KIERAN SHANNON: A life less ordinary

It’s 4.52am on a Monday morning and while you’re asleep she’s going to work.

Gráinne Murphy exits the darkness and enters a red sidedoor and the fantastic light of the UL Sports Arena’s high performance swimming centre.

The lights are on because Ronald Claes is already here. Gráinne’s alarm went off at 4.35am, her coach’s went off at 4.20am. In virtually everything, Gráinne follows Ronald. They first started working together in early 2008 when she was 14 and he was 28 and even then he had a plan for London, this month, even this week, which she has trusted fully.

This week is the first of her last training cycle for the Olympics. She’s just after seven days off, chilling with friends and family in her native Wexford and her new home in Limerick after an intense four months, but now it’s back to work and back to the gym. While other members of the senior high performance squad here are in a different training cycle geared for the European championships, she’s in her third cycle of the season. The more the cycle goes on, the more time she’ll spend in the water before tapering off at the end. This week involves a lot more “dry land” work.

By 5.10am training has commenced. There’s no whistle, no grand declaration; they just start limbering up, skipping rope.

By 5.15am, Gráinne is upstairs, has turned on the gym lights, and is pushing it out on a treadmill behind a massive wall of glass that overlooks her colleagues stretching on the poolside down below. Ten minutes later she moves on to the rowing machine.

Watching them all is the big digital clock on the wall. It turns 5.28. “Right,” says Ronald Claes to the four other members of the senior high performance unit and eight young academy squad swimmers, “let’s get ready for the pool.”

Shani Stallard puts on her goggles. She’s 18, from Kilkenny, but like Gráinne before her, made the decision to leave home, switch schools and base herself in Limerick so she could train the way you need to train if you expect to compete in the European senior 200m breaststroke, as she will in June. Like Gráinne before her, she’s staggering her Leaving Cert over two years, and in between a morning session and another session this evening, she’ll head to Castletroy College for a few hours of class.

Alongside her is Brian O’Sullivan, a bronze medallist at last year’s youth Olympics. He’s 16, from Killarney, but for the next few years Limerick is his home, his workplace this pool in UL, his family the people on poolside with him here.

Nuala Murphy is one of his big sisters. A few years ago she was ranked among the top 20 in the world in her event and Gráinne remains the only Irish woman to have swam the 800m faster than her.

Nuala’s flatmate is Chris Bryan, the most ebullient of the group. He’s from Shannon, just up the road but though none of them has had less to travel, none of them has to swim more. Bryan is an open water swimmer who last year finished eighth in the world championships and is still aiming to qualify for London. His races are usually 5k or 10k. This week in training he will swim 100k. Some weeks he’ll swim 200k. That’s the same distance as the UL Sports Arena here all the way up to the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin.

“What we’re doing is nuts,” he admits with a smile. “We’re going through hell here. It is hell!” But as the big Winston Churchill quote pinned above Ronald’s desk says, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” And what keeps them going is each other.

“It might be an individual sport,” says Bryan, “but try being the only one here on the deck at five in the morning? It’s not going to happen. The idea of knowing other people are sharing your pain helps. If one of us is having a bad day, we look out for each other because we all understand how it feels.”

He finds Gráinne in particular a constant source of support. “She’s great at positive thinking, which is very important,” says Bryan. “When I’m feeling down, she’ll say something like ‘Look, things didn’t go well for you there but you’re still swimming five times better than you were a year ago. Last year you’d have been delighted with that. Yeah, it was a bad session but it was only one session, it’s only training. Keep going’.

“It’s very easy for it all to get on top of you so we laugh, we joke. You need that. Because it’s so hard what we’re doing. And it’s not just the early mornings every morning, or the 200k weeks. It’s the fact nothing good comes on TV before 9pm yet we’re all in bed by 8.30. But in a way I love the sport because I love how nuts it is. I love that no one trains as hard as us. I love saying I’m going in tomorrow morning and training for four hours and then training again in the evening.”

It’s like the harder it is, the more special they are.

By 5.33 they’re all in the water, except Gráinne. It’s 5.45 when she comes down to poolside, exactly 30 minutes after she started her gym workout. Then after a series of stretches and warm-up exercises, she jumps into the pool.

It’s 6.04am. And you’re still not up.

At 6.32, and after undergoing some kickboard and sculling drills to reacquaint herself with the water, Gráinne Murphy adjusts her goggles while nodding and listening to her Belgian-born coach. Ronald’s updating her on the trials going on all around the world and what times her rivals are likely to be swimming right now.

