KIERAN SHANNON: Life less ordinary in the fast lane
By Kieran Shannon
About the recent cooking course that she took. About the recent cooking course that she gave. About her wedding this coming September to Peter. About the dogs they care for and foster. And especially about her training and her form.
For a little while there after the Olympics Derval O’Rourke suspected that she had enough of athletics. She’d certainly had enough of London; as soon as she could get out of there, she did.
But now she can look back on her Games there in a positive light, to the point she’s even thinking of going for the Games in Rio, only thinking of it, mind, yet outright giddy at the prospect of it.
So, no, she’s not finished. And no, she’s not a “failure”, as one troll claimed she was in response to her condemnatory tweets on Lance Armstrong last month.
She doesn’t let ignoramuses like that upset her. She doesn’t even let perfectly-reasonable people like your good self who might think she’s damaged goods after London hold judgement over her.
The wallpaper of her iPhone tells you something about Derval O’Rourke, at least the current, more mature version.
It is a snapshot in time. London, August 7, 2012, the Olympic Stadium, the women’s 100m hurdle semi-finals heat.
About nine seconds from now she will finish fifth in this race, missing out on the final, her dream, her goal.
But right at this moment, right at this point that the photographer snaps this shot, she is about to jump the third of the 10 hurdles and she is just a nose behind the leader and eventual winner Sally Pearson from Australia.
For that moment in time she is ahead of six of the best hurdlers in the entire world. Fast-forward a few more frames and she is still in a great spot after negotiating the fifth hurdle. People forget that, so to make sure she doesn’t, that photo is there. “When people get negative about the whole London thing, I go, ‘You know what, I absolutely nailed five hurdles and I had three really good ones near the end too. I just had two shoddy ones in the middle.’ There was a lot more good than bad in there so I’m not going to brood on it.”
A few years back she would have. She’d constantly beat up herself, judge herself, deflating her confidence further. After Beijing she realised that didn’t work. “It’s hard to enjoy it when you’re that hard on yourself. For me to stay in the sport, I’ve needed to be a tiny bit more lenient on myself.”
She’s needed to be because 2012 was tough going, pretty much from the get-go; as she puts it, “Things tend to go a bit la-la in Olympic years.”
Her indoor season was restricted by a foot injury and then during the summer there were a couple of technical glitches. But for her, trying to overcome them was the journey and challenge and thrill of it all.
At one race in Belgium in the warm-up she smashed into the second hurdle and had just half a minute to hobble to the starting line, pull herself together and go on the sound of that gun. Once wounded meant being twice as shy, especially approaching that second hurdle and for a few weeks after she could barely jump it. They tried everything: taking the hurdle out, then putting in a mini-hurdle just about a foot high; one day it took almost 25 attempts for her to jump a real one. The faster she was getting and approaching the hurdles, the harder it was to hurdle them.
“At first it was almost as if they had been put in the wrong place,” she smiles. “It’s nearly like the faster you are, the worse a hurdler you become. Because you’re going over the hurdle at a faster speed, everything gets tighter and the more chance you have of falling.”
It was about trying to find that elusive balance. Go too fast and you crash into that hurdle; go too slow and you’re taking too long. The safe option would have been to just continue at the pace she was at when she was racing at her championship best but to better her best she had to run faster.
As the summer progressed, so was she. She was nailing the first five hurdles, faster than she ever had in her prime championship years. There were even times in training, especially a fortnight out, that she was acing all 10 but in hindsight probably not often enough. “I almost felt by the time we got to the Olympics we’d ran out of time just that little bit.”
There was one nagging recurring glitch. After negotiating the fifth hurdle she had a tendency to let her shoulders go back a couple of inches which lost her momentum going into the sixth and seventh hurdles. In London she ran her first heat in a season’s best, feeling in control in the last five hurdles with even more to give, but in the semi-final she couldn’t hold back. It was all or nothing. Then the old glitch raised its head again.
“I had a moment where I checked myself. That’s how [her coach] Terrie [Cahill] described it. She was sitting in the stands with her kids and they were all roaring me on but she said between hurdle five and hurdle six she got up and shouted ‘NOOOO!!’, almost like in slow-mo that you get in the movies. Afterwards her eldest kid asked ‘Mum, how did you know?’ She just knew. Once my shoulders went back I had to work so hard to pull myself back. And I did. My last three hurdles were phenomenal, just as my first five were phenomenal. But it was a 10-hurdle race.
“I just didn’t lean into that sixth hurdle. It was that simple. I worked so hard to get that good and I just had that slight moment but you know what, while I wish I didn’t and I’d like to kick myself over it, the reality is the rest of it was so good and it could have been amazing. My first five hurdles in the Olympic semi-final is the fastest five hurdles I’ve ever run in my life: faster than when I won the world indoors, faster than both times I won silver at the European outdoors. Now, if I could just pull all 10 together, it would be lovely!”
