Local heroes: How Ireland's Olympic and Paralympic stars celebrated Christmas

Annalise Murphy. She received over 3,000 cards from wellwishers after her medal win. Picture: Moya Nolan

All eyes were on Rio last summer when our athletes picked up three medals in the Olympics and 11 in the Paralympics. Marjorie Brennan caught up with some of our biggest success stories over Christmas

Annalise Murphy - Sailing

Annalise, 26, from Rathfarnham in Co Dublin, won silver in the Laser Radial event at Rio, Ireland’s first sailing medal since 1980.

What was it like to compete in Rio?

I was excited about it but I felt really well prepared, that I was there to do a job. I was trying not to get distracted by the hype because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of it all. Something small can be the difference between performing well and performing badly. I just tried to stay focused on what my job was, but I still enjoyed it.

How did it feel to win a silver medal?

I’d been in the medal position all week, just like at the London Olympics. It was funny, I felt a sense of déjà vu. But I also knew not to get ahead of myself, because it’d be easy to go out and have a terrible day and it’s all over. It wasn’t really until I saw that final finishing line that I felt, ‘yeah, I’ve done it’. I knew what I’d done and I knew how I’d done it, but I still didn’t quite believe it. I probably never will — I’ll always think, ‘how did I pull that off?’

How did you find all the attention afterwards?

It was quite overwhelming at times — I probably got over 1,000 cards saying well done and so on, which is nice, but it’s also strange because I’m doing something that I love and I happened to do a good job of that. It’s been great, definitely a bit of a change, but it’s not the same as Gary and Paul [O’Donovan], they can hardly go outside any more. I don’t think I’m recognised that much, so I’m basically back living a normal life.

What have the highlights been?

Probably the homecoming, that was a pretty great experience — being with the rest of the team as well. Since then I’ve been pretty busy doing lots of things. Winning the Irish Tatler Woman of the Year award was a big shock. I was like, ‘are you sure you meant to give me this?’

What did you do for Christmas?

I have managed to be at home every single Christmas, even if it’s only for a few days. It’s a great time, we always go out to the same place for a family lunch on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day we have a big lunch with all the cousins and aunts and uncles on my Dad’s side of the family, the Murphy clan. It’s generally pretty hectic, 20 people fighting over a turkey.

What was your Christmas stocking wish?

Nothing in particular — I look forward to being home, being with my family and friends and catching up with them. Little random things, they’re probably the best Christmas treats to get.

Did you train on Christmas Day?

No. I trained on Christmas Day for the last seven years, so I took this Christmas Day off. That’s one good thing — finally having a break. The last few Christmases I’d either go for a run, do a gym session at home, or go on the bike for a few hours. I went sailing on Christmas Day two years ago, while the rest of the family went down and jumped into the Forty Foot. They were far colder than me, because they were in their togs while I was in a wetsuit.

What are your plans for next year?

I’ve got World Championships in August, that’s the main goal for next year. It’s about getting back to training in the gym and not to lose too much fitness. I do think about Tokyo [Olympics 2020] but I’ll probably map out the next four years differently to the last four. For the last four years all I thought about was Rio, and it’s very tough to have that one goal for four years. In terms of work/life balance, sailing and training is all I’ve done, and it’s nice to be able to relax a little, having seen what normal life is like.

Thomas Barr - Hurdles

Thomas, from Dunmore East in Co Waterford narrowly missed out on a medal in the 400m hurdles at the Olympics in Rio, at which he also broke the Irish record.

Local heroes: How Ireland's Olympic and Paralympic stars celebrated Christmas

The 24-year-old is based in Limerick, along with his sister Jessie, who competed at the London Olympics in 2012.

What was it like to compete in Rio?

I didn’t go there with many expectations because I was injured for much of the year. It was in the the last week of training before competing that things just started to click.

Round by round I improved, went from strength to strength, so it was an amazing experience on the track — and off the track as well.

How has it been since you got back?

It’s been crazy really — I’m nearly glad I didn’t get a medal because fourth place has me flat out. I didn’t realise when I was out there the buzz generated back home. Life is a little different, I’m in the public eye, but it’s cool, I’m enjoying it. I know the attention won’t last forever so I’m making the most of it.

I’m getting asked to do a lot of things, which is great for me but also for athletics. There’s a few of us coming through and putting some excitement back in athletics ahead of the next Olympic cycle.

What have the highlights been?

Probably the homecoming in Dunmore East, which was organised by Dunmore AC, the Haven Hotel and my family. I was in the back of a convertible and I got a Garda escort, it was brilliant. Dunmore East is my favourite place in the world, and it was great to have family, friends and the younger athletes around.

What did you do for Christmas?

I’ll always get home for a couple of days.

I’ll be going away snowboarding for the New Year, then I’ll be back ready to attack 2017 with another bout of training.

What was your Christmas stocking wish?

Nothing really... apparently I’m a difficult man to buy for.

What are your plans for next year?

I’m psyching myself up for another four-year cycle, but in between I’ll have the World Championships in London in August.

Scott Evans - Badminton

Scott, from Dundrum, Co Dublin, is Ireland’s top men’s singles badminton player. The 29-year-old became the first Irishman to win a badminton match at the Olympics when he beat German 12th seed Marc Zwiebler in Rio. He went on to reach the last 16. He is based in Copenhagen.

Local heroes: How Ireland's Olympic and Paralympic stars celebrated Christmas

What was it like to compete at Rio?

Before going to Rio, I didn’t know what was going to happen. All I could concentrate on was getting as prepared physically and mentally as best I could. I could do nothing about the draw.

