Olympic rowing hopeful Philip Doyle ‘torn’ after months on the frontline

Olympic rowing hopeful Philip Doyle ‘torn’ after months on the frontline

Irish rower Philip Doyle training at his home in Banbridge, Down, while adhering to the guidelines of social distancing. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Christmas was on the doorstep by the time Philip Doyle’s latest eight-month stint as a trainee doctor came to an end, and he could leave Belfast behind for the National Rowing Centre in Cork. A long road stretched ahead of him and, with Tokyo just eight months away, he was already miles behind.

Doyle’s spell of ‘foundational’ training had started with four months at the Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry where he was working full-time, including nights. Home was his parents’ house in Banbridge with its makeshift gym in the garage. Tough, but doable.

Belfast was harder.

Every other elite athlete was leaping on hay bales or lifting dustbins between March and June anyway, but then restrictions were relaxed and our Olympic hopefuls could return to their gyms and their pools. Doyle’s rowing colleagues were back in their boats by mid-summer, but his Olympic dreams would tread far more water.

The Ulster Hospital was a bigger, busier workplace than Daisy Hill and, while his responsibilities lay in the A&E and surgical departments, there was no getting away from the toll that Covid was having on the health service and its staff as the year came to an end and case numbers began to push upwards all across Northern Ireland.

By November the days were getting shorter and the pandemic was eating into the roster. With colleagues missing due to the virus, the workload piled up and training was diluted by the need to work extended hours, to cover shifts and by the fact that he was living in the city and unable to source the sort of facilities he really needed for training.

“The day after I was finished I was in the car and down the road,” he says.

If that sounds like a clean break, then it hasn’t been quite so easy. For all the pressures and the pandemic, the work was rewarding. Not just that, but the guilt he felt in being unable to train properly with Ronan Byrne, his double sculls partner when winning silver at the 2019 World Championships, has been replaced since by the feeling that he could still be doing more up north.

His old workplace in Belfast has emailed at least once asking if he could cover shifts, and the health service has put out messages on social media asking anyone qualified to contact certain hospitals struggling to cope with the loss of medical personnel during this third wave.

He had contemplated clocking in while back home in Down over the holidays, but the thoughts of returning to Cork with Covid and infecting a teammate stopped him in his tracks. Whatever way he turns gives him pause for thought. And regret.

It’s an unenviable Catch-22.

“To see that message go out from hospitals I would have worked in when I’m sitting down here like a mug and no use to anybody ... But then I’m also trying to get back in and up to the peak fitness that we were at to try and get a crack at this Olympics,” he said. “So I’m torn. That’s the only way to describe it.”

Not just emotionally, but physically too.

He is still draining pus from the blisters on his hands every night because the grips on the oars are different to those on a rowing machine. It just goes to show how much he missed out on in the second half of 2020, but the calluses will return eventually, and one benefit to all this is the speed with which he is improving.

The rowers don’t start slow and pick up speed in training. They jump in as fast and as deep as they can for as long as they can and even a hamstring injury suffered shortly after his return could not hide the fact that it takes him far longer to come up for air now than it did before the festive period.

It’s not like he needed any further motivation, but competition for the double scull seats in Tokyo is fierce, with Daire Lynch and John Kearney pushing hard and a succession of trials due to decorate the calendar between now and the summer.

What else lies in store remains unclear.

For now, the European Championships are due at the end of April and there are three World Cups to factor in before the Olympics and a World Championship in Shanghai. A planned training camp in Italy has already been kiboshed. Not ideal, given the cold snaps here at home and the toll they have taken on preparations.

All told, it’s Linz in September of 2019 — when Doyle and Byrne claimed that silver at the worlds and booked the boat’s place in Tokyo — since the former has raced competitively, but then that result did come on the back of another medical placement and prolonged period of separation.

The difference this time is the cloud over the Games. Reports emanating from Japan paint a picture of a populace eager to dispense with the Games as the country fights off the virus and over half of their people come to grips with living in an effective state of emergency.

Doyle is bracing himself for a unique experience — no spectators, athletes being asked to leave the country within 48 hours of their events — and admits that a “shell Olympics” may persuade him to make a go for Paris in 2024 as well.

What he doesn’t see happening is this year’s Olympiad being cancelled.

“It’s interesting watching this as a doctor, because medicine takes a back seat to the economy,” he said.

“Japan has put a lot of money into this — the Olympic village, the venues and everything — and they have to make something back off it, so economy might trump health.

“I’m not saying that’s the right thing, but it seems to be happening in every case so far and I think Japan are going to make a decision based on recouping some losses on the expenses for the Games so far. That’s what will mostly drive it, so we will have to see. I think they will go ahead.”

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