Glandular fever leaves Grainne Murphy out of her depth
GRAINNE Murphy's dramatic under-performance on her Olympic debut yesterday can partially be explained by the fact that she was hit with a bout of glandular fever last March.
Swimming officials have played down the effect it had on her, saying it just forced her to adjust the intensity of her training, but yesterday's severely under-par swim can surely be related to that setback.
Great things were expected of the Wexford teenager, who won three European senior medals in 2010, including a 1,500m long course silver when she was just 17.
But she finished last in her 400m freestyle heat in a time (4:19.07) that was almost a full 10 seconds slower than her personal best.
It was well known that Murphy's Olympic ambitions had to be suddenly readjusted after an illness this year. The athlete and Irish swimming officials had been vague about it and only ever described it as "a virus".
But pressed as to the exact nature of her illness, Swim Ireland's performance director Peter Banks confirmed yesterday that it was glandular fever, which can dramatically affect energy levels and is something to which highly tuned athletes are particularly susceptible.
Banks insisted they were satisfied that Murphy had recovered full fitness ahead of the London Games, but she was clearly not at her peak.
"She had a virus around March time, it was a glandular thing, yes, glandular fever," he said. "She really didn't miss an awful lot of training, she just tailored it, backed off on the intensity because it was the kind of virus that made her tired.
"She was fit enough, she was training, the markers (fitness) are all right now, everything looked really well but things just didn't work out."
But he conceded that Murphy had been swimming 4:09 and 8:29 for 400/800m freestyle last March before illness struck. The Limerick-based teenager was clearly upset afterwards, rushing through the 'mixed zone' without speaking to the press, so it was left to Banks to try to explain what had gone wrong.
It remains to be seen if Murphy can rediscover her form during the rest of her Olympic programme. She is due to compete in the 200m freestyle today, but the 800m freestyle on Thursday is her best event and was always her main focus.
"We'll sit down and talk to her and see where she is," Banks said. "I think she wants to swim the 800m because that's what she's here to do and Grainne's a fighter and a competitor.
"We always thought the 400m was going to be a stretch for her because it was a very, very high standard. She really pushed the first 200m today and then sort of fell off the tracks a little bit. You can be a bit more paced in the 800m, you don't have to be as hard going out (starting)."
Irish swimming's other prodigy, Sycerika McMahon (17), who won a European senior silver medal this year and two European junior titles in 2011, also left the pool in tears yesterday after failing to get through the heats of the 100m breastroke, which is her speciality.
McMahon's time of 1:08:80 was, relatively speaking, not far off her personal best (1:08.37), but finishing last visibly upset her and she, too, would not speak to the media. A slow turn cost her in a heat won, sensationally, by 15-year-old Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte in 1:05.56, the fastest time in the world this year.
Melanie Nocher did better, third in her 100m backstroke heat in 1:02.44 (half a second off her personal best), but she was just using the shorter event to prepare for her 200m backstroke speciality on Thursday.
"We may get criticised for not swimming our best times in our heats, but at the same time there's only 20pc of people overall who do personal bests (at the Olympics) and that's very rarely in the morning, so you have to take that into consideration," Nocher said.
Dubliner Barry Murphy swam his second fastest time (1:01.57) in Saturday's 100m breastroke heats but also finished last. Like all his team-mates he has another event to come but, so far, Ireland's four swimmers have all failed to get out of their heats.
Banks had predicted that they would all need personal bests to do so and 'top 16' was Swim Ireland's projected target, but no one expected things to go so badly wrong.
"We've had success at European senior and junior level, but this gives us a perspective on that," Banks said. "We got a better group of swimmers to this Games than we've ever had before, they've done really well to get this far and it's my job now to make sure we're even better in four years' time, which I believe we will be."