When I found out the draw, I believed if I performed at my best, I would have a good chance of getting through the group. That was the big goal. I’m delighted I was able to pull it together over those few days and play some of the best badminton I’ve ever played. I’ve been honoured to represent my country at three Olympics. I hope I have inspired some young people to take the game seriously and hopefully some of them can carry it on.

You got a lot of attention when you removed your shirt in celebration after beating Marc Zwiebler.

That was not something I planned. It always goes back to the sport. If people saw that and it raised their awareness of badminton, that’s a good result. I’m doing everything I can to promote the game as much as possible in Ireland. People can relate to the celebration. It’s very funny, I get a lot of comments walking down the street, people saying I don’t recognise you with your shirt on and things like that. I take it as it comes, it’s a bit of a laugh. I haven’t had any bad reactions.

What has it been like since the Olympics finished?

I have had so many nice experiences since I came back from Rio, people saying they were so proud watching my matches. A lot of people have also come up to me and said they have started to play badminton, which is really exciting. I get on very well with Thomas Barr and Gary O’Donovan, we had a bit of fun together in Rio and then we organised a night out in Dublin. We’ve had a bit of time to enjoy ourselves, it’s been nice.

What did you do for Christmas?

I had two years when I was in Denmark for Christmas and I really enjoyed that, experiencing the different traditions and food. In the second year, I missed my family so much that I made the decision not to spend it away. As I get older I appreciate family time more. The four of us waking up in the same house together is quite a special feeling.

What was your Christmas stocking wish?

I like my gadgets, so always something electronic. Otherwise, I love clothes and fashion.

Did you train on Christmas Day?

I have a tradition with my brother that we go for a run on Christmas Day so we stick to that.

What are your plans for next year?

I’m setting my sights on the European championships next April. I’ve been so close to a European medal so many times.

It still hurts me a little bit that I haven’t got one so that will be a big goal for me next year.

Would you like to compete in another Olympics?

I’m definitely considering it after Rio, it gave me some unbelievable feelings and memories, so many emotions.

Greta Streimikyte - Athletics

Greta, originally from Lithuania, is one of triplets who were born prematurely, leaving Greta visually impaired.

Picture: Moya Nolan
Picture: Moya Nolan

She now lives in Dublin and studies International Relations at DCU. The 21-year-old athlete represented Ireland in the 1500m at the Paralympics in Rio, finishing fourth.

What was it like to compete in the Paralympics?

It was a brilliant experience, I really enjoyed it.

Especially for me, representing Ireland, I wanted to do that for a long time.

You need to work hard for it and I did put a lot of effort in to get there.

It was a dream come true to stand at the starting line and compete for Ireland. I was really nervous.

When I came into the stadium, there were so many people there. Everyone was so supportive.

I was standing at the starting line and everyone was cheering, and I was thinking ‘let me concentrate!’ The atmosphere in the stadium was indescribable.

Were you happy with your result?

I am an athlete and I want to push myself as hard as I can.

I got a chance to compete against international athletes.

I came fourth, I improved my time, I beat my personal best by nearly four seconds. It was positive. It’s now all about training and me getting better and better.

How has it been since you came back?

The way people greeted us at the airport was amazing. I couldn’t have imagined the support we got.

I also went back to Lithuania for a week for a bit of a holiday and everybody wanted to hear about Rio. When I came back from Lithuania, we met the President which was fantastic. After that it was back to study and getting back into training as well.

That was a bit weird because we were still in that bubble of Rio, the biggest races of our lives. It takes a while to process what happened.

What did you do for Christmas?

I stayed here in Ireland, celebrating with my family and close friends. In Lithuania, Christmas Eve is the big celebration, we eat 12 dishes for every month of the year. I try to taste every dish but I can’t really eat too much.

What was your Christmas stocking wish?

Definitely some gear, an athlete can never have enough.

My mom asks me ‘What would you like for Christmas?’ but I have everything I ever wanted. The biggest dream of my life was to go to Rio. I would just hope that my training goes well and I don’t get injured, that’s my Christmas wish.

What are your plans for the next year?

This is my last year in DCU and I am planning to do a masters.

I am just going to do my best in college and with training. I am looking at competing in the World Championships in London next year.

Noelle Lenihan - Discus

Noelle, from Charleville, Co Cork, turned 17 in November and was only 16 when she took home a bronze in discus from the Rio Paralympics. Noelle, who has cerebral palsy, has also won silver at the World Championships and gold at the European championships in the last 14 months. She is doing her Leaving Cert this year.

Picture: Eddie O’Hare
Picture: Eddie O’Hare

What was it like to compete in the Paralympics?

I wasn’t expecting to go. I competed in my first major championships in Doha [in October 2015, when she was only 15] and got a silver medal and set a world record. So I had only nine months to get ready for the Paralympics while a lot of the other girls would have been training for four years.

What was like it when you came back?

I really didn’t expect the reception we got at Dublin Airport. It was absolutely packed and the vibe was unbelievable. I’ve met many people who have been made more aware of Paralympic sports. They can’t believe all the challenges people with disabilities face and what they are able to do on top of that.

What did you do for Christmas?

I have a big family, there’s nine of us in total. The house is packed for Christmas.

What was your Christmas stocking wish?

To come home with that medal was the best present ever. You can’t really ask for more as a 16-year-old.

What are your plans for next year?

I would like to go to college and continue my studies because they are equally as important as my sport. I’d like to go somewhere in Dublin because I would be near the sporting facilities up there.


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