes. But this is massive.

“I absolutely love the team aspect of the partnership with Katie, for so many different reasons. But to win something on your own, it is only yourself, it’s your own space. It’s just me, it’s only me. When you’re used to having somebody behind you, something like the time trial is just so solitary. It’s important for me to know I could do it on my own.”

The time trial was on the Thursday. On the Sunday morning, she was back in Limerick for the road race and was milling about before the start when a photographer came up to her. He had a present to give her, a picture of her father. She didn’t know where to look.

“I had to laugh. I said, ‘Jesus, could you not have waited until afterwards!’ God love him, a lovely man – I’d say he was just thinking to himself, ‘Ah, she won the time trial, she’ll not care about this road race’. Which I was, I was very relaxed about the road race. But Jesus, he could have waited.”

Everyone’s grief is their own, a snowflake of pain unique in its make-up and specific on to each self

Pat McCrystal was 70-years-old when he took his own life in September 2017. Of all the ways to lose a parent, none could be more brutal or less anticipated. He left behind Eve, her mam and her brother, all of them grown adults, all of them suddenly lost in the fog.

One week before it happened, Eve and Katie-George had won double gold medals at the World Paracycling championships in South Africa. Eve came home from South Africa fully intending to retire and get on with her life. She was 39 with two kids and a job in the Garda. It was time.

“Really the only reason I had continued on to 2017 after Rio was that the form we had was good enough to carry to South Africa and that one more year was going to help Katie get funding. If I walked away, she could have been left high and dry. So I said I’d do another year and see could we win the world championships and I was going to be finished after that. Once we had that gold medal, Katie’s funding would be sorted for another year and then she could find somebody else to be her partner all the way to Tokyo.

“But when [the suicide] happened, all that was in my head was that there’s no way I can walk away from sport here. Sport is the only thing that is keeping me from falling to pieces. If I walk away from this, I don’t know what I’ll do. It just filled a massive hole. I was looking at myself in the mirror and asking myself what was the best thing for me to do for myself, for my family, for my own head.”

Even now, she doesn’t know how to fully rate the answer she came up with. All she can say is that faced with an abyss, she made a conscious decision to fill it with the thing she knew best. The option of giving up high-performance cycling and throwing herself into the day job was there if she wanted it. But sport was there too. She took the comfort that was available to her.

“There was an opportunity for me to continue on my bike. I was after losing my dad in the worst possible way. The kind of person I am, I knew I would be able to try to process that loss through sport. I don’t know if that’s the right thing for anybody else but I know it was the right thing for me.

“It has helped me so far. Don’t get me wrong, there’s days when I am going, ‘Janey Mac, why are you still going?’. But I would say that it’s the biggest reason why I’m still on that bike. It’s to help me keep going, you know? And not fall apart, I suppose.”

Everyone’s grief is their own, a snowflake of pain unique in its make-up and specific on to each self. On some level, she knows that by throwing herself into sport, she was deliberately not dealing with her father’s death. She wasn’t just telling herself she didn’t have the time or headspace to do it – she was purposely putting herself into a situation where it couldn’t be done.

At Rio, March 2018: Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal compete against Sophie Thornhill and Helen Scott of Team GB in the Women’s Sprint. Photogrpah: Buda Mendes/Getty
At Rio, March 2018: Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal compete against Sophie Thornhill and Helen Scott of Team GB in the Women’s Sprint. Photogrpah: Buda Mendes/Getty

Not alone that, she was putting it on a very long finger. Staying in the partnership with Katie couldn’t be a six-month thing. If she was in, she was in for an Olympic cycle. At the time, that was a three-year commitment - it has since become four. All the while, she was pushing the worst thing that had ever happened to her away. Out into the ether, to be reckoned with sometime.

“I probably haven’t processed it,” she says. “Hindsight is great and I might look back and think that I should have done it differently but I know that this is the best thing for me to do right now. And I will deal with the next chapter when I get there. I think hopefully I’ve built up enough strength in my character to face it when it comes.

“I am fully aware of the need to process things. And I do process them when I’m on the bike. I would be chatting away to myself. I’m able to park it at times and then to use it at times too.

“I remember being at a talk with Niamh Fitzpatrick, she lost her sister [Capt Dara Fitzpatrick] in the helicopter crash. I went to one of her talks with Triathlon Ireland and I just went up to her at the end and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind me laying this on you. I just feel I could go through that wall with the strength that my dad’s death has given me. I feel so strong’. And I had to ask her, ‘Is that normal?’ She was like, ‘No, it is normal’. Her even just saying that it was normal made me feel normal.”

So she ploughs on. In this least normal of all years, McCrystal has thrived and those 21 seconds last week completed the set of domestic titles for her. Her lockdown was, half-accidentally, a huge success. Katie-George is based in England but was over for a training camp at the end of February and ended up not going back home for four months.

They hadn’t planned it that way but when the opportunity arose, Eve moved her two kids into one room and Katie-George became their lodger in Dundalk. The original training camp got nixed but they ended up living together until July, the best period of joint training they have ever done.

“I definitely think the lockdown is the reason I won that medal. Definitely. I learned a lot through it. Life became very simple for me. The kids weren’t in school, they didn’t have their activities so we were cooped up in the house like everybody else.

“Every other year, I would have had so much else going on. I would have been going to work. I would have been fitting sessions in around picking up the kids from school or dropping them to football or horse riding or whatever else. With lockdown, up until July, I was able to sit down after a session and recover properly.

“Katie’s parents are elderly so it wasn’t in their best interests for her to go home. So she stayed here with us and she thrived. We did our bits and pieces on the bike every day, we recovered really well and it was just a great few months for us. I told her it’s the worst thing she ever did, showing me how well she can get on while living here. Because believe me, my dear, you’ll be coming back for the bulk of the build-up to Tokyo.”

She will be 43 at next year’s games and that will surely be that. The kids are 11 and 12 and she will have to melt back into real life at some stage. And she’ll deal with The Other Thing too. Or maybe she is doing so already, the only way that makes sense to her.

“It took a huge chunk out of me, of course it did. But I think it’s because I had sport that I felt strength from it. I had the ability that if I was feeling down, I could get on the bike and I wouldn’t feel like that afterwards. If I’m upset and I go for a session, I feel better after it. It helps me process it. But I still don’t know whether it’s the right thing. It’s the right thing for me.”

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