Ireland’s tranquil home far from the maddening crowd

In the leafy suburbs of Twickenham there are few indications that the Olympic Games are in London.

There is an old world charm about this corner of this world, close to Heathrow and far from the hustle of the heaving city centre a 45-minute train ride away.

The narrow streets are lined with majestic trees of various hues; the houses are imposing red brick structures from another era.

And this serene picture of upper middle-class England has played host to the majority of the Irish athletes awaiting the commencement for the track and field section of the Olympic Games this morning.

But Lensbury is well accustomed to being a home away from home for the Irish. St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill, has churned out physical education teachers for generations and continues to do so.

Dick Fisher, Head of St Mary’s College 2012 preparations, is the man tasked with overseeing the requirements of various Olympic teams who are utilising their facilities to fine-tune preparations for the Games. Ireland, South Africa, China and Japan are availing of the services but he doesn’t hide his and the College’s special warmth for the Irish.

“The Irish connections at St Mary’s are right at the origins of the College,” he said. “The College was founded in Hammersmith at Brook Green when teachers were needed for poor Irish families.

“The Vincentians established St Mary’s University College to provide teachers largely for that purpose. And then it was so successful that it expanded and expanded and got too large for where it was in Hammersmith so they moved out here [to Lensbury] around the turn of the century and it grew from here.

“Where the running track is now located there were sheep and goats and cows grazing! The Irish connection is more than a recent one in terms of sport and teacher training. It is in the roots of the college.”

And it was another famous Irish name who hatched the plan to use the cutting edge sports facilities here as a holding camp for the athletes where they could live and train in peace before making their way into the Olympic bubble.

“Sonia O’Sullivan was training here for years,” Fisher, whose great grandmother was Irish, explained. “She lived just down the road and often had treatment here. Her children have been to the summer school for sport at St Mary’s so she rang me up when she heard that the South Africans were coming asking ‘have you got room for the Irish’?

“‘Have we got room for the Irish?’ ‘Of course we have,’ I replied. And then we started a discussion.”

Fisher admits there is still a relatively sizeable Irish presence studying in the college despite an increase in tuition fees. But the education portfolio has changed dramatically in recent years with a greater focus on their sports science division.

“We are a university college with a mixed portfolio of academic programmes of which teacher education is still strong.

“But the biggest and strongest and highest profile work we’ve got is in sport and related areas — exercise physiology, nutrition, health, sports rehab, physical education and all the associated sports programmes that go with it. Alongside that are the superb facilities we have here now.

“In fact Seb Coe stood here with Pat Hickey and described us as ‘world class’. Around that we provide a range of elite services to sports, we have an environmental chamber, sports injuries clinic and rehab suites. Basically we can do anything for elite sports on the one site.”

Irish competitors like Olive Loughnane and Rob Heffernan along with their support teams having been utilising such services on a daily basis. Fisher explained: “We are back-up to the support staff from providing things like 80kg of ice a day for icing down to treatment rooms and physios.”

Whatever else happens at these Olympics, the decision to create this pre-Games camp has been an unqualified success. Chef de Mission O’Sullivan can claim all the plaudits but bats away the tributes.

“I’ve been spending time out in Lensbury and that area since 1992. It’s kind of like I’ve lived half my life out there even though I have travelled a lot.

“It’s amazing, it’s fantastic out there. It’s probably the best decision we’ve made. For the athletes, it’s far more accessible for training out there than it is in here in the Village. It’s a bit enclosed in here [in the Village] and it’s very difficult to get training done because every time you go you have to have your pass with you and then pass through the security gates a few times and figure out where to go.

“Everything is as it should be for training.”


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