Darragh Greene was in Dublin Airport when the world turned on its axis.
The Longford swimmer and the rest of the senior national squad were in departures, poised to fly out to a meet in Scotland, when the acting Taoiseach delivered his address — and everything changed utterly, writes
It was a scene familiar to all of us, if only through the prism of Hollywood disaster movies, as the nation’s leader stared solemnly down the camera, ordinary citizens stopped in their tracks and tried to grasp the enormity of the words.
Listening to Leo Varadkar announce the closures of schools and other public buildings made utterly clear just how serious the coronavirus crisis really was.
And how much worse it would get. It was a ‘where were you?’ moment, even if the worry is that it may prove to be just one of many.
Darragh Greene was in Dublin Airport when the world turned on its axis. The Longford swimmer and the rest of the senior national squad were in departures, poised to fly out to a meet in Scotland, when the acting Taoiseach delivered his address — and everything changed utterly.
The squad was just 15 minutes short of boarding when the call came from Swim Ireland chiefs to pull the plug. The very real worry was that they would make it to the UK, but not back again.
The Edinburgh International went ahead, another example of how the UK in general has dithered.
“You could see everyone in the airport after Varadkar gave the speech thinking that this was now a completely different situation,” said Greene.
“We walked into the airport an hour before when everyone was going on holidays or wherever else, and us having a team meeting just before we got on the plane, to trying to get our bags off now and go back to the Sports Campus.”
If that was all particularly dramatic, then Greene has, like the rest of us, digested plenty more examples of just how surreal this all is, starting with the temporary closure of his local supermarket in South Dublin later that day due to the volume of panic buyers.
He took a walk along the trails in Ticknock in Sandyford last weekend and was stunned by the numbers availing of what is usually a quiet retreat on the borders of Dublin City, while his planned stint as grand marshal in the Longford St Patrick’s Day parade was obviously nixed as well.
A native of Newtownforbes, he is acutely aware of the economic impact all this is having on his native county, where there is a high proportion of self-employed workers, but feels his own generation, and people in general, have woken up to the high stakes at play.
It was definitely taken more seriously after the weekend when all the pubs were closed down, because that was the main factor for a lot of that younger generation who might have been thinking that it was only the older generation who would get infected.
Greene was typical of all the athletes and coaches interviewed this week, both in his awareness of the bigger picture and understanding of how it puts their own hopes and dreams into perspective — but there is a collective determination to keep the show on the road too.
That’s human nature.
The National Sports Campus has been closed to the public, but the elite swimmers and other high-performance athletes are still using the facilities, albeit under strictly observed protocols that include social distancing and reduced training loads.
A visit to the Sport Ireland Institute on campus requires a complete body scan, a questionnaire, and a body temperature read before they can even enter the building.
Surreal as it is, they know there are colleagues elsewhere in Ireland and around the world left high and dry by the changed circumstances.
When everything will return to what may be a new normal is anyone’s guess. The European Championships were pencilled in for May in Budapest, but no-one is holding their breath waiting for that to happen.
The Irish Open, an event which doubles up as an Olympic qualifier, was due to take place at the start of April, but that has been nixed for now too.
Greene, at least, has long since secured his place in Tokyo, but he’s one of thousands now training with potentially no end goal in sight.
EVEN the Olympics can’t be set in stone.
Uefa’s decision to turn Euro 2020 into Euro 2021 is evidence of how a previously untouchable sporting event has become just another piece to be pushed around the chess board at the whim of this pandemic.
Luckily, Greene’s family hadn’t yet booked their flights to Japan and any event tickets they might need will be valid for the Games whether they begin in July or December or another year or two down the line.
He intends to be ready, whenever that starting gun fires.
“It is part of the game we play,” he says.
It is the biggest of all possible roadblocks, but we have to adapt, like we always do in high-performance sport
"Whether that is to sickness or injuries or even simple things like changes in accommodation at competitions or whatever.
“You still have to perform at the highest levels and everyone is in the same boat as us here. We have other international swimmers I know of who can’t even swim. We are very lucky to be able to train these days.
It’s still, what, five months away, so anything can happen.”