Derval O'Rourke: What it takes to step on an Olympic start line

I’ve really enjoyed watching the winter Olympics and wanted to share a few thoughts about what it takes to step on an Olympic start line, writes Derval O'Rourke.

Recipe wise, it’s all about being brave with butternut squash and trying something new in the kitchen.

These days I only train to stay fit and I coach my friends to help them keep fit and healthy. But I still love the world of Olympic sport and Olympians. There are a number of distinct differences between the mindsets, lifestyle and habits of Olympic athletes. Here are my top 5 points that make Olympic athletes a bit special.

1) Sustained Work Ethic

You need the ability to do repetitive, high-level training over a sustained period of time. At the peak of my career, I would have trained almost every day, sometimes twice. There was no short term, it was always long term. One-year cycles and four-year cycles. Your mindset has to be the long game.

2) Mindset

You need to have an often unrealistic sense of hope. or as I now refer to it as ‘youthful optimism’. As a young athlete, I saw zero reasons why I wouldn’t or couldn’t become a champion. You really have to be able to stay positive and motivated. I ran more than 500 races during my career and about 493 of those were average to bad ones. Yet I still got up every morning and trained hard and pushed my body as far as it would go in the hope of having a few more good races. People are often motivated by instant gratification; you do not get this in Olympic sport!

3) Problem Solver

You have to continuously seek answers. Most people who become really good at a sport will up skill and use everything in their power to find an answer to improve. At the early stages of my career, I struggled with weightlifting. At 18 years of age I couldn’t bench press the 20kg bar but fast forward 10 years later and I could press over my body weight. Building lean body mass was a struggle for me so I worked on it continuously throughout my career.

4) Low Income with high job commitment

You must be comfortable accepting very little to no payment or financial stability. The vast majority of Olympic athletes live on very little income, an athlete that qualifies for the Olympics will generally receive €12,000 and any extra income is hard to come by. Often athletes depend on family to supplement their sport. After my first Olympic games, I took a job in a call centre part-time to supplement my grant and continue to pursue sport.

5) You cannot have it all

You must have a willingness to park sections of your life during your competitive career.

Developing a lifelong career and working up the ladder in a job is pretty hard whilst getting ready for the Olympics.

I accepted that I had to park ‘real work’ until I finished competing at the top level. There are very few people willing to put their career, personal and social lives on hold in the hope of winning medals in their field.

Every Olympic athlete I know has chosen to prioritise their sport and it’s often quite a noble quest.

Butternut Risotto

I love risotto and this one is a dream. It tastes super creamy and flavourful, yet is still pretty nutritious and balanced.

It’s delicious served with a nice side salad or even on its own.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Serves: 6


2 tbs olive oil

½ onion, finely diced

4 cloves garlic, grated

400g risotto rice, Arborio rice

½ a butternut squash, roughly chopped

1 glass white wine, optional

1.5L hot stock, chicken or vegetable work well

Salt and pepper, to taste Handful of fresh basil, torn

Handful Parmesan shavings


Heat the olive oil in a large pot over a medium heat, add the onion and cook until soft. Add the garlic andrisotto rice and continue to fry, stirring constantly until the grains of rice start to turn translucent. Add the wine, or a glass of stock if not using the wine. Once the wine is evaporated add your first ladle of stock and give it a gentle stir. Add thebutternut squash and stir again.

Turn the heat right down and add a ladle of stock at a time to the pan, allowing each ladle to be absorbed into the rice as you go. Once all stock is absorbed, check the rice to see if it is cooked (the squash should be tender and creamy with a slight bite left in the rice). If not cooked add a ladle of boiling water and check again. Once ready, stir in your fresh herbs andparmesan and enjoy!

Butternut and Prawn Laksa

This is my kind of comfort food – it’s both satisfying and nourishing and is perfect at the end of a long day.

The noodles add a bit of a bite and make the soup feel like a more substantial meal.

Prep time: 10minutes

Cook time: 30minutes

Serves: 10 2 tbs olive oil


1 butternut squash, peeled and roughly chopped

3tbsp Thai curry paste, preferably yellow but red or green are fine

1 onion, finely sliced

600ml hot stock, chicken or vegetable will work well

200 g thin rice noodles

2 x 400 ml coconut milk

500g Tiger prawns, shelled and deveined

Juice of 1-2 limes added to taste

To serve

Fresh coriander, coconut shavings and fresh sliced chillies, all are optional


Heat the oil in a deep saucepan over a medium-low heat.

Add the spice paste and onion and cook gently for about 10 minutes, stirring to release the flavours.

Add the squash and stock, and stir around, scraping all the goodness off the bottom of the pan.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, with the lid on, for about 15 minutes, until the squash is soft and cooked.

Pour in the noodles and give it a really good stir — the squash might begin to break up, but that doesn’t matter. Continue to simmer, covered, for 12 minutes, until the noodles are cooked.

Add the coconut milk and prawns then stir again, taste and season carefully.

Bring back to a simmer, then add the lime juice, to taste.

I like to serve this in tea or coffee cups and decorate with the fresh coriander leaves, sliced chilli and some shaved fresh coconut.

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