Sunday 30 April 2017

Lonely passion of our Olympic dreamers

The life of the elite athlete is one of high pressure and low recognition -- but that doesn't stop them, writes John Meagher

Chloe Magee knows all about pressure. She may be one of the best badminton players this country has ever produced, but she has to be seen to improve year on year to attract the funding she needs to continue her career in professional sport.

So when Irish marathon runner Martin Fagan was caught doping two weeks ago, her first reaction was sympathy.

Although she says she would never condone performance drugs, she could understand why an elite athlete might be willing to risk everything.

"I felt really sorry for him," the 23-year-old Donegal woman says. "You'd have to be in a really dark place to do what he did but as athletes we're under constant pressure to improve.

"He has to pay a very high price for what he did, and his reputation has been badly damaged, but people looking from the outside just don't realise how tough the life of the elite sportsperson can be."

Magee is not seeking sympathy for the rigours of her own dedication. But she is honest about the reality of life for a top athlete in a sport that rarely attracts attention.

An appearance at the Olympics can provide a spark of glamour in a four-year cycle characterised by six-days-a-week training, frequent trips "that are about as far from holidays as you can get" and a constant need to stay within the limited funds she can attract.

"I'm not complaining. This is the life I've chosen and I'm very lucky that I'm able to play badminton professionally. It's a sport I've loved from a very early age and I feel I'm getting better all the time."

But she has misgivings. "The facilities for badminton in this country are really not up to scratch," she says. "They're completely out of date. I'd be embarrassed about bringing players from abroad to play in some of the venues.

"The temperature tends to be way too cold, for instance. When I lived and trained in Sweden, the coaches wouldn't let us out on the courts if the temperature wasn't absolutely correct. They'd be worried that we stood a greater chance of picking up injuries."

Magee moved to Sweden for two years after her Leaving Cert in order to improve her game and she also spent time in Copenhagen -- essentially the home of badminton in Europe. It was a lonely experience.

"My badminton improved for sure, but it felt very isolating. Even though English is spoken perfectly, you feel you miss out by not being able to speak their language. And they're expensive countries to live in -- so you have to make any funding you get go a long way."

Last year, she was awarded €12,000 from the Irish Sports Council. She receives kit and rackets from a sponsor, but she still has to pay out of her own pocket to train on courts in Dublin.

"Some sports have a far higher profile than others and unfortunately badminton isn't one of them," she says, before joking that she wishes she'd taken up tennis instead.

Had she shown a similar ability at that racket sport, she would be a household name in Ireland and money would be no issue. She's ranked 45th in the world in badminton; her similarly placed counterpart in tennis -- Austria's Tamira Paszek -- earned $423,074 in prize-money last year alone.

"I'd be lying if I said there weren't days when I wished I lived a normal life, where I could go out for a few drinks and eat whatever I want," Magee says.

"But that feeling disappears when you train really well or the moments when you have a really hard-fought win.

"And getting to the Olympics in Beijing, of course, is something that I will always cherish.

"I'm very lucky too that I've such a supportive family -- my mother always watches my matches outside of Ireland online -- and my boyfriend Brendan has been extremely understanding.

"It can't be easy for anyone to be in a relationship with a professional athlete because the sport has to come first."

Magee has had a good run of form of late and her appearance in the London Olympics should be confirmed in April. Then, she will be hoping to be in the form of her life. "Who knows what might happen?"

Melanie Nocher, meanwhile, was so proud to represent Ireland in the Beijing Games four years ago that she had the celebrated Olympics logo tattooed on to her neck soon after her return.

The swimmer from Holywood, Co Down, is hoping to make it to the London Olympics this summer, where an appearance in "the semi-final, or final, even" would delight her.

"There are two types of athletes," she says, "realists and dreamers. I'm a realist. There's no point me sitting here and telling you that I'm going to win a gold medal because I'm just not at the level you need to be at to swim that fast. It's as simple as that, and I'm okay with it."

Unlike most of the top international swimmers she competes against, the 23-year-old grew up in an environment where there was no 50-metre on the island of Ireland and, thus, her development was curtailed.

Had there been adequate facilities she could now, potentially, be in the running for a place on the podium. But it remains one of those "what if" scenarios that can never be answered.

Like many of Ireland's Olympic hopefuls, Nocher has had to move abroad in order to avail of the best possible coaching. She is based at Loughborough in the UK east midlands, where the swimming amenities are among the best in Europe.

She trains six days a week, rising each morning at 5am and cycling to the pool irrespective of the weather. "I don't like getting up that early," she says. "But I'm used to it now after all these years."

She would be woken at a similar time from the age of 13 and would swim length after length at her local pool before attending school.

She acknowledges the sacrifices her parents made to get her to the level she's at now.

"You can't reach Olympic standard without having people behind you who have put in a huge effort themselves to get you to that point and that's irrespective of the sport."

Although hailing from a Protestant background, Melanie Nocher never countenanced representing Great Britain in her chosen sport.

That's partly because Swim Ireland is an all-island body and also because she grew up in an environment where she felt no divisions along religious and cultural grounds.

She says she understood the significance of representing Ireland when she claimed bronze in the European Championships last year and stood on the podium while the tricolour was hoisted.

"It was a really special moment for me," she says, "and it made me realise just what a great thing it is to represent your country.

"Sometimes," she says, with a chuckle, "when the alarm goes off at 5am, I use that memory to motivate me to get out of bed and get down to the pool."

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