The Americans aren’t having their trials until the end of June but the British had theirs last month, the Australians, Canadians and Spanish too. Gráinne is positioned 10th in the world so far this year. So as she goes about swimming here in Limerick in the early hours of a Monday morning, it’s worth reminding her that all around the world many of her competitors ahead or just behind her are training away too.

“Gráinne has got a real winner’s instinct, a real racer mentality,” explains Ronald, “and sometimes training here pretty much on her own, it can be hard to replicate that level of competition.

“You have to remember the population game. In America there are 88 Gráinne Murphys. In China there are 320. If someone breaks down, they have another one waiting. If that swimmer breaks down they have another 60 ready to jump in the pool. We don’t have that here, so now and then I’ll remind her what this team are doing this or what this girl is probably swimming in training. People are stepping up all the time. That’s why Gráinne went to Denmark in March, to train with Lotte Friis [the world 1500 freestyle champion and world 800m freestyle silver medallist]. To see what the best are doing and get a feel of what times she should be doing in training.”

“Head down. Your finish — that wasn’t very good.” Gráinne Murphy may be a three-time European senior championships medallist, considered the outstanding female sportsperson in the entire country a couple of years ago, her dedication something which astonishes even the likes of her friend and mentor Paul O’Connell. But still there are times when Ronald has to pull her up.

Just there, she lifted her head a few metres out, looking for the wall. That’s a no-no. If your head goes up, your fingers go up which means your fingers aren’t extended. That cost the American Katie Hoff a gold medal at Beijing. The only time Britain’s Rebecca Adlington was ahead of her in the entire 400m freestyle final was at the finish. Hoff lifted her head and hand up to touch the wall before she was there while Adlington kept her head down.

Ronald Claes does not tolerate any of his swimmers drifting to the wall. Those rare moments when he does switch off from swimming and puts on his iPod, his beloved Metallica and Guns ‘n’ Roses feature prominently on the playlist which might suggest a certain rock-or-chill-out-dude outlook but when it comes to swimming everything has to be prim and proper and precise. Numerous times his Limerick-based swimmers have been on training camp with bigger nations and have been amazed how sloppy their rivals can be, sometimes pulling up a few metres out, not even touching the wall. Drift to the wall in training and you’ll invariably do it in competition. And just there Gráinne Murphy drifted to the wall.

So Ronan interjects in that understated but very clear manner of his.

“Head down. Your finish — that wasn’t very good.” Gráinne nods, takes a breath and then powers on again.

It is the last time she will drift to the wall all day. For as her coach notes with a smile, “She won’t have liked [being spotted finishing poorly like] that.”

It’s that kind of vital technical detail that Claes has been trying to ingrain into the Irish swimming psyche in general since he left Belgium four and a half years ago but it’s a struggle. In Ireland when it comes to swimming we seem to have too many excuses and too little knowledge. For sure the facilities are limited outside Abbotstown and UL but we could still be doing things better.

“We have a very limited number of swimmers, so to compete with the best in the world, it’s important we do it better than everybody else. That starts with the basics. And the big problem I’ve seen is that our swimmers over-race and under-train and then when they train, they train too hard. They have a race every week or fortnight so in between those races they’re not building anything up.

“The focus is wrong. You should put the foundations first, focus on stroke technique and increase the long-term prospects. Instead we tend to go for the squeeze and the lemon is finished very early. A swimmer may be doing well at junior level and people say ‘Oh, that’s a great swimmer!’ But by the time they’re 16 they’re gone because they haven’t got the technical skills to progress, and they’ve been training just as often as they were at 14. The biggest motivator in sports is progression. If you’re not progressing, eventually you’ll quit.

“There needs to be a greater emphasis on teaching kids how to swim properly rather than just telling them to train hard because kids don’t know what’s good or bad; they just do whatever you tell them.”

When Gráinne first moved to Limerick at 14, she had a tendency to lift her head forward and then turn to the side when she was tiring. Her strokes were too short and inefficient. It used to take her 50 strokes to do a length. Now it takes her 33, at max, 35. The better the stroke, the less strokes you must take. The less strokes, the less lactic you produce in the muscles and the more energy you have for the last 50m of a race. But how many coaches or swimmers even count how many strokes they’re taking each length?

It’s 6.59am, a full 90 minutes after Gráinne Murphy was first up there, and the lights of the gym flicker back into action and that facility is open to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, at poolside, about 24 public and college swimmers get ready to take up four lanes on the dressing room side. The high performance squad plough on regardless. It is 8.41 before they’re finished in water, 9am before they wrap up their morning session with some dry land work with the medicine ball. By now you’re probably awake, even ready to work. The high performance swimming team already have nearly four hours of the stuff done.

Lunchtime in the UL Sports Bar and for once Gráinne Murphy seems just like another student, just another teenager, having lunch. She likes this part of the day. Most of her friends from Castletroy College that she did the Leaving with last year are now studying on campus here so lunchtime gives her the perfect chance to catch up.

But as she’ll say herself, “I’m not the same as any other teenager in college. We [in the high performance team] are different. Nobody else gets up at 4.30 in the morning and is in bed again for nine o’clock.”

Just how different she is only struck her agent Eoin Conroy last year. They were having lunch in a Dublin restaurant when Conroy recognised one of the ‘stars’ of the reality show Fade Street.

Murphy didn’t know of it. When and what channel was it on? Sometime after 10 on RTÉ, said Conroy.

“Haven’t seen it, I’m in bed by then,” said Murphy, but what struck Conroy was the way she said it, so matter-of-factly, as if her curfew was as incidental as not having milk with her coffee.

So she’s different alright. Most kids do their Junior and Leaving Certificate in the same secondary school they began in. At 14 she left New Ross to study and train in Limerick.

“It was a big decision but I wanted to do it. My sister Niamh competed at a good level until her Leaving Cert. When she went to college she never went back. There wasn’t a setup like we have now; she didn’t have the chance I had. My parents were totally supportive. We bought a house in Castletroy and my mum moved down and would stay during the week while my father would come down for a few nights every week.”

Most people her age party at the weekends. She’s resting or training at weekends. She’s never touched a drop of alcohol. “You’re in this sport to compete,” she says, shrugging her massive shoulders. “Your competitors are hardly drinking either so why should you?”

She’ll watch some night time television alright like Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives but only on boxset and most likely only on training camp.

She doesn’t mind being different though. Actually, she likes being different, she chose to be different, it has its upsides being different.

“I have the Olympics to look forward to,” she says. “I love what I do. And people respect us for what we do, for how we train. That makes it a lot easier.”

Paul O’Connell for one respects her. A lot of the time this year at least one of the two of them has been out of the country but when they’re both around Limerick, they’ll meet up for a coffee or pop over to the other’s house.

“I find it interesting just to hear stories on how their training compares to ours,” she says. “It’s a lot different but I like learning about what they do and from some of Paul’s other experiences.”

Maybe it’s from hanging out with O’Connell that she won’t go public on her goals for London. There were numerous reasons why Ireland underperformed in the 2007 World Cup but one of them seemed to be the weight of expectations they publicly placed upon themselves. Murphy, who is naturally reserved anyhow, downplays any hint of pressure, making the point much of it was removed when she qualified back in December. Even now there are plenty Irish swimmers and athletes striving to even qualify for the Olympics. Meanwhile, she’s been able to prepare for the Olympics.

As for when she gets there? “I want to go there and do the best I can, to swim to the best of my ability,” is all she’ll say.

Ronald goes a bit further. “The main goal has always been to put her best-ever performance down at the end of a season. After that you have to see what everyone else does. If she can put down her best-time ever at the Olympics, then it’ll be a pretty successful Olympics. We do have a certain outcome targets but we don’t discuss them publicly.”

What they will say about London is that she feels comfortable there; a few months ago she raced there and got to familiarise herself with the pool, the callroom, the dressing rooms. And the other thing is that either way, London won’t be the end of the world or her swimming career.

“It’s about 23-24 before you come to your peak in my sport,” says Gráinne, “so I’m quite young even getting to London which is a huge honour. Even after these Olympics, I’ve got a good few years left.”

She’s also got a good bit of training left in this day. At 2.30 she’s back in the gym, this time with the rest of the crew — Shani, Chris, Brian and Nuala. The mood is light as they talk like any group of teenagers, laughing and joking about an episode of Modern Family, only they’re stretching and lifting weights as they do so. It reminds you: as hard as they train, this is their choice and this is the family they chose.

After 3pm they’re back in the pool, doing mostly speedwork. Gráinne in particular, with her powerful shoulders, is powering through the water at full pelt in the butterfly. Then a couple of members of the Institute of Sport’s support team join them. The performance analyst Alan Swanton attaches a rope to Gráinne so they can measure her swim velocity in more detail at different intervals. Chris Bryan tries out an ice vest that could keep him cool when he’s competing in warmer countries and waters. It’s all about trying to get that edge, to get to that wall that bit quicker.

By 5pm they’re finished their day’s work, which might make them a bit like you.

“Today went alright,” says Gráinne. “As the session went on and I got more of a feel for the water, it got better and better.”

And then she heads home from work, like the rest of us, where her mother has some stir fry chicken ready for her. And then at 8.30pm the lights will go off.

She’s right. She’s not like the rest us.

She’s off to the Olympics.


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