5 athletes on what it takes to make it to the Olympics in Rio

As the countdown to the greatest sports show on earth begins, Marjorie Brennan talks to five of our Olympic athletes about their journey to Rio.

5 athletes on what it takes to make it to the Olympics in Rio

Conor Harte


I have missed so many family functions. Some people might see it as a sacrifice, but I see it as part of my life

Conor Harte, 28, is from Kinsale, Co Cork. He and his brother David are on the Irish hockey team, the first Irish team to qualify for the Olympics since 1948 (basketball).

He has 170 international caps and plays professionally with Royal Racing Club Bruxelles.

What’s your day like?

Now the club season is finished, I can focus purely on Ireland. We had a block in January where we went to South Africa and we played a lot of games over there, but we also trained.

We all had club commitments up to May, and it was difficult to get everyone in the same place at once. Now, it’s all games-orientated. It’s a massive benefit to work as a team.

We were at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown the past few days and we see the boxers, rowers and athletes in there by themselves.

When you are in a team, there is a lot of interaction and it’s much more enjoyable.

What have you sacrificed to get this far?

I got my first cap in August 2006, and in the ten years since, I have missed so many weddings and family functions, birthdays, you name it.

But it’s never felt like a sacrifice. It is difficult at the time to miss things but we now know why we are doing it because we are the first hockey team to qualify in over 100 years.

Some people may see it as a sacrifice, but I just see it as part of my life.

In terms of funding, we have been crowdsourcing, but we got a massive boost today as the OCI offered us €50,000 towards our fund, which will go a long way and we are very thankful.

The public have been fantastic — we can’t thank everyone enough. We didn’t want to have to ask people but that’s what we had to do.

The hockey community have been fantastic but beyond that people have contributed just because of their love for sport. And everyone likes to get behind a team in green.

What goes through your head before a match?

The nerves are always there; you just deal with it, it really does come down to experience.

At the end of the day, the reason you are nervous is because of your expectations of how you are going to perform, nothing else.

You put yourself under pressure. The minute you put on that green jersey, it means something to you.

The expectations go hand in hand with that and you want to perform as well as you can.

What are your expectations for Rio?

We’ve been fortunate enough, through the Sports Institute, to have workshops with double and triple Olympians, informing us of what will happen.

It’s to take away that awe when you walk in to the Olympic village and see famous athletes.

They gave us a great insight into what happens beforehand but also afterwards — because that’s just as important; there can be a huge comedown after it.

I don’t know yet if we will be taking part in the opening ceremony as I think we play the next morning at 11am.

I presume we won’t, which will be a disappointment but then again we are not going to the Olympics for the opening ceremony, we are going to do as well as we can and win as many matches as we can.

Does drug testing impact on you?

We are subject to drug tests but we don’t have testers coming to our houses at random times.

We are, as a squad, not carded, by which I mean we don’t get paid by the OCI or expenses or anything so they can only come and test us when we are at training camp, for example.

From January until before the Olympics, the testers in Ireland have been told of our whereabouts all the time.

What do you do to relax?

My life is hockey. I’m sports-mad so if I’m at home relaxing, I’m just watching sport.

We were keen hurlers and footballers until the age of 14; Courcey Rovers was our club in Ballinspittle. We tried everything.

My dad is a relation of the Tyrone coach Mickey Harte and he played on the minor, U21 and senior football team as a goalkeeper — funnily enough, Dave is a goalkeeper now.

One of my two sisters has played on the Irish ladies team and got 50-odd caps and the other has played high-level hockey too. We did swimming, athletics to national level, and badminton to U-13 national level.

Lizzie Lee


LIZZIE LEE, 36, from Bishopstown, Cork, will be competing in the marathon.

She trains with Leevale AC, and works full-time for Apple. She is married to Paul and has a two-year-old daughter, Lucy.

What’s your day like?

I have a very demanding job but I have leave for the run-up to the Olympics, which is brilliant. My husband works full-time and Lucy is at creche.

My husband and I sit down at the start of the week and work out who can do what.

My parents are only a four-minute walk from us and my mother-in-law is also super.

I’m up early. I swim three times a week, the other mornings I run. I might run two or three times a day, depending on what I have to do. I go to the gym twice a week as well.

The bulk of my training is at the weekend. On Saturday morning I do a tough session with Leevale, and my coach Donie Walsh would be there. On Sunday, I run in Blackrock, there’s a five-mile loop there.

