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Aoife's Special Sailing Talent Points Howth Towards The Olympics

24th October 2015
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Newly emerged Olympic possible Aoife Hopkins (foreground and inset) makes a classically cool start in Laser Radial racing in Galway Bay. The photo of her in transit through the airport on the way to yet another international event was taken at the time in June she had heard of her improved world rankings, but well before the ISA told her she was now a possible for Rio 2016. Photos by Curls Photography GBSC and Niamh Hopkins

With a disappointing showing by the Irish squad in the pre-Olympic Regatta in Rio in August, hopes are not high for our performance in the 2016 Sailing Olympics at this light wind city venue, which has already been the subject of heated debate about the specific racing locations, and the water quality. W M Nixon takes up the story, and looks at the possible new turn in the Irish lineup.

World sailing (which as it happens, is what ISAF is going to become in a couple of weeks time) needs the Olympic Games rather more than the Olympic Games need sailing. Such is the extraordinary international appeal of the five ring circus, as it rolls remorselessly along through its four year cycle, that other more spectator-friendly but currently non-Olympic sports are ready and waiting to take over sailing’s small space in this global sporting showcase, and they’ll do so if sailing is perceived as not delivering the Olympic goods in television audience response, in spectators trying to see the racing, and in its global spread of participants.

The smaller specialist sports still outside the huge Olympic tent know only too well that it’s their one opportunity for a place in the international limelight, and on a scale which they can never hope to attain if they try to continue as a minority interest simply getting on with doing its own thing.

Of course, for many sailing and boating folk, as for enthusiasts in other specialist sports, simply getting on with doing their own small thing is what it’s all about. The Olympics is something in which they might take a polite interest, but only when the Olympiad itself is taking place.

But for those involved with running national sporting authorities, the publicity and prestige which Olympic involvement brings, plus the capacity it confers on national sporting administrators to deal with government and national agencies on basis of equality, rather than as some lowly supplicants seeking meagre support, gives the Olympics huge importance.

aoife3The old ideal of Olympic Sailing was that it should be in open water clear of shoreside imbalances. This is Ireland’s Annalise Murphy at Day 3 of the 2012 Olympics off Weymouth, when the races were still being held in open water in good breezes, and the Irish sailor was in contention for the Gold medal.

At a world level, it means that when an Olympic venue city has been selected, international sailing is obliged to swallow its pride (and probably some decidedly polluted sailing water as well), and accept that wherever in its bailiwick the host city has decided that the sailing events should be staged for maximum spectator and civic impact, then that is definitely where the Olympic Sailing is going to be, regardless of how much huffing and puffing some sailing perfectionists might make beforehand.

For the fact is, most major and participant-popular sailing venues are not anywhere near the heart of some great but water-polluted city. But ever since their inception - or rather their re-invention - the Olympic Games in modern times have been allocated to a city. And though in times past the sailing may have been held at some remote location to provide decent sport – as it was at Weymouth when the Games were in London in 2012, and even then it was distorted with the Medal Races staged much too close to the shore – the Rio de Janeiro situation with the sailing more or less in the heart of town is definitely the way the city fathers are determined to go.

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The final races at Weymouth in 2012 were held close inshore. This is the way hosting cites would like to see the Sailing Olympics develop, but it facilitates spectators rather than participants.

Yet despite these obviously painful compromises which have had to be made, such is the kudos which the Olympics bring to any sport that in any country, and most particularly in a small country, that the Olympics loom over everything else like some remote yet all-powerful and voracious monster which has to be fed and generally appeased

And of all sports in all countries, it is probably sailing in Ireland which is most affected by this situation. In the international community afloat, Ireland is recognised as punching way above its weight as a sailing nation. But we’re a small country in every other way, and within Ireland itself, sailing has to compete with a range of many and varied sports in a sports-mad place which, while it may be an island, is basically so utterly rural or completely urban in its attitudes that the only time sailing comes up on the public radar is when it’s on in the Olympics – and doing well – or when some great tragedy occurs, such as the Fastnet Race disaster of 1979.

As a result of this Olympo-reality, as we might call it, we have ended up with a national sailing authority which at first glance, seems more unbalanced the more we look at it. But should we describe the ISA’s situation as being unbalanced? Perhaps “realistic” is a better description. This is how it has to be. Whatever, when we analyse the money, we find a huge chunk of the ISA’s income is directed from the Government through the Sports Council more or less directly into the ISA’s High Performance squad, which has become a thriving mini-industry within a bureaucracy.

Follow the money, they say, and in this blog on August 8th on the topic of our team of hopefuls departing for the pre-Olympic regatta in Rio, while trying as gently as possible to warn that we expect far too much of our Olympic contenders, we also published figures which had been extracted for us by a forensic accountant from the ISA’s own published balance sheets. These showed just how much of the national sailing spend went directly into what is ultimately hoped to be Olympic standard sailing, and it was frankly scary.

