“A straight-talking Aussie with a big heart” – that’s how the Irish team’s Chef de Mission for the Tokyo Olympics was described yesterday by Peter Sherrard, CEO of the Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI).
Patricia Heberle, a native of Albany in Western Australia, was unveiled at the national sports campus in Abbotstown as the person who will oversee the Irish team’s preparation and the former hockey player was adamant she will learn from both the successes and failures of past teams.
“It’s often about the things we did right and making sure we recognise that, whether it’s planning, athlete readiness or having the appropriate training or competition going into the Games,” said Heberle, a 1984 Olympian in hockey with her native Australia.
She has been based in Ireland for the past two years and was previously the High Performance lead for the OFI, although Heberle admitted occupying such an important role had never previously been in her plans.
“I’m really humbled and very privileged – at no point did I imagine I could be Chef de Mission for Team Ireland but I’m very lucky,” she said.
For the first time the position will be made professional, one which Heberle expects to become full-time after the European Games in Minsk, Belarus next summer, where she will also serve as Chef de Mission.
Heberle has a range of coaching achievements in hockey since her playing days came to an end, helping Australia to gold as assistant coach at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Since 2005 she has worked as a high-performance administrator and when looking ahead to Tokyo, she admitted that the Rio Review – a 236-page analysis of Ireland’s preparations for the 2016 Games – will be useful.
“What the Rio Review has provided us with is a sport-by-sport breakdown of what was in the Games, and we have a strong sense of what they got right and what they need to improve on,” she said. “The concept of lessons learned is a really important one.” At previous Olympics, the Chef de Mission role was recruited internally or done on a voluntary basis, but Heberle believes the creation of a full-time role will allow her to make a substantial difference.
“Rather than a volunteer or board member doing their best to oversee a lot of things, I believe I have the expertise and Olympic experience to drive this,” she said. “How I’ve been contracted is that I can give my full attention to this, which allows us to have a partnership with the Institute and to have more influence with the sports.”
That partnership was another key announcement, one which will see Sport Ireland and the OFI team up to supply support services for the Irish team between 2018 and 2022, spanning athlete-life skills, sports science and medical support.
The aim is to align all support services and ultimately allow Irish athletes better consistency, unlike the previous model which involved a handover of care from one medical team to another at the time of each Games.
“The Institute is working in a different way and what’s been fantastic with the OFI is we’re standing with them and working together instead of two isolated groups,” said Heberle, who highlighted that the Sport Ireland campus is the envy of many nations.
“I look at Irish sport with a set of eyes from the outside and I don’t think many understand what a world-class facility this is,” she said. “World-class facilities along with world-class people underpin performances.” After reviewing nine locations in Japan the OFI has, along with representatives from Sport Ireland and its Athletes Commission, decided that the Irish team will be based in Fukuroi ahead of the Games, a city which is 150 miles west of Tokyo in the Shizoaka Prefecture.
The same venue will host the Irish rugby team for a week ahead of the 2019 World Cup and boasts a range of world-class facilities at the Ecopa Stadium and Arena.
“Team Ireland is now working as a team with the whole system working together seamlessly for our athletes,” said Sarah Keane, President of the OFI. “The appointment of Patricia Heberle as Chef de Mission and the provision of sport science and medical care from Sport Ireland Institute practitioners during Games time makes this a very important day for high-performance sport in Ireland.”