It can get a bit boring as you’re going round and round but I’m like the Pied Piper, I might start with one or two of the lads and they know I’m going to be passing through every 35 or 37 minutes and they wait for me — I rarely have to do any miles of a 22-miler on my own.

My husband does all the cooking. He kills me because I say it in all the interviews; he says “you make it sound like I’m at home all the time cooking” and he’s not, because he trains as well.

I find I crave healthy food when I’m training hard and part of that is your body is looking to replace things it needs.

I just eat normal food. I like a bit of everything — carbs, meat, fruit and veg and I love a bit of chocolate as well.

What have you sacrificed to get this far?

I’ve missed a lot of nights out but fortunately I have a big group of friends since I was four years old and they get it.

When I arrived to a hen in Killarney at 2pm in the afternoon because of training on Saturday morning, they got it.

They knew I was going to go to bed early, get up early and run around the lakes in Killarney. I also need sleep — when Lucy naps, I nap. I don’t consider getting up in the morning a sacrifice because I love it.

It’s easy to get out of bed when you only have weeks to go to the Olympics. I don’t consider the fact that I’m not falling out of nightclubs any more a sacrifice because I’m 36.

The biggest sacrifice is time with Lucy because during the week, I generally don’t see her until the end of her day in creche, which I hate. That’s something that will change.

What goes through your head before a race?

For a marathon, your brain is trying to talk you out of it; it knows that 26.2 miles is a silly idea and you’re going to be wrecked at the end of it.

On the start line, all you can do is be calm and tell yourself you have all your homework done.

I visualise the finish line and how great it’s going to be to hug everybody and be all happy. It’s incredibly nerve-wracking.

I can usually feel my heart pounding at the back of my neck, it’s a horrible feeling. But literally within 10 seconds of the gun going I’m grand. The beauty of a marathon is that it doesn’t get hard for a long time.

You have a long time to relax into it. If you are struggling at 10K, you are in trouble. You have a long time to have a chat with yourself. You get into the zone.

What are your expectations for Rio?

I’m really looking forward to the start line, getting in there and giving it a lash.

To be an Irish Olympian, I get goosebumps just thinking about it. But I’m looking forward to the whole experience, being in the athletes’ village and seeing my heroes and idols and realising they are just normal people too.

My parents and husband are coming over; Lucy is staying with my mother-in-law.

There is also a crew from Leevale who are going to be there — there are about 10 or 12 of them so I know I’m going to have really good support along the course.

We train with UCC and some of the students have foregone their J1 and are going to Rio instead. I have two friends who are also travelling out.

Does drug testing impact on you?

It’s very structured, fair and transparent. I give them times when I’m going to be at home or at training. They don’t call to me that often. They are incredibly pleasant when they call.

The process is not a joyous one but we all know it has to be there and I would prefer that because there are no questions. As a country, we can stand over our medals.

What do you do to relax?

It’s all family time. I love meeting friends for a coffee and chat. My favourite coffee in Cork is in the Atrium Cafe in the Mardyke — Simon makes the best latte.

I look forward to that the whole time I’m in the pool or gym. I play with Lucy. I also love watching sport on telly. There is an awful lot of ‘me’ time in running — that’s my meditation, therapy and relaxation.

Claire Lambe


Rower Claire Lambe, 26, is from Cabra, Co Dublin, but now lives in Ballincollig, Co Cork. She studied mechanical engineering at UCC.

She will compete in the lightweight double sculls with Sinead Jennings — the first Irish women to do so.

What’s your day like?

My routine doesn’t change much in an Olympic year, although there is a bit more excitement and intensity.

We train seven days a week; we would have a day off maybe every two or three weeks. Every morning is exactly the same.

It starts at 6.35am. I’ll be out in the rowing centre for 7.30am to start warming up and we generally have our first session out on the water.

We would either train in the double, myself and Sinead, or we’d go out in singles. The second session would be at 11.30am.

We have breakfast in the rowing centre, usually porridge. Then we might do a third session every second day.

We’d either do a technical session as the second session or we might do weights, we do three weights sessions a week or you’d have time on the rowing machine.

As we came in to the summer we did a lot more racing pieces and speed work on the water.

I’d have dinner around 6.30pm and then just chill out for the evening, have friends around or watch TV.

I’d usually try to be in bed by 10pm. Dinner is usually a lot of vegetables and salad, a protein and a carbohydrate, stir-fries or fish and sweet potato.

What have you sacrificed to get this far?

Financially, it has been really difficult. Our rowing programme has not been well-funded for the last four years.

