Derval O'Rourke talks food, fitness and motherhood

As Derval O’Rourke starts her new food column in Weekend, she talks food, fitness and motherhood with Marjorie Brennan
Derval O'Rourke talks food, fitness and motherhood

Retirement becomes Derval O’Rourke. But you certainly couldn’t call her retiring. Even as she sits sipping a latte, the former sprint hurdler radiates energy, talking almost as fast as she used to run.

She bid farewell to professional athletics more than two years ago and would have been perfectly entitled to put her feet up after 12 years of intense training and competition.

But, if anything, her life has gone up a gear as she has pursued a range of projects and passions, as well as navigating the travails of first-time motherhood.

For the last two years, O’Rourke has been working as a player development manager with the Irish Rugby Union Player’s Association (IRUPA) but is scaling down her role to concentrate on her ‘Fit Foodie’ brand, now encompassing two cookbooks, corporate workshops, food festival demos and, in the future, a possible product range.

While there has been much discussion recently about the pitfalls facing sports people who retire, among them depression and addiction, the 35-year-old Corkwoman is an example of how planning ahead can make all the difference.

“When I set out in athletics, I had a vague dream that I wanted to go to the Olympics, it wasn’t really much more than that. The dream got bigger as I got better. But I always had the sense that the clock was ticking, I never thought it was forever.”

O’Rourke always had an eye on a career outside of athletics and had many jobs while still training.

“I often discuss careers with the rugby players and I’d be saying ‘Oh, I worked in a restaurant for a while, then I worked in a sports centre, I did all these other jobs’. I volunteered on reception in the DSPCA for a year because I love animals and it was good practical admin experience for my CV.”

O’Rourke did a degree in UCD and went on to do a masters in business management at Smurfit school of business. Along the way, she also did a course in Dublin Cookery School — an experience that would later lead her to a new career in nutrition and fitness.

“When I was running, I really enjoyed it and loved it but I was also conscious of doing other things. Because of all of that, I haven’t struggled with retirement. I really enjoy my life now. There were parts of athletics I really didn’t enjoy towards the end. For about 12 years, I never went out at the weekend. I was ready to enjoy regular life and do other things.” Those other things include media work, writing a column for the sports pages of the Irish Examiner and commentating on athletics for RTÉ. She thoroughly enjoyed her recent Olympics stint.

“I was up in the middle of the night, watching everything. I still go through Eurosport to check when small meets are on in Germany and stuff because a lot of the people I raced against are still there and I’m curious about how they are doing.” The three-time Olympian is passionate about supporting and encouraging Irish athletes.

“I always think there’s more we can do. We need to get better at helping people transition out of athletics. We also need to be better with coaches, we don’t support them well enough. I don’t think I was particularly talented; I had a certain level of talent, I worked really hard and I had very good people around me. I think those three things combined worked really well. Could more people win medals? Definitely. There are kids now who are outrageously talented, far better than I was as a teenager. I would be interested to see how they do in the next few years.”

O’Rourke and her husband Peter O’Leary, a former Olympian sailor, welcomed baby Dafne into the world last year. Since the arrival of her daughter, O’Rourke says she has become more conscious about female visibility in sport.

“I am more aware of it now because I have a little girl. We met up with Annalise Murphy in Cork a few weeks before she won her medal and it was great for Dafne to see her. It’s really important for me that girls are doing well and really visible in sports. I was in a sport where I felt I got treated fairly. If I ran well, I felt I got as much attention as male runners like David Gillick and Paul Hession, at times possibly more because I was such a ‘chatty Cathy’ off the track. I would have done interviews all day after I ran well.

“The area I would have difficulty with when it comes to the representation of women is the big roles. It’s very hard to find female CEOs of sporting organisations. But I would also argue against tokenism. I was giving a talk recently and I was asked about being a woman working in rugby, which is male-dominated, and I said you have to put your hand up for jobs, you have to back yourself and your ability. Maybe that’s harder for women to do at times. It can be tougher because with kids, everything is a juggling act.”

O’Rourke’s first cookbook, Food for the Fast Lane was a huge success and has been followed by a second, The Fit Foodie. Her philosophy can be summed up in the mantra of ‘eat well, keep moving’. This might seem like an obvious statement but it’s one we have lost sight of in a world where food has become a social media prop and cultural signifier.

O’Rourke has no time for the obsession with ‘clean eating’ exemplified by bloggers who make a lucrative living posting shots of their green juices and perfectly-honed physiques on Instagram.

“I don’t like the term clean-eating because there’s a connotation that if you have a bar of chocolate, that’s wrong,” says O’Rourke. “I don’t think there’s anything right or wrong about food; obviously it’s good if it’s healthy but people can take it too far. The only pictures of my abs on Instagram are from when I was racing. I would never put up a still of my abs because I don’t want to be one of those people putting out this version of something.

