Swim Ireland must learn lesson from Gráinne Murphy debacle

We always thought of her as the future. 
Swim Ireland must learn lesson from Gráinne Murphy debacle

Now in what seemed just the blink of an eye, she’s already the past – or at least swimming for her is.

That Gráinne Murphy never got to really be or have the present is something of a sporting and personal tragedy that only she and her family and inner circle will truly know and feel.

But it is a story and lesson that needs to resonate further, because the retirement of 22 of such a talent must also be seen as a failure of sorts by Irish sport – and Sports Ireland – and especially her own sport’s national governing body.

For sure, a variety of factors conspired against Gráinne Murphy fulfilling her potential – ill-health and ill-luck. But ill-consideration played a role as well.

In 2012 something broke within the young Wexford woman. In the spring of that year she was struck by glandular fever.

When she returned to the pool some of the times she was clocking in training in the lead-up to London were still of Olympic final standard, but her support staff were concerned about how long it was taking her to recover.

At the Olympics she was only Gráinne Murphy in name. That should have been her present; instead it was just her shadow that was there.

She finished last in her 400m heat and withdrew from the 800m freestyle, even though she felt she was put under pressure to perform in it by Swim Ireland personnel fearful funding could be affected. Her body and mind just couldn’t go through with it.

Then it was her spirit that felt under attack. Only a month after the Olympics, she got a phonecall from her coach of the previous five years, Ronald Claes, saying that he and Swim Ireland had parted company; they weren’t renewing his contract.

The future of the high performance unit in Limerick, where she had been based for the previous seven years and had planned to start college that autumn, was also under review. A review that she had no say in.

Even though she was the poster girl of the sport here, helping transform its image from one plagued by paedophilia scandals into something slick, progressive, respectable and respected, she was never even consulted by Swim Ireland in its post-London mortem.

“It’s not fair or right that someone in an office up in Dublin can just move these swimmers around the place like pawns on a chess board without asking them how they feel or what they think,” someone close to Murphy told this column at the time. Distressed, the 19-year-old returned home to her parents, contemplating where or whether to swim again.

At the time of breaking that story, I wrote in this column that while relations between UL and Swim Ireland could be mended, regaining Murphy’s trust in her national governing body would be much more difficult. It proved to be the case.

Swim Ireland and UL – where Murphy would return for a spell – now have a highly-functional relationship, and, maybe from learning the lessons of the past, have already started making plans for post-Rio. But with Murphy it was never the same again.

In truth, she was never the same again. She would try. Last year she was based in Narbonne in the south of France, training with multiple fellow Olympians, and reported that she was back enjoying her swimming. But then towards the end of the year she was hit with a lung infection. She could probably have qualified for Rio but not contended there. And while there was always another Games after it, she’d recognised there was always going to be life after swimming and that it might as well start now.

Gráinne Murphy will be fine. Those close to her say she is already fine. She’s studying and working in Limerick now, has a boyfriend, and a good circle of friends. In her retirement announcement, she expressed a gratitude for those who supported her and the friendships she made through her sport.

She’s experienced some remarkable highs in it; winning those seven junior and senior European medals. The harder times and the gruelling nature of her sport will serve her in life as well; think of the self-discipline, the resilience, she’s developed from such a demanding sport.

But some of it didn’t need to be so hard. It was telling that in her announcement she didn’t namecheck key personnel involved in Swim Ireland.

In 2012 they wanted her to compete like a champion yet then treated her like a child, meat even. Her opinion didn’t matter. She didn’t know better, they did. She was disposable.

“You have to remember the population game,” her old coach Claes told me when I observed his high performance unit training for a day back in 2012. “In America there are 88 Gráinne Murphys. In China there are 320. If someone breaks down they have another one waiting. We don’t have that here.” And yet we let her go.

Gráinne Murphy fell out of love with her sport in no small part because her sport, or at least its governing body, showed too little love for her, even though in the five years prior to London she had given so much to it.

Swim Ireland learned the hard way from scandals like Gibney and O’Rourke that it needed to be more child-centred. From the case study of Gráinne Murphy, it needs to learn to be more athlete-centred. Hear the lesson of her story, and after Rio and beyond, listen to the swimmers she inspired.

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Saturday, February 27, 2021

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