Olympic musings. Week1sailing through pressure Posted 21st Aug
When people ask me how I put myself through racing at that level for so many years, I couldn’t really explain it. I didn’t really know it myself. Now I can see that one of the reasons I did it was to experience that surge of relief, endorphins and inner joy that comes when you are free to let go of all the tension, stress, pain and nerves on crossing the finish line. It is an unbelievable feeling, which is obviously better when you win but is still there when you lose. It is athlete heroin. The stress involved with the build up to a championship race is immense and is, mostly, kept controlled and at bay by a silent inner war with yourself. Holding yourself together in the face of self imposed and outside expectations and pressure, becomes a fulltime job. Being able to let all of that go when crossing the line for the last time in a championship is almost indescribable.
My competition at the Olympics always lasted a week. Getting the first race done was always a huge milestone. There is a massive build up to that first race and all your questions about what it will be like, how rivals are going etcetera, are answered in the opening round. Nerves and stress are tempered for a few hours at least as you glow in the after effects of that race but the mind gradually turns to the next race on the menu and preparing for that. In the stress stakes, there is little reprieve.
Competing for a week has unique challenges. So much can happen in a week. It’s not just about being on form for one race but it involves being on form for them all and backing up every single day. There is no let up. Rest days were a curse. Your body is like a wound up toy and your brain is in overdrive. No matter how hard you try, your thoughts drift off to the imminent race. You could be watching a gripping movie to take your mind off the race and halfway through you will get a surge of adrenaline when your mind drifts to the impending battle.
By this time, all you are programmed to do is race. The other time in the day can be extremely difficult – staying off your feet and lying in bed listening to your mind as it goes 100 miles per hour. Thinking takes up a lot of energy.
It is hard to be secure when you are an athlete, Especially in a sport where so many variables exist. The space of high performance is both exquisite and evil at the same time. It is a tough place to exist in, even for a few hours, let alone a week or two. Multiply the week of your leaving cert by a thousand and you are still nowhere near it!
Annalise Murphy has been existing in this space since the Olympics started and will do for the next few days. To me, she has shown a level of maturity beyond her years. Sailing is a cruel sport. The elements are an even bigger threat than opponents. All that does is add another layer of stress into the mix. Annalise won her first four races, the absolute perfect start. It puts her in a great position, even with her two lower results, she is still in the mix for the win. On one hand, winning the first four races is a dream come true, on the other hand it means that she can’t fly in under the radar, she has to keep winning. To keep winning at the Olympic Games in any sport is a really tall order. Most irish viewers wouldn’t know a laser sailing boat from a bar of soap but now expect her to bring home the goods in her next four races.
I can imagine how annalise is feeling right now. Only she really knows how she feels, competes and deals with the pressure. She knows her opponents and knows the venue like the back of her hand. In Athens 2004, myself and Sam Lynch were one of the favourites for a medal but knew that would only come if all the stars aligned for that week. We were medallists the year before but almost didn’t make the final. That’s how tight it was. We made no secret that we had a great chance but respected that our opponents were extremely tough and seasoned. But we knew that before Athens started. The rest of Ireland thought we had to just turn up and collect our medals. Rowing, like sailing, is a fringe sport in Ireland and at Olympic and world level there are definitely no certainties. The tag of favourite has to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Annalise knows what she has to do. She knows what she is up against and how to get her best possible result. Being at that peak end of performance over ten races is an absolute nightmare. I bet there were times this week that she thought ” I’ve won four, just give me a medal now!” She appears to be in a nice routine involving a cycle in the morning. That will do a lot to clear her head and wake her up. Routine like that is a real comfort. Its what you know and it does not change when all around you is going nuts. It is your time and it is precious, especially at an Olympics.
I have no doubt that part of her can’t get to the end of this week quick enough and the other part of her checks in once and a while and takes in that she is actually competing at the Olympic games and is in pole position and how amazing it is. I get a real sense of pride when I check in to see how she is faring.
Regardless of her final result, what is waiting for her at the end is that exquisite feeling of relief and letting go of all the worries, expectation, unknown and tension that are so much part of her world right now.