Eimear Ryan: From camogie field to Tokyo pool, sport is a life of rituals

Even though Olympians operate at a much higher level, the lives of sportspeople still have common touch points across the board
Eimear Ryan: From camogie field to Tokyo pool, sport is a life of rituals

A general view of the Women's 200m Freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics. Picture: INPHO/Photosport/Steve McArthur

In camogie training sessions up and down the country, we’re trying to unlearn our old ways.

It happens at least once a session: a girl will get bottled up, or will be through on goal, and she’ll drop the hurley to give the sliotar a big, walloping, football-style handpass. The rest of us will admonish her: You can’t do that anymore! But we all have the old muscle memory inside us. Any of us could easily be the next to slip up.

I definitely think that the new rule changes in camogie are A Good Thing, even if there’s a tricky transitional period where players have to break old habits. Camogie and hurling are the same sport and should resemble each other in as much as is practical. Goalkeepers in particular will be thankful that the handpass goal is now off the table. But I will say one thing for the dropping-the-hurley two-handed pass: you can’t say it wasn’t a clear handpass.

At the moment, hurling is riddled with ambiguous handpasses that look more slung than struck. But in the modern possession game, handpasses are so quick and so numerous that it’s impossible for the ref to have a clear look at every instance. When someone is penalised for throwing the ball, even correctly — like Tim O’Mahony in the first quarter against Clare last weekend — it still feels grossly unfair, since so many lads are getting away with it.

What might help? Should we call a spade a spade and trial underarm throwing in next year’s league? Or outlaw the one-handed pass altogether, making players switch hands, so that there’s clear daylight between the toss and the strike?

At least stick-passing remains in rude health, as Joe Canning and Seamus Harnedy demonstrated, for Jason Flynn and Shane Barrett’s goals respectively. Those lads could thread a needle with a hurley and sliotar.

Last week, to gear up for the Olympics, I watched the film Nadia, Butterfly.

The French-Canadian production follows Nadia, an elite swimmer (played by real-life Olympian Katerine Savard) as she competes at her final Olympics. Available to watch on the streaming platform Mubi, Nadia, Butterfly is compelling on both the joy and toll of elite sports, and as an insight into an athlete’s Olympic experience away from the cameras. Savard has a luminous screen presence, suggesting that she has more than a few career options ahead of her once she retires from swimming.

As the film begins, Nadia has just performed disappointingly in her individual butterfly heat, failing to qualify, and announces that the upcoming 4x100m medley relay will be her last race for her country. Still in her early 20S, Nadia’s teammates and coaches want her to keep swimming, but she can’t be swayed: she wants to go back to college, study medicine, and get on with the rest of her life. She loves swimming — throughout the film, whenever she’s feeling stressed or unhappy, she gets into the pool — but she has sacrificed so much in pursuit of her sport, including relationships and a career, that her mind is firmly made up.

I watched the movie with a bit of trepidation, as I recently published a novel, Holding Her Breath, that deals with many of the same themes. Beth, the novel’s heroine, is a would-be Olympic swimmer: someone who had great talent and promise and could potentially have made it to the Games if she hadn’t crumbled under the pressure. Like Nadia, Beth has a push-pull relationship with her sport. She takes a deep elemental joy and comfort in swimming, but struggles with competition, expectations, and race-day nerves. Like Nadia, Beth is painfully conscious of all the aspects of life she has little or no experience in — all the rites of passage she missed out on growing up —– due to her devotion to swimming.

I did extensive research into elite swimming while writing the novel, but on an emotional level I drew deeply from my own experience of playing camogie. I was relieved that there was so much in Nadia, Butterfly that I identified with. 

Even though Olympians operate at a much higher level, the lives of sportspeople still have common touch points across the board. It’s a life of preparation, performance, recovery, repeat. Of ice baths, fluid intake, foam rolling, and stretching. These practices are ritualised and repeated throughout the movie, giving us an insight into what it takes to be an elite sportsperson: the sacrifice, the routine, and the constant, monotonous tending to the body’s needs.

The film also gives tremendous insight into the strange alchemy of being part of a team. Flipping the usual sports narrative on its head, the Big Race takes place at the beginning of the movie rather than at the end. In her last race for Canada, Nadia swims the butterfly leg in the final of the medley relay. The camera focuses on the blocks, on the waiting swimmers, as Nadia nervously prepares for her leg. The tension is palpable, but so is the raw desire to win, and the slightly supernatural unity of purpose between the four swimmers. Personality differences emerge later when the team socialises together, when a mix of language barriers, age gaps, and alcohol cause disagreements; but in competition, with a common purpose, they think as one mind.

The movie provides a fascinating alternative history of the Tokyo Olympics. Filmed pre-pandemic, the film shows the Games going ahead with all the usual pageantry: full crowds, no masks. In one Lost In Translation-esque sequence, Nadia escapes the Olympic village to tour the city on her own. She goes into a crowded arcade, and it’s impossible not to remark on the amount of close contacts she has, the number of surfaces she seems to touch.

Team Canada compete in the women’s 4x100m medley relay on Friday; it will be interesting to see if, in this aspect at least, life imitates art.

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