Swimming: A talent worth waiting for
The achievement of Gráinne Murphy at the European Swimming Championships in Budapest yesterday week was simply astounding.
In reaching the final of the 1,500m freestyle, she had knocked 18 seconds off her own Irish record. The final itself saw the Wexford teenager improve the mark by another eight seconds, a time which was good enough for silver behind Lottie Friis of Denmark. It is up there with Graeme McDowell's US Open victory and Derval O'Rourke's European silver medal as the Irish sporting achievement of the year.
And Murphy's silver probably trumps O'Rourke's because the swimming Euros matter more in world terms than their athletics counterpart. At the last Olympics in the Freestyle events, Murphy's speciality, female European swimmers won all five golds. In the 800m, where she finished fourth in Budapest, there was a European 1-2-3. Lotte Friis is the world 800m champion and 1,500m silver medallist. And Murphy is currently world number two over 1,500m and number eight over 800m. The jump to world class, which seemed likely within a couple of years when the Irish swimmer won three golds in last year's European Junior Championships, has taken place ahead of schedule.
Suggestions of a medal at London 2012 may be optimistic, not least because the 1,500m freestyle is not an Olympic event for women. Then again, such has been Murphy's progress that the suggestion is not wholly outlandish though the chances are she will be reaching her peak at the 2016 games rather than the next one. Time is on her side. There is only one swimmer in the world 800m freestyle top 20 younger than her, only two in the world 1,500m freestyle top 20. Friis is five years older than her, Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington of Britain four years her senior. And a couple of years is a long time in a sport where a competitor in their mid 20s is looked on as something of a veteran. The world may yet be Gráinne Murphy's oyster.
If there was ever a sport in this country which needed a new heroine, it was swimming. For one thing, God knows how many potential new recruits to the sport were lost after the sex scandals which suggested that becoming a young swimmer was nearly as dangerous as becoming an altar boy. And for another, the more Murphy achieves, the more we will be able to forget the air of sleaziness which surrounded the achievements of Michelle Smith. Smith, after all, set alarm bells ringing because she improved remarkably near the end of her career after less-than-stellar performances as a young swimmer. There will be no such questions about Murphy, the extraordinary nature of her talent has been obvious from early on.
There's also something heartening about Murphy's background in a sport which previously seemed to be the preserve of suburban wunderkinds born near the superior aquatic facilities of the city. That one of Europe's finest young swimmers comes from the village of Ballinaboola, five miles from the town of New Ross, where her parents have been running the small Horse and Hound Hotel for the past three decades would seem to suggest that sporting heroes can come from anywhere. All they need is the talent, and the dedication.
And it is dedication which makes Gráinne Murphy special, the kind of dedication which graphically illustrates the extent to which truly world-class sporting performers are a breed apart. That silver medal is built on a routine which has seen her getting up at half four in the morning to train for three hours before school and then returning for more training with national coach Ronald Claes and the University of Limerick high performance squad for another four hours in the afternoon. She trains seven hours a day, six days a week, 48 weeks a year. Four years ago, she moved to Limerick so she could benefit from the facilities there.
The concept of 'sacrifice' is much invoked in Irish sport, usually in relation to sportsmen who would never in a million years put themselves through what Gráinne Murphy does. How could they? Only a very small minority of people have the fanatical drive necessary to do so, and in a small country like Ireland they are few and far between.
We're a bit naive about world-class sport in this country, perhaps because our most popular games are played by part-timers. We look at the excitement furnished by the GAA, the crowds, the sense of occasion and we confuse it with genuine achievement. We cod ourselves that, in some strange way, our footballers and hurlers are 'world-class.' But they aren't, they can never be because they don't have to be.
Yet this misunderstanding means that we fail to realise just how hard it is to make a mark at world level. Because, in bigger countries with better facilities than ours, there are also youngsters with the same kind of obsessive dedication as Gráinne Murphy. And if she slackens off by even the smallest margin, they will be the ones who inherit the world which now seems to be within her grasp. When we wonder aloud why we're not winning more Olympic medals in glamour events, we're suffering from a failure of the imagination. It can be done, but it needs the sort of determination and talent which Gráinne Murphy brings to the table, something which touches the very outer limits of human capability. Last year, when the Irish
swimming squad attended a gruelling week-long high altitude training camp in the Pyrenees, their physiotherapist suggested they might want to take things easy on the final day. Murphy told the physio, who hadn't worked with the team before, "On this team, we finish a hard week hard."
There is something almost superhuman about this attitude being present in a 17-year-old girl. But that's how she needs to be. A truly world-class athlete is, like an artistic genius, responding to imperatives different from the ones which govern ordinary lives. It was a wonderful week for Gráinne Murphy but she will know that Li Xuanxu of China, one year younger than her, is two places above her in the world 800m rankings and Australia's Katie Goldman, just one year older than her, is six places ahead, having set the fastest non-suit-assisted time by an Aussie in 22 years back in March.
But they'll be thinking about her too. And perhaps only these girls, and swimmers like them, really know just how special a Gráinne Murphy is. The rest of us can just look on in awe.