Murphy’s sinking feeling

Gráinne Murphy is no longer living or swimming in Limerick after Swim Ireland’s failure to offer her assurances about the future of the high performance centre in UL.

The three-time European senior medallist has relocated to her native Wexford with her family to weigh up where or even whether to resume swimming after being devastated by how Swim Ireland treated her both at and after the London Olympics.

Murphy’s Olympics were severely hampered after she was struck by glandular fever in the lead-up to the Games. The 19-year-old finished last in her 400m freestyle heat, almost a full 10 seconds slower than her personal best, before deciding to withdraw from participating in the 800m freestyle.

However the Irish Examiner has learned that Murphy was strongly urged by a top Swim Ireland figure to consider pressing on and to swim in the 800m, being told that future funding for the sport could be affected if she did not, and Murphy did not appreciate such pressure being foisted upon her.

And her relationship with the national governing body has further deteriorated following a series of decisions it made without consulting or informing Murphy or her colleagues at the University of Limerick.

For five years Murphy had trained under the Belgian Ronald Claes, the widely-respected high performance centre coach at UL. In that time they became a powerful combination, with Murphy winning three European junior gold medals and three European senior medals and considered Ireland’s best prospect of qualifying for a final at the London Olympics.

But within a month of that extremely-disappointing meet for Irish swimming, Swim Ireland’s national high performance director Peter Banks and chief executive Sarah Keane decided not to renew Claes’s contract for the next Olympic cycle.

The first Murphy and UL, who were paying a third of Claes’s wages and had a partnership agreement with Swim Ireland concerning his role, heard that Claes’s position was even under review or threat was when Claes phoned and texted them respectively to inform them he and Swim Ireland had parted company.

Murphy had envisaged studying at UL this autumn as well as swimming there but her academic and sporting plans were thrown into turmoil when Swim Ireland could not guarantee her that Claes would be replaced and told her that the whole future of the UL high performance centre and the structure of Irish swimming was under review. As a result she and her family recently left and cleared out their house in Castletroy which had been her home for the last seven years.

Other swimmers have been similarly affected to the point the high performance team there has been essentially disbanded. European breaststroke finalist Shani Stallard, who two years ago left her home in Kilkenny at the age of 16 to train and take her Leaving Cert in Limerick, had received an offer to study at UL this autumn which she intended to take up. However, when she learned that Swim Ireland had no concrete plans to find a medium-term direct replacement for Claes at UL, she had to scramble to find a new college course to take. She is now studying and swimming at UCD, as opposed to swimming in the National Aquatic Centre in Abbotstown where a national high performance centre is based.

It is also highly unlikely that Murphy will team up with the high performance team at the NAC, such is the lack of trust she now has in the Swim Ireland leadership and Banks who has actually been temporarily based in Limerick in recent months to oversee the academy and development squads in the absence of a full-time replacement for Claes.

The formulation of Swim Ireland’s strategic plan for 2013-2018 is still ongoing but there is an increasing sense within the sport that the national governing body wants its sole high performance centre to be the one operating in Abbotstown, thus relegating Limerick to regional centre status only.

However Swim Ireland might find some of its top swimmers resisting and even rebelling against that policy, by either gravitating towards UCD where there is now another 50-metre pool overseen by the respected coach and former Olympian Earl McCarthy, or moving abroad as traditionally all elite Irish swimmers did before the establishment of the high performance centre at UL and the ascent of a fully homegrown talent like Murphy.

“Gráinne and her family are devastated and livid with how they’ve been treated,” says a source close to Murphy. “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.

“When Gráinne was 12, her parents made a decision to uproot — essentially split — the family so she could fulfil her talent by training full-time in UL. They bought a house in Limerick, her mother Mary and her sister moved full-time there with her while her father Brendan would drive up during the week while trying to run a business at home in Wexford. They changed their lives at a cost. That was something Gráinne was very conscious of and a sacrifice she tried to pay back by excelling in the pool.

“Then all this happens to them, without being afforded any consultation. Naturally, they take that to heart. For six years her whole life and world was Limerick. Before that she had a life in Wexford. Why would she need that kind of upheaval again?

“Her family’s grievance isn’t that Ronald’s contract was not renewed, although they weren’t happy about that either. It’s that Ronald hasn’t been replaced and the whole support structure she had at UL is under threat.”

Dave Mahedy, UL’s director of sport and recreation, has also been unimpressed by the lack of consultation Murphy and the college were afforded and has called on the sport’s national governing body to retain UL as a national high performance centre.

“The only reason Gráinne didn’t do well at the Olympics was because of glandular fever. It wasn’t because of her training regime or anything like that but now it’s as if all the work she and UL have put in over the years is being judged on that one meet.

“Our swimming pool manager Alan Ward and UL were pivotal in putting Ronald Claes’s initial contract in place and we should at least have been consulted before finding out that it wasn’t being renewed. But we also appreciate that Swim Ireland were also key people regarding his contract and if they didn’t want that contract renewed, we had to accept that.

“What we do now have a problem with is that instead of building on the tremendous progress UL has made, it appears as if we’re going to be downgraded to regional centre status. We feel we have a lot more to offer Irish swimmers and Irish swimming than that. All the support services are here at the athletes’ doorstep: nutrition, strength and conditioning, psychological support, biomechanics, video analysis, everything. Athletes like Gráinne and Shani could take their Leaving Cert at Castletroy College because we had built that partnership. They lived within five minutes from the pool here because we had that partnership with Plassey Campus Centre. You’d often see Gráinne having lunch with Paul O’Connell and Ronald talking to (Munster rugby fitness coach) Fergal O’Callaghan. That’s the kind of special, melting-pot environment we have here and it’s something we feel Irish swimming should capitalise on further instead of downgrading it.”

Murphy and her family have declined to comment until such time as she has decided on her future plans. They are also mindful that in the likelihood she returns to the pool that she will need to have some kind of working relationship with Swim Ireland. Swim Ireland chief executive Sarah Keane could not be contacted last night.

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