This year, I’ve got funding again, but I still owe Rowing Ireland money for competition fees for the last two years.

I’ve had a lot of support from family and friends and we did a GoFundMe campaign last year to help pay competition fees.

I had a part-time job with Jospa, a wave-energy developer, and they paid me well, that really helped.

I’ve been accepted to do a masters in Cambridge next year and I’m going to have to take out a loan to pay for it, which feels tough at the age of 26. But I’m doing what I love and I appreciate that.

What goes through your head before a race?

That is something that has changed a lot since I began rowing. At the start, I was very nervous but now I find I get more excited.

I do get nervous but I’m better off trying to stay as calm as possible and not get hyped up, not think of what might be at stake.

Even try and enjoy it as well. You have to remind yourself that you want to be there and you want to be doing it, you kind of forget that sometimes.

You think ‘I can’t wait for this to be over’ and then ‘Hang on, I’ve been training all year for this, why would I want it to be over?”

Visualising the race also helps.

What are your expectations for Rio?

We are going with the hope of a medal. We haven’t had a great run so far but I’m coming off the back of an injury. I feel like the speed is there, it just hasn’t come through yet.

Rio will be nothing like I’ve ever experienced before, being on a completely different continent; the weather and everything will be different.

We’ll have to stay in our bubble and not get too distracted. We will miss the opening ceremony as the rowing starts the following day; it would not be conducive to a good race if you were standing for a long time.

At the moment, we are booked to fly straight home after the rowing but myself and Sinead might try and organise to stay until the closing ceremony.

How many Olympics do people have in them? It could be once in a lifetime.

Does drug testing impact on you?

Yes, drug testing is something I need to consider in my daily schedule.

If I change my routine, the Irish sports council’s anti-doping unit needs to be notified online or by text.

The drug testers can arrive at any time, and have done, at 6am or late in the evening.

They have called to my apartment on numerous occasions and I must say my housemates got quite an insight into the drug-testing process.

Doping doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem in rowing as in other sports, maybe because there isn’t any financial reward.

Yet I think it would be naive to believe it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t change what we are doing. If other competitors are doping, we just have to beat them too.

What do you do to relax?

I try to have balance but I know I am living in a bubble and it will be hard afterwards to adjust.

I would be afraid of coming back and feeling lost because I’ve done this for six years and my social life has suffered.

But a lot of my friends have been very good to stay in contact even when I’m not around. Eight of them are booked into an apartment in Rio. They’ve been really supportive.

Arthur Lanigan-O’Keeffe


Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe, 24, is from Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, and is now based in Abbotstown, Co Dublin. He is competing in the Modern Pentathlon (running, shooting, fencing, swimming and horse riding).

He is the current European champion and is seen as one of our hottest medal prospects.

What’s your day like?

Mine is a multi-discipline sport so no one day is exactly the same. I have power days and endurance days but the common theme is five to six hours training, usually split into about four sessions.

I have to eat quite a lot of food but I try to keep it as clean as possible. I get up at 6am, eat some overnight oats, then go back to bed for half-an-hour.

Then I head to the pool for 7.30am. I get into the pool at 8am and swim until 9.30am. Then I’ll have a quick breakfast and head to physio from 10am to 11am.

After that, I’ll go back to the house, have a bigger lunch and a power nap. I’ll have a fencing lesson around 2pm until 2.30pm, then I’ll go back, have some more food, maybe another quick nap.

I’ll do a run around 3pm or 3.30pm — from 50 to 90 minutes, depending on the day, whether it’s speed or endurance work.

Then I’ll get in a bit more food. Some days we have fencing in the evening from 7pm to 8pm. I’ll go back, have my dinner, and do some dry-firing, which is like visualisation with my gun.

Then I’ll do some yoga; that helps keep me limber and aids recovery. I’ll have more food, then go to bed. That day will be the same every week. Each day, in its nature, has to be a little different.

What have you sacrificed to get this far?

As it’s Olympic year, I moved right outside the door of the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown.

It’s better to stay in that bubble and not have my friends always asking me to go out.

It is hard at times, but in the grand scheme of things, when you’re standing on top of a podium and you’ve achieved one of your goals, it’s all worth it.

In terms of money, at the start it was a big struggle and I had to rely a lot on my parents. But over the last few years, I have been performing and I am being supported very well by the Olympic Council and the Sports Council.

I won’t be saving huge amounts of money or buying a house but I do have what I need to to train like a professional.

