Olympic medals have always been decided by milliseconds and fingernails, but it was Dave Brailsford who introduced the world to the concept of ‘marginal gains’.
Brailsford was the man elevated to guru status after supposedly revolutionising British cycling with his theory that a collection of little 1% improvements would inevitably add up to bigger and better things. His was a theory that covered every base.
No detail was considered too small or insignificant.
It was Brailsford who approached a surgeon to lecture his cyclists on the importance of antibacterial hand gels; who ordered the use of colour-coded water bottles and decided his athletes should sleep on the same pillows and mattresses regardless of where the road or track took them.
Arthur Lanigan-O’Keeffe, who begins another modern pentathlon asault today, was a long way from marginal gains in 2012.
The Kilkenny man was chilling out on a Greek holiday when word arrived that a Polish athlete had failed a drugs test and he had been parachuted into the modern pentathlon event at the London Games. He was the only European junior to compete.
He was just 20. The hair was still schoolboyish, the face a little rounder despite all his training, and he looks back now, on the brink of his second appearance at an Olympic Games, and reflects at the gargantuan strides he has made.
He’s much lighter now than then and, although significant improvements have been banked in a sport where he must fence, ride, shoot and swim, it is the 45 seconds shaved off his 3.5km run time that sums up the difference between then and now.
“It’s not even comparable, really,” he explains. “We have done a lot of physiological testing and my VO2 max has increased by 15% since I competed in London. It’s just such a completely different level.
“There is an added level of maturity then as well. I’ve got a lot of mental processes now that I didn’t even know existed before. It’s incomparable from before. I was a rookie back then. Now I am there for a different reason. I was in London to compete. This time I’m there to hopefully get on that podium.”
London was an unexpected bonus on top of a season that had already been entered into the ledger as a breakthrough, but it was a solid bank of uninterrupted training late in 2014 that accelerated Lanigan-O’Keeffe’s progression from a talent with potential to world-class athlete. Come the new year he was peaking at the perfect time. And performing. So was Natalya Coyle, who also begins her campaign today.
Together they dominated the mixed relay circuit, eventually climbing to number one in the world rankings after a season that brought three silver medals and a fourth at the worlds.
The relay wasn’t an Olympic discipline, but the gold medal he won in the men’s European Championship 12 months ago confirmed his place in Rio, as well as his bona fides. He feels primed for today. This season’s World Cup circuit passed off without him hitting the same heights but that was expected given he had sacrificed short-term success for the longer gains of a heavy training block.
He landed in Brazil in the right place mentally, physically. And demographically.
Lanigan-O’Keeffe is still only 24: Old enough and experienced enough to have the benefit of London under his belt but with less mileage on the clock than many of those who shone four years ago. He is not alone in believing a podium step is within his stride.
Everything has been calibrated for this window.
He was still a student in UCD in 2012, losing four hours a day to traffic as he schlepped across town from the converted attic space in Swords provided by a benefactor to the National Sports Campus (NSC), where he used the National Aquatic Centre and other facilities.
Home now is just two minutes away from the NSC where the Modern Pentathlon Centre opened in October of 2013. The extra four hours he fills with blocks of rest, recovery and refuelling and that schedule and diet won’t change for the Games.
There was no opening ceremony this time, and unlike London, no hours spent loitering around the Olympic village helping himself to everything and anything in the canteen.
Team Ireland’s training base in Uberlandia was deemed a more suitable environment until he absolutely, positively had to get himself to Rio where the crowds and the restricted access to his coach on game day won’t catch him off guard as it did in London.
The time for giant strides is long gone.
Now for the marginal gains.
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