She smiles again and in truth that semi-final race was almost the best thing about London. It and the first-round heat were all she enjoyed about London. After the disaster that was Beijing she had promised herself that for London she would bask in the entire Olympic experience but as it transpired the only joy was to be found in those moments she was racing. The rest was just one big ordeal.
The Kevin and Peter stories saw to that.
She’s fine with Kevin Ankrom now after meeting up with him in November. You choose your battles and going to battle with the Athletics Ireland High Performance director wasn’t one for her. As she says compared to the Peter story, the little spat with Kevin was “just handbags at dawn”. Even back in August she found it a harmless, if needless distraction. She was packing her bags for London just hours before she was flying out when her good friend Paul Hession called to see if she had seen the papers. “Eh, no, Paul. It’s two days before I race. Why would I be looking at the papers?” Hession agreed, but he was just giving her the heads-up that Ankrom had publicly expressed his concern that she hadn’t yet been over in London having forsaken going on the team holding camp.
That evening at the airport she had a coffee with her coaches Sean and Terrie Cahill who made light of it. O’Rourke herself never read the reports directly but she couldn’t but avoid the headlines when on the plane nearly every second person had a copy of that day’s paper with the headline ‘Where’s Derval?’ Eh, right behind you, on this plane!
“It was a bit of an odd thing. The Irish were after a pretty bad night on the track and it was strange the story came to be about me. I don’t think it was ideal that when I came off the track after my first round of the Olympic Games and had just ran a season’s best that I’d be asked quite a lot about comments about me in the papers...but I can block things out really well. And I have to give Kevin some leeway. It was the Olympics and I know how things can get blown out of proportion. That’s what he said to me had happened and I have to accept that.”
It was still a bit surprising though that Ankrom himself hadn’t accepted from the outset that she wasn’t going to be at a team holding camp.
She had tried it for Beijing and found the experience claustrophobic, stifling.
“I’m an individual in an individual event. It’s either a case of high performance managing me or high performance letting me manage myself and I felt I was the best person for the job. You’re never going to be the most popular person if you’re trying to cater solely for yourself but to reach a certain level you need to have a level of ruthlessness. You need to be a certain bit selfish. Walking at the opening ceremony; I find that too tiring. In terms of service providers, I go for whom I feel are the best. If they happen to be part of the system, that’s grand, but if they’re not but they’re good, then I’ll just go see them myself and figure some way for paying for them myself. I don’t think twice about making decisions that will help me run fast.
“I went into the village on the Saturday night before my race but I had done a recce before there back in May. I knew back then I was rooming with Deirdre [Ryan, the high jumper]. I knew where the call room was, I had been in there, on the track, in the last toilet you can go to before the race. There was nothing about the venue I did not know. The training camp was going to be on the other side of London. Did I want to be moving a load of my stuff over there for two or three weeks only to haul it over to the other side of London again? Be away from cooking for myself which I find is vital for my preparation? Being away from my dog (Berlino)?
“Back in Santry Sean and Terrie could both continue to be at all my sessions. Only one of them could be in London. I completely respect and understand that some people love the intensity and build up that goes with a holding camp. Rob Heffernan is a good friend and I know that he loves that. I think it’s great that Athletics Ireland provide that. It’s just that it doesn’t suit me.”
As it would work out, despite her best-placed plans, the familiarity and routine of staying on in Dublin would be seriously disrupted by a breaking story. Her boyfriend and now fiancé Peter O’Leary, the world-class sailor, was the subject of a betting investigation on the eve of the Games. He was later cleared but his girlfriend believes he was probably affected by all the scrutiny and will say that she definitely was.
“That was really difficult,” she smiles. “This one is hard for me because Peter has never gone on the record on it. He’s just very private. I’d ask him months before the Olympics, what would you do if you won the Olympics? And he would say ‘I’d just get the ferry home with my boat and then go down to west Cork for a pint.’ I’d tell him he was mad, that it would be impossible as the media would be all over him. He was naive to that possibility.
“I was aware that something was going on when he got a phonecall from the Olympic Council of Ireland. Peter told them exactly what had happened in Beijing and they completely assured him that they understood and that they knew it was vindictive because it happened to come out on the eve of the Olympics. He just couldn’t understand why someone would try to damage him. He would never try to deliberately hurt anyone, he’s the nicest guy you could meet, so it completely baffled him.
“I remember the day it broke. I was driving into training in Santry and on the radio the bulletin said that an Irish athlete was under investigation. I just got this sinking feeling. I showed up at training and said nothing. Sean asked had I heard the radio? I said I had. That session was hard. The whole thing was incredibly upsetting. I mean for three or four days there he got more media coverage than Seán Quinn. It didn’t make sense to me. It didn’t seem proportionate to what had happened.”
