Fiona Doyle has waited for her chance, and is very determined to make the most of Rio, says Helen O’Callaghan
People forget there are just 900 swimmers at the Olympics. Even if you finish 20th, you’re 20th in the world
Fiona Doyle is resolute, and it stands out. “I’m painfully determined,” says the Olympic contender, the first Irish athlete to qualify for Rio 2016.
Uncompromising commitment to her goal is the trait the 24-year-old, six times Irish record holder has needed in spades since she announced, aged 12, that she was going to be an Olympic swimmer.
It was the 2004 Athens Olympics — watching the 100m women’s breaststroke in the family living room in Limerick. “I knew people thought the Olympics were this big fantastic thing. I wanted to be part of that.”
The road to Rio has demanded much, but it was the unexpected personal knocks that impacted hardest.
Her twin sister, Eimear, “just as passionate about swimming and equally as talented” as Fiona, but she had to quit at 16 due to a back injury. “The Olympics were her goal too, it was heartbreaking for both of us.”
The sisters had trained together. “Waking up every morning was that bit easier when she was there too.” Fiona didn’t suffer survivor’s guilt. “But I felt bad I got to do everything I knew she wanted to do. Yet she has always been 100% supportive of me. She’s my number one supporter.”
So it’s particularly cruel that Eimear, a midwife at Limerick’s maternity hospital, won’t be watching in Rio when Fiona stands on the blocks. Nor will her other sisters, Sinead and Ciara. “They’re not going because of the zika virus. They’re at an age when they could get pregnant so they’re not going to risk it.
“All along, I assumed all my family would be at the Olympics. They did too. But nothing can be done. I understand their decision — I support it.”
What helped is “just talking about it” and knowing it wasn’t an easy decision for them. “They’re going to be watching on TV. I’ve picked myself up and am getting on with it.”
And her parents will be there, plus her brothers Eoghan and Shane, her aunt Margaret, and her granddad, Michael Doyle.
Family is important for the kinesiology graduate. Mention of her 2010 move to the University of Calgary comes in the same breath as “I couldn’t just hop home at weekends”.
She credits family with getting her to Rio — they had a no-holds barred chat with her when she succumbed to bitterness after she failed to make the grade for the 2012 London Olympics.
“I was devastated. It felt like somebody died, like it was all over, I was never going to reach my dream, I’d wasted time trying.”
She didn’t watch Olympics 2012. “I was too bitter. I felt I should have been there. I blamed everybody.”
Her family gave her “a very stern talking-to”, reminding her how much they’d given up for her to reach her goal. “They said there was a lot I could have done to get to the Olympics and I hadn’t done it.”
And they were right, she says, but it took a while to concede the point. So she straightened her priorities. “I decided swimming was always first and I put school up ahead of my social life.” A silver medallist in the 2013 and 2015 World University Games (100m and 50m breaststroke respectively), Fiona also won bronze in the 100m breaststroke in last year’s University Games.
She completed this in 1:07.67, breaking the Olympic qualification time barrier and securing her place for Rio. It’s testimony to the rigorous, take-no-prisoners training schedule she has had for the last dozen years.
Yet she meets naysayers, most recently after placing fourth in the women’s 100m breaststroke at the European Championships in London. “I try not to get caught up with negative comments. People forget there are just 900 swimmers at the Olympics, 450 of them women. Even if you finish 20th, you’re 20th in the world. I didn’t win a medal in the European. I’d have loved to — but I’m still fourth in Europe. I surround myself with people who know the sport and what it takes to get where I am.”
Her coach, Mike Blondal, is one of them. So it’s a blow he won’t be in Rio, due to a cap on game passes for swim coaches.
“He’s been with me five and a half years. He knows just by looking at me whether I’m nervous, whether we need to have a conversation, the right things to say to me. He knows how to get the best out of me. It would be nice to have him there, but we’re working on a strategy to ensure I’ll be just as good without him.”
In Rio, she knows the immense weight of Irish expectations will be on her. She knows she must pile a decade of exacting training into a race that’s going to be over in the blink of an eye.
“My best time is going to be over in 67 seconds.”
Ever disciplined, she’s not going to think about that, but of “all the little components that make up that one big race. And I’ll try and relax and have fun”.
And she knows that minutes before this race of a lifetime, there will be a text from Eimear: ‘Good luck, I love you, I’ll be watching’.
Fiona is among a number of athletes sharing their inspiring stories ahead of Olympics 2016 as part of Electric Ireland’s #ThePowerWithin campaign.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved