Ireland's elite dip their toes back in the water after pandemic pause

Darragh Greene didn't mind it at first. Days spent away from the pool were filled by online team meetings, weight sessions, runs within the restriction zone around the family home in Longford and hours on a stationary bike. Then the weeks started to fly by while life stood still.
Ireland's elite dip their toes back in the water after pandemic pause
Darragh Greene and other high performance athletes return to training at the National Aquatic Centre. Picture: Bryan Keane
Darragh Greene and other high performance athletes return to training at the National Aquatic Centre. Picture: Bryan Keane

Darragh Greene didn't mind it at first. Days spent away from the pool were filled by online team meetings, weight sessions, runs within the restriction zone around the family home in Longford and hours on a stationary bike. Then the weeks started to fly by while life stood still.

“The stationary bike never moved,” he laughed, “and I was staring at the same walls.”

That all changed yesterday morning when Greene and dozens of other elite athletes around the country breasted the invisible tape that had cordoned them in for the bones of three months and made a beeline for their training bases and a semblance of normality.

In his case, the National Aquatic Centre in Abbotstown.

“You try to replicate it as much as you can out of the water but it doesn't compare to what it is like when you're in there,” said Greene who had already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics before the pandemic brought everything to a halt in March and eventually shunted the Games back by 12 months.

“All the stuff that I had been doing the last few months, the minor things and work-ons like mobility or core sessions, breathing with balloons or whatever, the first few laps you are wondering if you are still able to do this, but then it really kicked in after the warm-up. I was good to go then. It felt unreal.”

Getting to the pool's edge wasn't straightforward.

The fact that Greene and the other swimmers on the national elite squad got that far was the product of a monumental effort on the part of their governing body who, like all the others, had to present multi-layered protocol plans to the government before they could return to work.

Cricket Ireland released details around their's yesterday and they dealt with everything from cleaning guides to risk assessment, booking forms, the contact tracing process, advice regarding training practises and details for online training courses for Covid-19 officers.

As if running an entire sport wasn't complicated enough already.

When Greene arrived in Abbotstown he was faced with a table laden with hand sanitiser at the entrance. Next stop was a temperature scan at reception followed by a questionnaire and only then was he allowed onto the swimming deck where a square and a chair have been allotted to him.

That square will be his base and his alone for the foreseeable. There is no access to changing rooms. Not even any running water to fill up their own bottles. There were four others in the pool with him yesterday, all a lane apart. Another five came in to swim once they were done.

In. Out. No messing about. From entrance to exit it took him two hours.

“You could even see that there had been a lot of planning and preparation that had taken place. Like, it wasn't a thing that they had a bit of hand sanitiser and a bit of tape put in overnight. They had to get every minute detail down to a tee.”

It was a scene replicated at other locations, among them the National Rowing Centre in Cork, where half of their elite athletes returned to base on the first day back, at Morton Stadium and at Irish Sailing's HQ in Dun Laoghaire where the weather matched the mood.

“The sun is shining, the wind is blowing, it's idyllic conditions,” said sailing's high performance director James O'Callaghan who, in view of the need to limit numbers on site, stayed away at first and left it to head coach Rory Fitzpatrick to supervise the restart. “There is a euphoria around it.

“Even for the people who aren't in the boats sailing, for the admin team and everyone behind it and involved in the sport, it is uplifting for them. It is a symbolic light at the end of the tunnel, that we are moving closer to what it used to be like.”

Sailing is a sport accustomed to, and comfortable with, protocols. It has to be.

Their elite sailors walked through the gate yesterday in splendid isolation, proceeded onto the slipway and launched their boats out onto the water but not before being scanned and provided with personal packs containing hand sanitiser and gloves.

“We had them well briefed,” said O'Callaghan. “We went though everything with them so they are aware of what is required. It's been so well publicised as well. It's not like they were there last week and this week it's totally different. It's been a long journey back.”

Yesterday marked a significant step on the road back for sport in Ireland but there are plenty still to be taken.

Shane Ryan and Conor Ferguson may be immersed in the pool again after two months and the rest of it on dry land but they can't perform the back crawl for now because they exhale above the water and we still don't know what that means in Covid-19 terms.

Annalise Murphy and Aoife Hopkins and their colleagues may be back bobbing around Dublin Bay but their coach Vasilij Zbogar, the three-time Olympic medallist, is still at home in Slovenia wondering when he will be able to make it back to Dublin.

Every sport is dealing with conundrums that would have been dismissed as nonsense at the start of the year. Speak to an elite athlete, coach or performance director this last few months and you only begin to pull a thread from the spool of this new normal.

O'Callaghan is still wondering what to do with the two containers of equipment they had to put into storage in Australia pre-lockdown. The carnets, or goods passports, required for them have already expired and who knows where they will be needed next, or when?

There is a realisation as well that other countries are much further down the road than our best and finest. Sweden's sailors, for example, are back just under a month already and mulling over a training camp in Japan in August. Another reason why it feels so good for everyone to be back.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up