What makes it even more scary is that it isn’t nearly enough, and with budgets being pared back left right and centre, while the staff on the High Performance squad may seem to enjoy remarkably high salaries and many attractive perks, by world standards they’re only just getting by. And as Irish amateur boxing has painfully shown this past week, if you don’t look after your Olympic coaches properly, some other nation will be only too pleased to do so instead.

But even with the supply of Sports Council money, the resources are largely limited to keeping the permanent staff in being and up to the job. The actual potential sailing athletes need much parental and other support, including direct sponsorship, if they’re going to be able to make best use of the expertise which is available from the training professionals. For the reality is that while you may be delighted that your son or daughter has risen through the sailing ranks to qualify for an ISA High Performance course, as the course progresses you can expect regular invoices, while going to events is something else which will also make a significant dent in the assets of the Bank of Mum & Dad.

But pure sailing talent is such a beautiful thing that we should give it all the support we can, and out to the northeast of Dublin there’s an impressive “Howth Can Do It” movement getting under way on the Peninsula to ensure that one of our own, 17-year-old Aoife Hopkins, gets all the support we can find in order to fulfill a remarkable talent which has developed prodigiously in recent months.

aoife5Aoife Hopkins of Howth with her father Troy at the time she was starting to make a national impression on Irish Optimist Racing. Photo: Niamh Hopkins

aoife6Aoife’s enjoyed success in Optimist racing became an integral part of Hopkins family life

From being a child sailing star in the Spring of this year, Aoife in the Autumn finds herself with near-adult status despite having only recently turned seventeen. And it’s an adult status which has brought with it a rising world ranking in the Laser Women’s Radial class which entitles her to compete for the Irish place – already secured for us by 2012’s fourth-placed Olympian Annalise Murphy – in the Laser Women’s Radial class in the Rio Olympics next August.

aoife7Upping the ante – Aoife Hopkins gets to grips with Laser radial racing – and already has boats astern of her

aoife8Making the grade at the international level – a very determined looking Aoife Hopkins slices her way towards the front in the Lasers Women’s Radial class.

aoife9Her rapidly rising international status made Aoife (left) enough of a sailing celebrity to be recruited for the photo-op to promote the Try Sailing initiative with Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney (right) and John Twomey, World President of Disabled Sailing.

It’s an uncomfortably challenging scenario for Irish sailing. Annalise Murphy has served this country so very well, and so nobly, and will long continue to do so. But her exceptional heavy weather sailing abilities – which at one stage had her in the Gold Medal position in Weymouth in 2012 – have not provided a happy interaction with the light and flukey conditions which prevail in Rio in August.

Until a few weeks ago, the scenario was that the already identified talents of Aoife Hopkins were only under guidance towards the Tokyo Olympics of 2020. But after the setback of August, a different outlook began to take shape. Now that Hopkins was eligible to compete, if she could somehow continue her onward and upward rise through the remaining Olympic selector events towards Rio August 2016 - a three part international series which will conclude next March – and if she has actually got ahead of Murphy, why shouldn’t she go to Rio?

She’d still be only seventeen, but she’s so sensibly grounded with full family and community support that competing in the Olympics as a total newbie needn’t be an upsetting experience, whatever the result. And who knows, but it could even be surprisingly good. And anyway, so long as the longterm view is kept properly focused towards Tokyo where she will be an even more mature 21, then why not take in Rio on the way?

You can cast the runes any way you like, but meeting Aoife and her very supportive mother Niamh this week through the good offices of Howth Yacht Club Commodore Brian Turvey – a longtime supporter of the Hopkins cavalcade – gave me a remarkable insight into what could well be sailing history in the making.

Cometh the hour, cometh the woman…..Like all Ireland’s yacht and sailing clubs, after battling through a rather torrid economic time in recent years with 2012 being the absolute nadir, Howth is fairly leaping back to life. Our boats have gone back to winning here, there and everywhere, and if our popular Commodore says that there’s this girl who is emerging out of Howth sailing who really shows the extra special sort of talent which deserves full support in a very tangible way, then the membership – and indeed the entire Howth peninsula – is more than ready to give it all a favourable hearing.

Aoife’s track into sailing is interesting. Her father Troy is one of those hardy perennials who get afloat with the long-established Howth Laser winter series, but Aoife herself isn’t a cradle sailor. On the contrary, she was around nine when she started with an introductory course at Howth YC, but soon was hooked, and by age eleven she was gunning with her already proven determination for a place in the National Optimist Squad, which soon came her way, and life became one of Optimist fun and high-level competitive sport, morphing on into a year or so with Toppers, and then the Laser Radial where she soon felt at home.

