Against the tide

LET’S START in Ger Doyle’s office. Busy place, even with the phone off the hook. The mobile still rings and there are Leinster Open Championships coming up, piles of paperwork sitting across the desk, the OCI want to organise a meeting this weekend, change the dates of a planned trip to Athens, more headaches and there are still kids to be coached in New Ross, still seconds to be clipped off times.

Or let's start with some bad news. A day before, the Sports Council suspended Swim Ireland's funding because they have yet to elect a chief executive officer, or the CEO was elected at a void meeting or some bureaucratic mess-up. Under Sports Council rules, all governing bodies need a CEO. You don't need to tell the national swimming coach what suspended funding means. Athletes with Athens dreams are in a sort of limbo. Of course, if you are an Irish swimmer, limbo is a familiar place. Most have been there at some point.

Occasionally, you cast your mind back over a decade and wonder when will Irish swimming get a break. The Europeans were a pre-Christmas treat in Abbotstown; Andrew Bree put a smile on every face and there were hushed utterances of a new era. Now, well, each time the sports gets up, brushes itself down and starts moving again, there is somebody tugging at the rug under their feet. Doyle smiles wistfully. He has enough perspective to know part of life's job spec is putting obstacles in the way and he knows better than most how to surmount them.

This is no more than a stumble on the road. All things going well, Doyle hopes to be the coach to five swimmers in the Greek capital. In more optimistic moments, he dreams of seven. Five would be an achievement, an achievement in athletic terms. That Doyle will be there is an achievement in real human terms.

Athens will be his first Olympics. In a better world, it would be his third. He remembers Atlanta, a city most in Irish swimming now want to forget. It might sound absurd, but Atlanta was a success (of sorts) for Irish swimming. They had five athletes there, a remarkable number. Adrian O'Connor, a local from New Ross whom Doyle had nurtured, finally achieved his Olympic dream.

Doyle was second-in-command in the national coaching stakes to Bobby Madine. Given the unprecedented number of swimmers, the Olympic Council decided the Irish team deserved a second coach. It should have been Doyle. It wasn't. The authorities, in their wisdom, offered the accreditation to Erik De Bruin.

"Coming up to Atlanta, we were looking for a second coach to be appointed. The person applied for was me. Unfortunately, Michelle was in her prime at the time and Erik got the second coaching spot. I flew from the training camp in Florida to Atlanta; they all went to the Olympic village and I went home. Toughest flight I ever had."

He watched in muted bewilderment the events at Atlanta. "I watched her winning the medals on television and I was thinking: 'Oh my God, what is going on here?' Winning one, I think we could have coped with, but winning the three, and the way things transpired " he trails off, caught up in another memory. A couple of years later, as a weakened Doyle could barely move in a hospital bed, there was one question asked of him more than any other.

"I ended up having to develop an answer. I had the utmost respect for Michelle Smith and none whatsoever for Michelle De Bruin," Doyle says, although he is uncertain about the attempt to wipe her from Olympic history. "At the last Olympics, I did a review for RTÉ, for one of their final programmes, and they went through Atlanta without mentioning Michelle. I resent what she did but I feel, in real terms, she won her medals and should have been mentioned."

That's that. Can't delve too far into Irish swimming without being struck in the face by the legacy of Atlanta. Tarnished gold and abuse stories that had people shuddering over breakfast. Those were the narratives with a bit of juice and, all the while, Ger Doyle and his ilk kept on keeping on.

Madine had enough after Atlanta and Doyle graduated to national swimming coach. Hugh O'Connor, Adrian's brother, was the next prospect coming down the line at New Ross. There was a trip to Perth for the World Championships in 1998, where people were most interested in Irish swimmers not there than those competing, and a plethora of international meets all year.

Just before Christmas that year, Doyle brought a group of schoolchildren from Leinster and Munster to Millfield, the Somerset school famous for its 50-metre pool. All weekend, Doyle was feeling ill. Given the season, he assumed it was the flu. Within days, his world would fall apart.

"I was getting no better when I got home. Went to the doctor and had to do blood tests." Leukaemia was the last thing on his mind, although his father had a suspicion it might be. What was leukaemia anyway? Didn't that mostly affect children?

"When the doctor told me, remarkably I took it well." Doyle's type of the disease was acute myeloid leukaemia, which basically is a rapidly progressing cancer of the bone marrow and other blood-forming tissues.

He asked a dozen questions as the world spun faster than usual. Did this mean giving up swimming? What was the treatment? How would the pool cope? His father, since gone to his eternal rest, was beside him in the Waterford hospital. And Ger remembers the disbelief how what he thought was an ordinary flu could morph into a cancer.

He knew he needed chemotherapy. For that, long stints in St James' were required. "They started explaining what was involved. Four treatments, the first for 10 days, the second for eight, the final two for five days each over six months. Six months of your life was huge at that stage. Looking back on it now, it really seems like nothing."

His first dose of chemo came on his birthday, January 18. People think an athletic background helps fight death and disease. Coaches have the formula for victory, that must include victory over death. Maybe it is because people in sport are always trivialising death. They are dying for each other on the field, or involved in do-or-die encounters.

Being a coach actually helped initially. "The first dosage was 10 days, so I decided to treat the 10 days the same way I would treat swimming training where I say to kids: 'If I give you a set, it is 10, when you reach five, you are halfway there, when you hit six you are on your way back down again.'"

The system worked until the eighth day. "That was the problem with the treatment; you didn't know how it would affect you. On day eight, I got an unbelievable bout of diarrhoea and ended up in intensive care for 12 days."

Barbara Claxton, a friend living in Dublin, called to see him every day. His sister Ann, without whom Doyle doesn't believe he would have made it, stayed in Dublin for days.

But his condition was getting progressively worse. Ann had driven down to Wexford and got a phone call to come back to St James'. "They thought I wasn't going to last the night," Doyle recalls of the moment he got as close to meeting death and getting a reprieve as you can. And then, Ger got diarrhoea again. And that was it. He was in the clear.

"Then, I started fighting it. I thought children have to do this, so if they can do it, surely I can do it." He felt himself getting stronger with each passing day there was a story he proposed to a nurse from Waterford while he was at his worse. Then, he got the first glimpse of himself in a mirror. A lot of people find it uncomfortable to look at the stranger staring back at them from the mirror after their initial chemo.

The olive skin, sunken eyes, the skeletal look complete with no hair. It was all there. "I never saw such a sight in my life, this skeleton staring back at me. It wasn't me. I had lost a huge amount of weight, lost my hair. I accepted it. A psychologist asked me about a glass at one stage that had water in it, was it half-full or half-empty. I answered that it was half-full, and he said that is good, you are a positive person. and you will look on the good side of it. That was part of the battle."

After each treatment, he got 10 day's grace at home. After the first treatment, the Leisureland meet was on. Swimming kept him going. He was on the phone constantly, hearing feedback from Salthill. He had no energy, but he managed to write a will and sort out life insurance that week. Doyle was not the type of man to have life insurance. Sports coaches rarely are.

He even made a trip to the pool. The big test. In that week he was knocking on the door of death, they held masses in the swimming pool for him. Doyle had no knowledge of this. He walked to the poolside, using a chair as a makeshift Zimmerframe. No hair, bony. The kids were slightly freaked out. "But, you just did what kept you going."

He had to be watched over constantly, something any middle-aged man would resent. He was brought home for Paddy's weekend and had a sudden urge for an ice-cream cone. Two hours later, he was in St. James' again, having caught a bug from the cone. But, he managed to beat it and managed to see that some things in life aren't worth stressing over.

"You look at things very differently. All the fighting and bickering with people on a regular basis, that ends, that stops. You get up in the morning and it is great to be alive. And you look at it in that sense. Hugh didn't make the Olympics, which was the worse thing to come out of it, but you just have to savour life, no matter what happens."

By September, Doyle was felt in sufficient health to be the Olympic coach at Sydney. And then, on a family holiday a month later, the mortal coil sprang up and slapped him in the face again. "I ended up coming down with a heart problem, got clots in my legs. They discovered my heart was damaged as a result of the chemo. Spent a couple of weeks in the Mater, working up for a heart transplant."

The transplant never came, despite Doyle having only 15% heart function. But, again, he fought. His left ventricle was almost closed off. But Ger was fortunate in one respect, if not many others. It wasn't heart disease. His condition could improve.

It sledge-hammered his Olympic dream, though. No doctor would let him take a long-haul flight with a left ventricle that barely worked. For almost two years, it played with his life. Sydney was another lost dream.

"Stepping back from Sydney was the hardest thing. Bobby Madine stepped back in and right up until the day before they left, he rang me and said: 'Ger if you want to go, you can go.' I wasn't let go. When I think back to previous time, when I was in Atlanta and couldn't get into the blooming village Now, I had two options, I had Jim Sherwin and RTÉ wanted me to go out and do commentary and the coaching avenue. Could have gone with any number of people to Sydney and I wasn't allowed to travel."

Perspective, though. Doyle has far more of that precious commodity than any of us. His heart was the most important thing. These days, it is functioning about 35% (the average heart functions at around 60%). Another obstacle surmounted. Fourteen months ago, he was back in hospital again for a hernia operation. He started calling hospitals hotels and hotels hospitals and still does.

Swimming has been Ger Doyle's life since he was 19, when he walked into New Ross swimming pool, looking for a lifeguard job. Twenty-five years ago now, and he has been there before most of us prise our bleary eyes open each morning, for practice, training. We are an island race. Swimming should be our most natural recreation. For Ger Doyle, it always has been. "It has been my life, my whole life, since I was 19."

And, finally, this year, the Olympics beckons. When eyes fall toward the Olympic pool, the world tends to forget the murkier waters of the sport's recent past.

Michael Phelps, with the brash arrogance of a spoilt American teenager, has already ensured swimming will dominate the Olympics with his bold prediction of equalling Mark Spitz's achievement.

Doyle is making no such bold claims. He will be happy to just be there. It is a struggle for anyone involved in Irish swimming to make it that far It has been even more of a struggle for Ger. But, poolside at Athens, you will see him. Doing what he can do, taking one day at a time. Surviving like the sport he has given his life to.

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