What goes through your head before an event?

Because the pentathlon goes on over a whole day, thousands of things pop into your head. In between each event, I try to switch off as much as I can.

I always do better if I’m smiling and laughing — one of my coach’s instructions is to keep me happy so I’ll compete well.

When I’m actually doing the event, I focus on the process, not the result; if you’re thinking “jeez, I need to beat this guy now”, you forget how you’re meant to beat them.

Just staying in that moment; that has taken a lot of practice, it’s very difficult to get stuff out of your head. When we are on training camps, a lot of the athletes will have colouring books, to switch their brains off completely.

I’ve started doing a lot of stuff with videos, starting YouTube channels. Editing is one of my passions.

I film stuff during the day and then edit it when I have a few hours. I get completely immersed.

What are your expectations for Rio?

When I went to the London Olympics, I was quite young and I only found out I was competing four weeks before because the Polish guy tested positive.

I wasn’t fit and I went in with few expectations.

Things have changed a lot since then and I’m coming off really good results. I think anything is possible. I’m not there just to compete, I’m aiming for gold.

When we go out to Rio, I won’t be going to the opening ceremony and I won’t be staying in the village until only a few days before the event.

The village is a distraction. You forget the effect these things have on your body — you go to the dining hall, you see Usain Bolt and all these people you look up to, suddenly your heart rate is going miles high, you’re on this buzz and you get back to your room an hour later and you’re exhausted.

I’ll be staying at the Team Ireland place in Uberlandia, doing my own thing, focusing on my job. As soon as that’s done, I can enjoy myself.

Does drug testing impact on you?

I get drug tested a huge amount. I am on two different systems — the Irish anti-doping system and, because I’m in the world top 20, I’m also on the pentathlon anti-doping programme.

It’s tough and frightening if you forget and you’re rushing to get the sample in. But I completely agree with it. The cleaner the Olympics is come Rio, the more it will help Irish athletes.

I’ve had friends staying at the house, and there’s a knock on the door at 7am, they’re like ‘what’s going on?’

I say, ‘it’s the lads coming in to take my blood and watch me pee into a cup’. I know the testers well, they’re lovely.

What do you do to relax?

I get a rest day on Sunday and I always make sure I go into town and meet some of my friends and do something completely away from sport.

I tell my friends not to talk about sport or ask me how training is going. It refreshes me and gets me ready for a week on again.

I don’t always get those opportunities because of travelling but whenever they do arise, I make sure to take them. It keeps me grounded.

It’s also important that if you win a medal you have friends to bring it home to and celebrate with.

Ellis O’Reilly


Ellis O’Reilly, 18, is from London; her grandfather was born in Armagh. She is the first female gymnast representing Ireland to qualify for the Olympics.

She is doing her A-levels at the moment and will be sitting exams before heading for Rio.

When did you start gymnastics?

I started at six. I had tried different sports before because my parents wanted to get me into a sport but I got bored with them quite easily.

What I liked about gymnastics was there was always something new to learn — I also quite liked the dangerous aspect, being able to flip in the air and stuff. I wasn’t really the best when I was little.

I’ve just worked hard over the years and tried to improve on my strengths and use them.

How did it feel when you qualified?

It didn’t feel real at first. Me and my coach [Sam James] were quite emotional.

What’s your day like?

I get up at 7.20am and go to school from 8.30am until 3pm. Then I’d go straight from school to training from 4pm until 8pm. I train at the Europa Gym Club in Crayford [London].

I try to eat carbs before training and protein after training. I try to eat a lot of fruit throughout the day and drink a lot of water.

What have you sacrificed to get this far?

It is more sort of socially. I’m always at training so I can’t really go out a lot with my friends. And I’ve had to miss a lot of family events.

My family have been very supportive. I don’t get funding, I just get sponsorship. Gymnastics Ireland are paying for me to travel to Rio.

What goes through your head before you compete?

I do get nervous but I envision my routines in my head. I also listen to music, which distracts me from everything.

What are your expectations for Rio?

It doesn’t feel real at the moment. I don’t think it will until I get there. My parents and two brothers will be coming too.

Does drug testing impact on you?

I haven’t had any of that, not yet.

What do you do to relax?

I like to spend time with my friends because they distract me from training and me worrying about competitions and stuff like that. We go shopping, to the cinema and stuff.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I’ll have a few weeks off after the Olympics. I’ll start university then, I’ll be studying physical education, and I’ll see if I want to go back to gymnastics.

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