The results have been impressive, but then we’ve had many young people who show great sailing promise, but somehow in their mid teens the interest wanes, and it’s unfair to everyone to try to keep them at it.

aoife10
Aoife Hopkins continues to enjoy the more traditional aspects of Howth sailing – she is seen here helming the Howth 17 Isobelle to victory in this 118-year-old class’s annual Junior Race. In the Howth 17s, a “junior helm” is under the age of 30……..

But Aoife Hopkins and boats become something very special. She just lives for sailing, so much so that during 2015 she put in some weeks as an Instructor in the Junior Sailing Programme at HYC between campaigns which had already seen her making the cut in the Laser Radial Rankings, at the same time she found the space to race one of the J/80s which are now club-based in Howth, and when Brian Turvey asked her if she’d like to helm his classic Howth 17 in the Juniors Race, she leapt at the chance and won, even if somewhat bemused to find that in the 118-year-old Seventeens, a “Junior” is a helm under the age of thirty…..

Yet thanks to Howth being such a settled community with large networks of friends, she was by no means unhealthily boat-obsessed, and she still had the energy to do very well indeed in school (it’s Santa Sabina, alma mater to the girls of Howth) while her family were now getting steadily more involved with sailing.

In fact they must be unique in that in the Howth Laser Winter series, Aoife has been competing both with her father Troy and younger brother Daniel, and although mother Niamh is not a Laser sailor herself, she found herself doing so much of the class’s administration that she was elected the non-sailing Class Captain.

aoife11Keeping up with the knitting – Aoife Hopkins last December racing in the Howth Laser Frostbite Series, which dates back to 1974. Aoife, her brother Daniel, and father Troy are all regulars in this series, and mum Niamh is non-sailing Class Captain

Beyond all that, there has been the growing international commitment, with some member of the family always available to travel in support of Aoife when she headed off for some distant major event. She and Niamh are more like a pair of sisters rather than mother and daughter as they recall various adventures in pursuit of international sailing competition, a special highlight being a drive by the pair of them right across Europe to Poland with the Laser on top of the family car, and success at the end of it.

At the moment, this extraordinary story of personal sailing development is at an exciting and entertaining early stage, and it’s still fun – it can cheerfully be admitted there was a healthy amount of laughter at this week’s meeting in the board-room atop Howth Yacht Club. But there’s no doubting the underlying seriousness of the challenge, and ideas for moving it forward were flying around in best kaleidoscope style.

At its most basic, the Aoife Hopkins campaign through the remaining three Olympic selector events will cost a minimum of €20,000, and it all has to be raised by Aoife and her family and supporters. But she has already made a very good start with her Crowd Funding project which was launched on Facebook with support from Afloat.ie and others, and within a week she’d raised €2000, which is ten per cent clear and counting.

Yet obviously there’s still much heavy lifting to be done, but in a club where the annual Christmas Charity Lunch managed to raise €20,000 for the late great sailor Joe English when his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimers was revealed, €20,000 is very manageable, and Brian Turvey and his team would hope to have a comfortable margin beyond that.

aoife12Howth Can Do It - Planning the way ahead for Aoife and Niamh Hopkins with Howth YC Commodore Brian Turvey at a meeting this week in the club to consider the options for fund-raising in order to provide the €20,000 necessary for the three series final selection process for the Olympics 2016. Aoife has already raised more than €2000 through her own crowd-funding project, launched less than ten days ago. Photo: W M Nixon

But as well, there can be supportive help in kind. Howth is a peculiar place in that people who live there but work in Dublin tend to discard their professional status when they head home eastward through Sutton Cross. They may be highly qualified specialists in the day job in nearby Ireland, but beyond Sutton Cross out in Howth, they prefer to be just another peninsula person, as anonymous as possible.

However, if the need arises, there’s this extraordinary range of special skills within easy reach of the club, and when Aoife mentioned that one of the things she missed after the cutbacks at the ISA was the availability of a Sports Psychologist as a matter of normal training procedure, within a few seconds Brian Turvey had thought of someone living locally who could put the team in contact with the ideal person for the job on a voluntary basis.

And this emergence of a special sailing talent has couldn’t have come at a better time, for as Howth emerges bruised and battered - but feeling better by the minute - after the Great Recession, it has suddenly been remembered that November 18th 2015 precisely marks the 120th Anniversary of the foundation of the club, and events built around that – including a back-tie fund-raiser on Saturday, November 14th for Aoife Hopkins – will go a long way to keeping this very special show on the road.

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Keeping fit. Aoife Hopkins current routine includes gym at least four times a week, cycling on at least three days, and sailing whenever possible – and she still is a full time student at school. Photo: Niamh Hopkins

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