PICTURE the scene: it’s a bright and airy Saturday morning;, and down the marina in Cork city, somewhere between the free-wheeling cyclists and the huff and puff of the joggers, skirting around the pram-pushers and the dog walkers, one figure is standing out from the crowd.
Thundering along with an awkward-looking gait, Olive Loughnane cuts a striking figure.
“There’s yer wan who does the funny walk.”
Olive Loughnane is one of Ireland’s dedicated stars gearing up for a shot at the Olympics in London next year. A leading light in the 20km race walk, she is a full-time athlete, putting in long hours in a rigorous and demanding fitness programme. But she’s also a full-time mother and dedicated family woman.
“It’s a lifestyle choice, it’s not like a 9 to 5 job,” says Olive, who lives in Coachford in Co Cork. “I feel very lucky to be doing this job that I love but I couldn’t do it without the support of my family, without the support of my husband Martin (Corkery) and my daughter Eimear, and the support of my parents.”
Olive Loughnane has already competed in three Olympic Games, in Sydney, Athens and Beijing (where she finished seventh) and won an silver medal in the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. What started as a hobby became a passion and then a genuine professional career.
“After the Olympics in 2000 I started to take it really seriously. I took a job share in my job as a statistician with the CSO in 2001. Then in 2006, after the birth of my daughter Eimear, I took a sabbatical from the CSO and took it on full-time.”
Like her friend and team-mate Robert Heffernan (another walker to look out for in London), she’s often recognised as she goes about her business. Walkers tend to stand out from the crowd.
“I have some routes I really like — I love ‘the line’ (the old railway line walk) in Blackrock. And people are so nice, they say hi or ‘there’s yer one who does the walk’. People are very supportive, Cork people particularly, it’s such a sports-mad place.”
A full-time athletic career involves endless travel, with race weekends across Europe and beyond throughout the season. It’s no sightseeing tour, and it’s usually a solo voyage.
“It can be difficult to be away from my daughter, and from my husband. It’s a difficult lifestyle but you find a way to do it. I love what I do.
“And having a family and having a daughter can also keep you grounded. The Olympics are important but family is more important. Eimear can help bring you back to reality. When you turn to your training plan and she’s after drawing a picture on it, it brings everything home to you, it brings you back to reality.
“Eimear is becoming very aware of what I do. When I come home she asks, ‘did you win a medal?’ and hopefully I have.
“I remember when I won the silver medal at the World Championships in Berlin and I was going in for the routine drug testing afterwards, and I rang Eimear. She was on the swings in the playground and I said ‘mummy won the medal’ and she said ‘that’s great mummy and now I’m going back to the swings.’”
When Eimear was born, there was an added physical strain. “After the birth of my daughter, I probably returned to training too early. I was back training 10 days after the birth of my daughter, which I had by caesarian section. Looking back, that was probably too early and it was so tough. There was times when I wondered why I was putting myself through it.
“Sometimes with the lifestyle people ask you are you missing out on so much and you do miss out on some things but you get used to it. You get used to being healthy and you get used to the lifestyle, of not having a drink or whatever.”
Eimear has just started school, which comes at a good time — Olive is in the middle of a three-week break from athletics, having competed in the World Championships in Daegu in Korea last month.
Daegu won’t provide very happy memories, where she finished 16th.
“It was a disaster,” says Loughnane. “I was prepared for the heat but not for the humidity, which was around 88%.
“The statistician in me always compares one year with the year before. And I had a bad year before the Beijing Olympics also and came back from it. Now I’m focused 100% on London.”
Even for a veteran of three Olympics, London will be something to remember for the 35-year-old.
“These Olympics will be special. This could be the only chance for somebody from Ireland to get to an Olympics and it really is something to remember, even for people who are not really into sport. There’s a buzz, it’s like a festival.
“There’s obviously a big Irish community in London so hopefully there should be a big Irish support. You always can see a tricolour or whatever in a crowd and of course the Irish will always be heard.”
It could even be one for the Royal watchers, given the route.
“The walk will be 10 x 2km circuits, it’s on the Mall and I think the finish is near Buckingham Palace.”
At 35, in the cut-throat world of sport, Olive is in the veteran stage. But she’s not showing signs of decline.
“I think it can get a little tougher as you get older, but also you get more mature.
“I don’t have any thoughts of retirement yet. All my focus is on London. I’ve proven that I can compete with the best.
“The World Championships didn’t work out this year but I’ll be back stronger.
“Hopefully that’ll just lengthen my odds of a medal with the bookies!”
Always the statistician.
PAUL HESSION, 200M SPRINTER, IRELAND’S FASTEST MAN
IT’S hard to believe that life in the fast lane necessitates such a solitary existence. While we’re used to the glamour of sprinters — the peacocks of the athletics world; loud and proud, brash and bold — the reflective and calm nature of Paul Hession is surprising. Ireland’s fastest man lives a routine off track which would be more suitable for a hermit monk.
Weeks on end away from home, juggling a careful diet and daily training, and throw in study for a degree in arts on the side (while on sabbatical from your career in medicine), just for good measure — and the discipline is enough to turn a man to drink. Except there’s a strict zero alcohol policy, too.
“I live a self-inflicted very boring life,” admits genial Galway man Paul, once dubbed ‘the fastest white man in the world’ and the Irish record holder at 100m and 200m.
The 28-year-old Athenry man has made huge sacrifices to stay in the world’s sprinting elite, upping sticks to Scotland, leaving behind girlfriend, family and his career (Paul is training to be a doctor).
“It’s tough but it‘s the life I choose to live,” admits Paul. “I’ve living about 20 minutes outside Edinburgh in a small one-bed roomed apartment. I moved here because my coach Stuart Hogg is Scottish so I could be nearer to train with him. I first came over here in 2006. I used to live in his spare room but I’ve got my own place now.
