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Ireland's High Performance & Olympic Sailors: The Ultimate Self-Isolating Bubble

24th October 2020
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Silver Service in a different world….back in the still relatively carefree times of early January, just for a spot of fun Olympic Sailing Silver Medallist Annalise Murphy took Olympic 5,000 Metre Silver Medallist Sonia O'Sullivan for a sail in the Laser in Melbourne Silver Service in a different world….back in the still relatively carefree times of early January, just for a spot of fun Olympic Sailing Silver Medallist Annalise Murphy took Olympic 5,000 Metre Silver Medallist Sonia O'Sullivan for a sail in the Laser in Melbourne

The process of intense training, endlessly learning, and continually practising in the hope and expectation of improving your game does not come easily to many Irish sailors. The fact of our being an island nation, and having a very long history of sailing with a strong family tradition within it, gives us a vague but inescapable feeling that getting the best from a sailing boat comes naturally to us, as we reckon we're provided with this genetically inbuilt talent which only needs some occasional tweaking to keep us at the sharp end of the fleet.

Yet as Ireland's top international sailing performers have been learning – and telling us too – for very many decades now, it is only by being open-minded to learning and training and practising and competing again and again at the highest level abroad that you begin to come anywhere near the standard required.

Thus far from being at an advantage as maritime dwellers on an island of relatively low population, we actually face into the top international competitions at a treble disadvantage. Firstly, by having this inherited disposition of feeling that we know most of it already means that, instead of starting from scratch, we actually have to un-learn many of our bad sailing habits before we can begin to progress in the true path.

Annalise Murphy, Rob Dickson and Sean Waddilove at a fund-raiser for the Dickson-Waddilove 49er CampaignSeekers of the true performance path……Annalise Murphy, Rob Dickson and Sean Waddilove at a fund-raiser for the Dickson-Waddilove 49er Campaign. Photo: W M Nixon

Secondly, we've to get where the real competition is - which is nearer the main centres of population and definitely not on our little island - so logistics are almost always a real challenge. And thirdly, always in the background is the limitation of resources in a national economy which is already smaller than that of some major cities.

Oh sure, some figures seem to show that – were the times normal - we'd be awash with dough. We may indeed be awash with money. But much of it is already spoken for, as we're a nation of mortgage slaves on the inexplicably highest interest rate in Europe, and with many ridiculously expensive utility services to pay for as well. So always, in hoping to promote Irish sailing to the top international performance levels, the Irish sailing community's leading young contenders are up against the shortage of resources in addition to this underlying feeling that trying too hard is somehow un-Irish.

Graceful and seemingly effortless amateur success - done in an atmosphere of quiet modesty rather than noisy air-punching self-aggrandisement – is still a widely-shared Irish sailing ideal.

It was an attitude which was in retreat, but it now may well be holding its own, as the larger world increasingly questions whether or not the approach needed to achieve international sporting success at the top level is really a way of life which is conducive to producing well-balanced socially-positive individuals, rather than one-dimensional sports achievement monomaniacs with no hinterland of other normal interests.

Rob Dickson and Sean WaddiloveWhen it all becomes perfect – Rob Dickson and Sean Waddilove at one with their challenging 49er

But there's another way of looking at this. The ancient Greeks, who have some skin in the game in the matter of the Olympic sports ideal, regarded sport and its highest possible achievement as being central to their culture. So those modern cultural gurus who dominate thinking in the arts of all kinds, while at the same looking down disdainfully on sport, are themselves as blinkered as the totally single-minded sportsperson who thinks only of his or her competitive life to the virtual exclusion of everything else.

And fortunately for the general good of society, for many able athletes, the period of total absorption in their sport at the highest level is within a defined period of peak achievement potential. The better national sports authorities are becoming more adept at easing their stars back into a fulfilling "civilian" life once their days at the sharp end of performance are drawing to a close.

Certainly, we can think of former stars who were somehow never subsequently comfortable in the outside world. But there are now far more stars of yesterday who have aged gracefully into useful and highly-respected members of their community as people with a wide range of interests.

Finn Lynch and Annalise Murphy racing former Olympian Cathy Mac Aleavey's Water WagEngaging with another world. Finn Lynch and Annalise Murphy racing former Olympian Cathy Mac Aleavey's Water Wag in Dun Laoghaire when the 2020 sailing season finally got properly underway on July 15th. They won. Photo: Con Murphy

But instead of spouting vague sociological theories and examples, it is surely better to catch up with some of our most promising young sailing stars as they take stock of the situation now after a frustratingly limited international season. It may have started in some style on the other side of the planet in January and February with Worlds in Melbourne, Australia, but has since made uneven progress with a postponed and restricted Kiel Week in Germany in September, and most recently with majors at Attersee in Austria and the Laser Europeans in Gdansk in Poland.

Download the background details on Ireland's current Performance Squad below.

Not surprisingly, the extremely uneven nature of the year's programme produced uneven results for Ireland's sailors, such that it was reckoned good going to get into single figures in the final leaderboard, and 2016 Olympic Silver Medallist Annalise Murphy of the National YC nearly achieved that with 12th in the Women's Laser Radial Worlds in Melbourne on a scorecard which included a race win, while she'd the additional intriguing experience of taking fellow Olympic Silver Medallist Sonia O'Sullivan – who won her medal in the 5000 metres in the 2000 Games - for a sail in the Murphy boat.

That Laser gathering Down Under included the remarkable campaign by 15-year-old Eve McMahon from Howth, who'd come to added prominence in July 2019 with her win in the U17 Laser Radial Worlds in Canada, and now - six months later - was on a solo run in Australia as a taster and tester towards a challenge for 2024, with a Melbourne campaign so solo that she was in effect her own shore manager, accommodated with a family she'd never met before.