Derval knows what she would have done if she were Peter. She’d have had a press conference. She’d have gone public on it all so no one was in any doubt. She is comfortable in the media, in the spotlight. But Peter’s not Derval, he’s just her fiancé. He’s all at sea in the spotlight. The sea itself is where he’s most comfortable. So he chose to keep the head down and try to perform and let due process and justice take care of itself. Ultimately what he resisted, persisted. Every day he came out of the water there would be a media posse waiting for him. The Olympics couldn’t finish quick enough for him and it probably showed. He and his partner David Burrows finished 10th when many had fancied them to medal.
O’Rourke still doesn’t believe it affected her own performance, only that it affected any chance of her enjoying anything outside those races in the stadium. When she stepped into that arena, nothing else mattered.
“I remember when the Peter story was at its height, I was still in Dublin and I was quite upset about it when my sister (Clódagh) rang. Now she’s not into sport but she understood exactly what I needed at that moment. She said ‘Derval, you can’t let this affect how you run because you’ve worked so hard. Everyone tells me all the time how Derval is so tough. Well, get tough. Man up! Stop taking it so personally!’ She said if I wanted her to get in the car and drive up from Cork to hang out with me in Dublin for a few days she’d be there, but she said too that we’d never done that before a championship. Do what I normally do; hold my head up and high and go about my business as normal. That totally pulled me together. I would never have expected that from her but it just snapped me out of it.”
Once her race was over O’Rourke wanted out of London. She stayed on for an extra day to support her roommate and friend Deirdre Ryan and put on a brave face all the time around her but Ryan could see it was a facade. So the very next morning Derval and Peter got his boat and that ferry, and after stopping off in Dublin to get some gear and some homegrown veg, they headed to west Cork for that pint and privacy that Peter had craved.
West Cork had always been his sanctuary and for the following three weeks they would be Derval’s too. It was where they watched the closing ceremony together. It was where they absorbed and appreciated the well-wishes of the locals together. And they fished together, every day, out on their rib boat, just outside Baltimore, with their crap pots, fishing for mackerel, lobster, crab; Derval usually the one catching them and Peter gutting them.
“You couldn’t find a more therapeutic thing to do. We spent three weeks down there. Even then Peter didn’t want to leave. He was like ‘Do we really have to?!’” Derval had made the odd foray into the real world during that month, all of which were therapeutic in their own right. She went up to the Dublin Cookery School to book a place for an autumn course. And one day she went up to Tullamore to race for her club Leevale in the national league finals. That again centered her, racing with her great friend Ailis McSweeney in the sprint relay, sitting on the bank eating sandwiches and talking together, mixing with old friends and familiar faces, just like they used to when they were starting out.
“It was just so refreshing, just what I needed, because it’s just so pure at that level. Everyone involved in it is there for the right reasons. They just love it and just want to see you doing well.”
Tomorrow she again brings it all back home, competing in the Woodie’s DIY national indoor championships in Athlone with one eye on competing in the European indoors in a fortnight’s time. Her form is good, winning at the British trials in Sheffield last weekend.
Her form in general is buoyant. She and Peter got engaged in December. That cookery course she took out in Blackrock went so well, she gave classes herself on how to eat for an active lifestyle with Peter himself enlisting as a student. But instead of taking a three-month option, she left it at just one. “I love cooking,” she says, “but I realised I love running even more.” It still thrills her, fascinates her, drives her. She’s not necessarily out to prove anyone wrong. It’s just that running still feels so right.
“After what happened at the Olympics and to Peter, I was really hurt and wondered do I really want to be around this. But then I realised and understood that if it wasn’t the Olympics, none of that would have happened. I’m so happy to close the door on the 2012 Olympics, if I was to live the year back I wouldn’t take it, but over the last few weeks I’ve started to think ‘You know, maybe I could do Rio.’ I might take a year out before then but I could do it; there have been other 35-year-old runners who’ve competed well in our event.
“It’s not because I feel that I have anything left to prove. The fairytale story would have been to make the final in London but I can live with not doing so. If I walked away this morning from it all I’ve done enough to show that I was a pretty good athlete. The only time I think like that is if I’m doing a really hard session, if I feel like getting sick running hills and I want to give up, or I’m struggling to lift a really heavy weight, I’ll say to myself, ‘Derval, there are people out there who think you can’t do this anymore, run fast anymore.’ But it’s just for those few seconds that I use that. If I thought about it all the time I’d become really bitter and twisted.”
She still feels she can break her own Irish records. This year; ideally at the world championships in Moscow. Funny, that’s the same city she made her breakthrough, winning the world indoors there in 2006. She feels she’s not finished with making breakthroughs yet.
For her the race continues. To run that perfect 10-hurdle race. Home