A decade or so ago, whenever you heard the words ‘Irish swimming’, you immediately thought of Michelle de Bruin and all that tainted gold, the wicked acts of men like Derry O’Rourke, George Gibney and Frank McCann, the seemingly interminable debate about the lack of a national 50m pool. But then along came the University of Limerick with the vision and boldness to build a full-length international pool and then along came Gráinne Murphy from Wexford, between them helping bring a sport from the murky backwaters of the 20th century into the crystal-clean new waters of the 21st. If anybody personified how removed the sport was from the days of the old, discredited Irish Amateur Swimming Association and typified the image of the slick, progressive, professional new Swim Ireland, it was Murphy.
She was the face of the brand and the sport: clean, talented, hardworking.
For that, both Murphy and UL should have been treated with a lot more respect than they were afforded by Swim Ireland after the recent London Olympics.
Within a month of the Games being over, it emerged, so was Ronald Claes’s time in Ireland. Swim Ireland had decided unilaterally not to renew his contract for the next Olympic cycle. Murphy and UL were not even consulted, even though he was their coach too.
There is no doubt the young Belgian coach could be difficult, just as he was brilliant. While he commanded the absolute loyalty of his high performance squad in UL, his continental cool meant he could often come across as distant, even aloof, to others.
For years though, no one really complained. Helped by the superb sporting infrastructure and support staff at UL, his swimmers were improving and performing commendably, especially Murphy. But the more success he had, the more he and UL became a little independent republic. When Peter Banks returned to Ireland in 2009 as national performance director after a successful 20 years in America, Claes tolerated him and little more, while Banks didn’t bother him much either.
Over the summer, however, the disconnect became more apparent and worrisome. Swim Ireland had set a goal of qualifying six swimmers for London but had only managed to qualify four. The idea of entering a relay team, boosted by the inclusion of Murphy, was floated but Claes felt it would compromise Murphy’s individual preparation. When she returned home sick early from a training camp in Europe, Claes never informed Banks. In the lead up to the Olympics she had contracted glandular fever. Then on the eve of his Olympic qualifier, UL’s open-water swimmer Chris Bryan contracted shingles and lost out on an Olympic spot on a photo finish.
It left Claes open to the charge that he had over-trained two of his best swimmers and, given his strained relationship with his bosses, perhaps led to his downfall.
UL and Murphy should have been made aware of Swim Ireland’s concerns about Claes but instead they were disregarded to the point Murphy feels almost discarded by the governing body.
Even Olympic medallists can struggle with POD (Post-Olympics Depression). So imagine how vulnerable an athlete like Murphy, who underperformed, and was sick at the Games, must have been. Then she learns that the coach she swore by for the last five years is gone, without her governing body even conducting a post-Olympic review with her. And realises that Limerick, her whole world, her bubble, since she was 12 years of age, could be similarly dismissed.
As it turns out Peter Banks has been based in Limerick in recent months and will be there until at least Christmas. In that time he may come to appreciate just what a holistic experience it provided someone like Murphy.
To train at the National Aquatic Centre (NAC) in Dublin, there is traffic and accommodation and other hassle to contend with. At UL the pool is five minutes from the athlete’s house. If there is to be only one high performance centre in the country, UL has a very strong claim, as much as there must be pressure to justify the existence of the NAC.
While relations between UL and Swim Ireland might be salvageable, regaining Murphy’s trust will be especially difficult. Some form of mediation or mediator may be necessary. Gary Keegan is an obvious candidate. He knows from his time as high performance director of Irish boxing how national governing bodies should work. He knows from his time as the director of the Institute of Sport how national governing bodies do work. Murphy deserves the respect and support of her sport. She and Swim Ireland have both travelled too far for her not to be afforded that.