“It can get quite lonely. I try to get home about once a month. My girlfriend Ciara is at home and my family and most of my friends are at home in Ireland.
“One thing I’ve learned is that in order to do this, you need to become very comfortable in your own company. You’ve got to learn to relax. Learning to relax is almost a skill.”
Paul is on sabbatical from medicine and relies on his sports council grant as his income. So there’s no splashing out. It’s the simple life. But he has found a creative outlet to dwindle away some time in Scotland.
“Since I’m on sabbatical from medicine, I started doing an arts degree in history at a university here in Scotland. It’s not really a career thing, it’s just something to do with my time. You need to have structure in your life.
“Being an athlete is a 24-7 thing. Everything you do is dictated by the sport. If I’m going to compete with the best, this is what I have to do. This is the life I have chosen to live.”
Paul’s routine — a disciplined mix of training, resting, dietary restraint and then study, with a bit of television thrown in to keep an eye on other sporting passions — brings its rewards.
Among other accolades, Paul has picked up a 200m silver medal at the 2008 World Athletics Championships in Stuttgart and last year became the first Irishman to qualify for the finals of the 200m in the European Athletics Final, running 20.71 seconds.
All going well, you’ll be watching Paul shouldering up to the likes of Usain Bolt in London next year.
“When 2011 hit, people started to realise it’s only a year away. Any athlete at the moment has to be thinking of London and of course you want to give it a lash.
“It’s the closest any Irishman will probably ever get to having an Olympics at home. My parents (Owen and Geraldine) will be there, my sisters Emer and Karen, my girlfriend, my uncle Gerard, who has followed me around the world — he’s been to Japan just to see me compete — will be there. It doesn’t get any bigger than this.
“I think my target would be to make the final of the Olympic Games in London. If you follow my career you’ll see I’ve been the ‘almost man’ a few times. Making the final in London I think it’ll be a success.”
Just don’t expect the histrionics to go with it.
BILLY TWOMEY, SHOWJUMPER
IN the world of showjumping, you’d better like to fly and you’d better like travel. Because when you’re out of the saddle, you’ll no sooner be back on your feet that you’re going to end up back in the air.
“This sport brings you all over the world,” says Billy Twomey, who still has high hopes of qualifying for the Olympics as an individual after Ireland’s team hopes were dashed in September.
“These days the season lasts almost through the full 12 months, and you spend about four days away each week, from Thursday to Sunday. And you’ve got to get the horses over beforehand, usually on the Tuesday beforehand.
“There’s shows on three of the four days so you don’t really get much time for sightseeing.
“The toughest part is definitely being away from home so much, from my wife Joanne and my three children Lily, Evie and George every week.”
Twomey moved to England from Cork when he was just 17 years of age to further his career. He brings the same attitude to every event: and second doesn’t feature.
“I go into every event thinking I can win it. There’d be no point in taking part otherwise.”
There are a few things Twomey would like to change. “I’m a Manchester United fanatic,” he says. “I used to be a season ticket holder. Unfortunately I had to give the season ticket up. I also don’t get the chance to get home to Cork very often, certainly not nearly as much as I’d like to.”
KATIE TAYLOR, BOXING
You’ve seen all those ‘cash for gold’ adverts? Katie Taylor would probably be a millionaire if she tried to cash in the precious metal. A multiple world champion, there’s an awful lot of pressure on the Bray woman’s shoulders as all of Ireland is willing her towards gold in London. If that’s not enough, the multi-talented Taylor, coached by dad Peter, is also an Irish international footballer.
The lightweight star comes from a family steeped in sport. Dad Peter was an Irish lightweight champion and her mother a boxing referee. Ireland’s boxing team raiders carry high hopes of carrying back a few medals across the Irish Sea but none more so than Katie, with odds as low as 1/10 that Taylor will achieve her ultimate goal.
DERVAL O’ROURKE, HURDLER
Gutsy and determined, Derval O’Rourke’s spirit and talent is admired in equal amounts. The 29-year-old Cork woman is a former world indoor champion at the 60m hurdles and hopes to be competing for Ireland in the 100m hurdles in London.
O’Rourke had to pull out of the World Championship semi-final in Daegu through injury. Yet Derval has bounced back from injury before, and is determined to do so again.
She competed in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic games and was desperately unlucky not to win a medal at the world championships in Berlin in 2009, despite setting a new national record. Expect her to be focused and ready for action in London next year.
CIARAN Ó LIONÁIRD, 1500m
It’s been quite a year for the Macroom man, dubbed the “bullet with a mullet”.
Ó Lionáird came to national prominence in the World Championships, qualifying for the final in Daegu after finding an incredibly rich vein of form in the autumn.
Things have kept moving apace for the Leevale athlete. This week he joined the Nike Oregon project, the top distance training group in the US, where he will rub shoulders with the likes of British star Mo Farah.
He has even started his own personal website, Mad-Len.com.
The flying mullet is sure to cause stir in London next year.
DEIRDRE RYAN, HIGH JUMP
Deirdre Ryan is living the dream after her successful World Championships last month.
The Dubliner set a new Irish record of 1.95 metres in qualifying — securing her place at the 2012 Olympics — and finished sixth in the final.
Ryan’s form secured her world class status in the Irish Sports Council’s grant system, worth €20,000 over two seasons. Based in Germany, she is aiming even higher for London.
JASON SMYTH, SPRINTER
Derry man Jason Smyth won gold in 100m and 200m at the Paralympics. But he regularly goes shoulder to shoulder with sighted athletes, having competed in the World Championships last month. He is still battling to make the Olympic qualifying standard — having run just four 100ths of a second outside it — but is confident of making history by competing in both the Olympics and Paralympics next year.
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