Ireland’s elite athletes have one ambition for 2020 — to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Sharon Ní Chonchúir talks to four contenders about the steps they are taking to foster a winning mindset.
Co Limerick triathlete Carolyn Hayes, 31, has her eyes on an Olympic medal. Since October 2018, she has risen up the international rankings from number 428 in the world to 63.
The qualified doctor has taken a career break to train full-time. “If your head isn’t in the game, you won’t be able to achieve your full potential,” she says. “Everyone has heard the quote: ‘the body achieves what the mind believes’.”
She uses this to push herself as an athlete. “I never allow myself to get comfortable with my training. I have to challenge myself to progress. I never see working hard as anything but positive.”
Her training schedule is gruelling. “Training for triathlon requires an enormous time commitment,” she says.
“It’s seven days a week, swimming four or five times a week, biking four times and running three or four times plus lots of gym work.”
She is coached by Gavin Noble and Éanna McGrath who run the HupHup training group in Greystones, Co Wicklow.
“I can honestly say that without my HupHup teammates and inspirational coaches, I wouldn’t be able to progress as an athlete,” she says. “I rely on the group dynamic for motivation and inspiration, especially when I’m finding the sessions hard due to fatigue or some other reason.”
She maintains there is no part of her training she doesn’t enjoy, “except maybe the endless washing and constant need for food”.
When she does find her spirits lagging, however, she reminds herself of why she’s doing what she’s doing.
“I chose to do this,” she says.
Between now and July’s Olympics, she plans to focus her physical and mental energy on improving her performance.
“I cannot control what others do but I can control what I do and how I adapt to situations,” she says. “My mother always says that ‘if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well’ and I approach everything with that mindset.”
Top tip for staying focussed: “You’ve done the physical groundwork. Now it’s time to believe in yourself. Knowing that your body has what it takes will help it to perform to its optimum level.”
Rower Fintan McCarthy, 23, is aiming for gold. In October, he and Paul O’Donovan won a gold medal in the lightweight men’s double sculls at the World Rowing Championships and he’s hoping to repeat that performance at the Olympics.
Having graduated from studying physiology in UCC last year, he is now devoting himself to training full-time.
He is focussed on preparing his body and mind for the challenge ahead. “At the moment, I’m training for up to five hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.
“I do a mix of lower-intensity long sessions to build endurance, high-intensity sessions to simulate race pace, and weights to improve power.”
He trains at the National Rowing Centre in Ovens, Co Cork, as well as at home with the Skibbereen Rowing Club.
Like Hayes, he finds the group dynamic helpful when he’s struggling. “I like training by myself so that I can focus on what I’m doing but a group can help you through tough sessions,” he says. “You find that extra gear when you see others working just as hard or even harder than you are.”
He knows how important it is to train his mind as well as his body.
“It’s important to have good mental clarity on race day,” he says.
Not surprisingly, fatigue can be an issue. “Sometimes, it gets the better of you,” he says. “But other times, it’s good to remember that the body is resilient and that you can perform at levels close to your best if you just suck it up and get it done.”
He finds it helps to break the process down. “I’ll think about getting through breakfast, getting to the rowing centre, getting changed, putting the boat on the water, getting the warm-up done, then the first 10% of training and the next,” he says. “Doing one thing at a time rather than letting everything get on top of me. That works.”
Top tip for staying focussed: “Break your task down into manageable steps. Focus on one at a time, rather than becoming overwhelmed by them all at once.”
Canoeist Patrick O’Leary, 47, never expected to compete in the Olympics. The father of two children aged 13 and 11 and chemistry lecturer at NUI Galway always had a competitive spirit but health problems in his teens but his sporting career on hold.
He developed bone cancer aged 18, which required a knee replacement. “That knee had to be replaced again in 2006 and an infection flared up in 2010,” says O’Leary. The leg had to be amputated in November 2011.
Having started canoeing as a schoolboy at Coláiste an Spiorad Naomh in Cork, he was determined get back into a boat. “I managed 10 minutes on April 1, 2012,” he says. “It was hell but great.”
When the canoe sprint was announced as a new Olympic sport in 2012, he decided to aim for the Paralympics. Since then, he has structured his life around work, training and family.
“I get up at 5.15am and train until 7am, either on the water or in the shed,” he says.
“Then I have breakfast, get the kids to school and go to work. I fit in another hour of training at lunchtime. There’s an element of madness in it but mostly, it’s extreme structure.”
Neil Fleming coaches Patrick remotely from Dublin. This means he usually trains on under his own steam. “It’s just me, my MP3 player and GPS so it’s lucky I’m self-motivated,” he says.
Self-motivation is just one part of his mental arsenal. Another is training to be the best he can be.
He struggles with allowing time for rest and recovery. “This week, I have a cold and at 5.10am, I was about to go out to the shed when I realised I had to go back to bed,” he says. “I found that hard. I lay there asking myself if I was pushing myself hard enough.”
His wife is one of his main pillars of support. “She’s incredibly understanding,” he says. “She always knew I was a sports fanatic so there was no false advertising there, but I doubt she expected it to be as extreme as this.”
Top tip for staying focussed: “Get organised. Set aside time for training. Always have your gear ready and waiting in the same place. Then there’s no interruption between deciding to train and doing it.”
Macroom boxer and full-time member of An Garda Síochána, Christina Desmond, 23, is hoping to come out fighting at the Tokyo Olympics.
The welterweight knows that mental attitude is everything when it comes to winning. “Come competition day, the hard work is done,” she says. “It’s the mindset you have to get right to win.”
She trains full-time with the Irish High Performance Team in Dublin. “We train twice a day, four days a week, and at weekends we train with our clubs or by ourselves,I do weights, boxing and running and swim for recovery. It’s very tough.
There’s little she enjoys about it. “It’s so intense,” she says. “If I had to pick a favourite, I suppose I’d pick weight training as it’s something you can get gains out of fast.”
Running is her least favourite. “I’m not very good at it and dread every time I have to run.”
The commitment required to compete at this level has made Desmond question her dedication to boxing. It’s the victories that compel her to continue.
She also enjoys being a role model. “If I could inspire just one young child, I’d feel my work was done,” she says. “That thought keeps me going when times are tough.”
Her family and coach provide motivation too. “I have huge backing from my father and three siblings and my coach Tom Power,” she says. “I want to continue to make them proud.”
What she finds most difficult of all is waiting for a fight on competition days.
She has developed a routine to help her to deal with this.
“When I eat, when I drink, when I start warming up and getting ready, when I take my pre-fight drink, what music I listen to — I try to check everything off as the day goes by to try to make it go faster,” she says.
“It’s how my brain gets focused and realises I’m in fight mode.”
Top tip for staying focussed: “Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. Your motivation is what will push you past the finish line.”