Eve McMahon won't be entitled to a full driving licence until March 2021Youthful determination. Although Eve McMahon won't be entitled to a full driving licence until March 2021, she has already successfully experienced International Laser racing at the top level.

If anything it increased her already considerable enthusiasm, but as she said this week, it was a vertical curve in learning what's involved at the stratospheric heights to which the Irish Sailing Academy is aiming.

"It's such a different world, totally remote from club sailing or even regional or national championships. If you respond to it, you find the atmosphere is electric, and I'm very keen to progress to make the most of it in every way. And yes, it will be a great help to qualify for a driving licence when I turn 17 in March 2021…..."

Sailing Performance HQ at Dun Laoghaire Harbour

This mixture of dealing with the mundane demands of logistics ashore while aspiring to athletic genius afloat is something which immediately separates the trainee stars from other sailors, so much so that they often find their most congenial company within their own circle of international campaigners. Thus the creation last year of the modestly-scaled Irish Sailing Performance HQ – usually known as the Olympic Sailing HQ - within the Irish Lights compound in Dun Laoghaire, utilising a €300,000 grant from the Irish Sailing Foundation, has provided a remarkable sense of cohesion and camaraderie among the top tier.

Finn Lynch and Annalise MurphyBack to business. Finn Lynch and Annalise Murphy preparing their Lasers in the Irish Sailing Performance HQ in Dun Laoghaire. Photo: Rachel Fallon LangdonRob Dickson and Sean Waddilove sorting the knitting on their 49er Boys-o-buoys…..Rob Dickson and Sean Waddilove sorting the knitting on their 49er in the Performance HQ beside the Irish Lights nav aids. Photo: Rachel Fallon Langdon

International 49er campaigners Rob Dickson and Sean Waddilove – from Howth and Skerries respectively – have to co-ordinate central aspects of their training with the other 49er challengers Ryan Seaton from Belfast Lough and Seafra Guilfoyle from Cork, and the Performance HQ provides the focus for this.

Between them, they have four home clubs, so whichever one was selected as a temporary base inevitably saw them differentiated as "the Olympic squad", their presence sometimes at variance with the much more easy-going mood which can prevail in club sailing. But with the Performance HQ, there's no doubt about what's going on, this is their own bubble, their own base, and they all understand and encourage each other's motivation in a mutual support group.

Getting ready for lift-off with Cracklin' RosieGetting ready for lift-off with Cracklin' Rosie. The provision of a dedicated base at the performance HQ with its workshop facilities has proven a real benefit. Photo: Rachel Fallon Langdon

Maybe so, but ultimately it's all about crews being on their own and completely for themselves in competition afloat, and in the Irish context the introduction of the International Laser as an Olympic class in 1996 in two categories has been a Godsend. While the 49er is the undoubtedly spectacular eye-catcher and a boat of character – Rob Dickson and Sean Waddilove have gone so far as to name their primary boat Cracklin' Rosie after Rob's late grandfather Roy's legendarily successful offshore racer – the 49er is an expensive bit of kit and needs a crew of two. But the sublimely simple solo-sailed Laser provides remarkable value for money at every level of competition.

So although there's still a chance that Ireland could secure a place in the 2021 Olympics for a 49er if enough selection events can be held as (hopefully) the pandemic recedes internationally, there's perhaps a better chance that Finn Lynch (who took a personal best of 13th, the same as his World Ranking, at the Euros) can pull it out of the hat for a place in the Laser men's, as outlined in Afloat back in March here. But already firmly in place with nomination officially made is Annalise Murphy. Yet even with the security of that assured place, she and her coach Rory Fitzpatrick have to get through a late Autumn and probably a winter of suspended animation.

Of course, there are all sorts of alternative training options, with the 49er teams into weights at home while everyone on the squad is an avid cyclist - so much so that at various stages in the past both Annalise Murphy and Finn Lynch have had their planned sailing programmes interrupted by cycling accidents.

A very young Finn Lynch takes his first sail as an absolute beginner with a Topper at BlessingtonA very young Finn Lynch takes his first sail as an absolute beginner with a Topper at Blessington.

Finn Lynch in control in the LaserA new world – Finn Lynch in control in the Laser

But in the end, it's time afloat - with competition or co-training at the highest possible level available – which is essential, and the hope is that lockdowns may have lifted enough for Vilamoura in Portugal to become it usual inventive self early in the year with pop-up championships, while much hope is being pinned on the possibility of the Princess Sofia championship in Mallorca early in April.

Certainly, the recent big-fleet Laser Europeans in Gdansk impressed everyone with the social-distancing and other health standards which were rigorously maintained while proper racing was being provided afloat, but whether that can be done in the more easy-going mood of southern Europe is another matter.

Meanwhile, Ireland's potential sailing Olympians maintain their fitness and attitude as best they can, and allow other aspects of their lives to play a larger role for the next six weeks, with Aoife Hopkins at UCD concentrating on exam preparation, Eve McMahon at the pressure-cooker Institute of Education focusing on studies and test levels which are of Olympic standards in themselves, while Rob Dickson, having found that it was simply impossible to balance his sailing programme with the demands of personal attendance at DCU to further his studies in Sports Science and Health, has transferred to an online course at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Like everyone else, our Olympic sailing hopefuls have to get through this Winter of Frustration as best they can with the support of family and friends. But as with everything to do with the Olympics, it all seems to be accentuated, emphasised and multiplied many times over.

Read all the latest Irish Olympic Sailing News in the build-up to Tokyo 2021 here

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WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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