“First of all, I was a professional athlete for 12 years so I have a certain base, also, I’ve had a baby and I’ve had to work quite hard to get back into shape. I’d hate other women to see it and think ‘oh God, that was easy’ and feel bad. There has to be a certain amount of reality.”

The reality for many people struggling with parenthood is that fitness and nutrition come bottom of their list of priorities. O’Rourke is well aware that it’s not always as easy to eat well and exercise.

“I know, you’re just trying to survive. I had a really great midwife when I had my baby and she kept saying to me and my husband, ‘You have to mind the mother, the baby will be fine but if the mother’s not okay, nobody is okay’. I definitely found it hard. That’s something I try and tell people all the time — never compare yourself to other mothers. I work and I have that constant dilemma about whether I am spending enough time with Dafne.

"You are constantly getting pulled. My whole thing is just try and be kind to yourself, because it’s not easy for anybody. ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’, is that the quote? Even when I was running, there was always someone who would ultimately be faster than you; there will always be someone who looks like a better mother than you.”

For O’Rourke, one of the more positive aspects of social media is how it allows people who have made the recipes from her books to give her immediate feedback.

“People contact me on social media every day, and it’s 99% good. I did get a guy recently who made something and he burned it but I definitely don’t think I can take responsibility for that.”

She is now merging her interests in nutrition and fitness with her business training and is looking at formulating food products. “I’m working on bringing them to market, it’s a huge amount of work and a steep learning curve.” With such a hectic schedule and family responsibilities, I ask O’Rourke what she does to relax. She laughs at the very idea.

“I joked the other day that I haven’t been relaxed since 1992. I have loads going on but I have this way of dealing with things where I’ll worry about it when it happens. I sleep a lot, and I don’t

go on social media after 8pm or before 9am. If I go on it, my brain is going crazy. I love reading. I often put Dafne in the baby carrier, and I go up the woods with the dog.” Given the new direction her career has taken, it’s easy to forget that O’Rourke is one of the most successful athletes in Irish history, with a significant medal tally, including gold at the World Indoor Championships in 2006. But when I ask her about the high points, the answer doesn’t come automatically.

“It’s funny, isn’t it bad that I think of the lowlights more quickly? On paper, it would be winning the World Indoor Championships. At the time, I took it for granted — I was like ‘of course I won, I’m in great shape’. Now I look back and I think that was phenomenal. I came fourth at a World Outdoors in 2009 and I was considering retiring that year, I was having a really hard time. I had a terrible Olympics in 2008 and I think I could have medalled at it, it’s my greatest disappointment. But, to come back within 11 months and come fourth with a time that would have medalled at the Olympics, it felt like I had redeemed myself. I have the photo finish of that race and it’s one of my proudest to look at.”

When I ask her if she has it framed, she laughs. “No, nothing hangs anywhere. I just have it, it’s probably crumpled up in the house somewhere. I realised recently I didn’t know where my medals were but I’ve located them since. My husband said ‘we should really frame your medals and put them up’.” One of those medals still lies in the envelope in which it came last year, O’Rourke having been upgraded to bronze for the 60m hurdles at the European Indoor Championships in 2013, after Turkish athlete Nevin Yanit tested positive for drugs.

“It took just over two years for the medal to be sent. It arrived in the post last year, a couple of weeks after I had Dafne. I opened it, looked at it and put it back in the envelope. I was up to my eyeballs taking care of a newborn.” O’Rourke is sanguine about being denied a place on the podium.

“The Turkish girl [Yanit] beat me in 2010, at the Europeans. I don’t believe in her performance then, I think it should be stripped, and it hasn’t been, so I get a little bit annoyed but not that much. In the scheme of my whole career, the times I didn’t get the results I wanted was because of myself. I probably should have done better. It’s quite easy for me to settle in my mind.

"People who are qualifying in the Irish team and they’re in their heats and they’re not making the semi-finals, I think they’re more affected by people on drugs. You could have an athlete who might be a consistent semi-finalist or break into the odd final, who might end their career in their mid-20s because they have no funding. That’s worse. Sometimes, people’s perception of Irish athletes not being good enough is incorrect because I think the landscape was skewed a bit for some athletes in some events.”

As for the controversial arrest of Pat Hickey, which overshadowed Ireland’s participation in this year’s Olympics, O’Rourke’s concern is that the IOC doesn’t lose sight of the people it is charged with supporting and encouraging.

“Obviously there has to be due process but for me, it’s about what’s best for athletes and then coaches because they’re the main people who support athletes. That should be at the heart of everything; for the Irish Olympic Council, and the Irish Sports Council, that should always be the starting point. I don’t have a clue what they do when they sit at their desks. Only they can look at themselves in the mirror and say if they’re doing a good job or not.”

Much as O’Rourke discourages comparing ourselves to others, I can’t help but envy her positivity and energy. As we finish up, and she bounds off to another meeting, I am reminded of that famous line in When Harry Met Sally: I’ll have what she’s having.

Read Derval’s new food column on p24

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