Saturday 24 August 2019

Derval O'Rourke on her perfect day off: 'We go out with a picnic, drink some tea and try to catch a fish'

Derval O'Rourke (36) is a sprint hurdle world champion and a healthy-living advocate. She has written two cookbooks. She lives in Crosshaven, Co Cork, with her husband, Peter, and their daughter, Dafne (two)

My daughter Dafne normally sleeps until 8am or 9am. I'd love to say that she's a great sleeper because of my magical parenting skills, but that's just the way she is. When I had her, I was writing my first cookbook, so I couldn't really take a whole heap of time off. I wasn't overly fussy about her, because when she would be asleep in the day, I would be recipe testing and editing.

For breakfast, we have oats with some fruit in it. My husband, Peter, makes it the night before. Before he goes to work, he leaves out two bowls for us. It's like momma bear and baby bear. Peter works in insurance. It's a family business, and he has always worked in it. When he was training for the Olympics, he'd be away a lot sailing, and then he'd come back and be in the office. I drop Dafne to the creche three days a week, and then I head back to the house. I have two girls working for me part-time, and they are usually in the office at home by then.

When I was a professional athlete, I had this real sense of the end. It might sound really negative, but it was formed in reality. Everybody's career ends. I wasn't a superstar athlete, and I was never told that I was going to be the next best thing. I was a grafter. When I became world champion, it was such a surprise to most people, but I had done five years where I had been knocked out of every championship.

During that time, I had finished my degree, and I had started at Smurfit Business School. My main focus was on running really fast, but I always had this voice in my head saying, 'You could get a bad injury and your career would be over'. This belief that you can win medals might never come off, and if it doesn't, you need to be able to walk away. I always had a thing that, 'If I couldn't run tomorrow, could I do something else?' I was always very conscious of an exit strategy.

When I was young, I saw athletes who I thought were superstars, and when their careers came to an end, I felt that they were treated like they were disposable.

Everybody wants to talk to you when you are winning medals, but the world is very fickle. I always had this really acute sense that I needed to be more than just a runner. I was always thinking about the other side, so for me it was easier to retire.

There are a few different areas to my work now. One is brand and media - for example, I'm a brand ambassador for the Irish Dairy Council. I'm one of the coaches on Ireland's Fittest Family, and I'm an analyst for RTE on athletics. The things that are most visible only take up 10pc of my time. Then there is product - which is anything that I sell; for example, the cookbooks. It's not just about eating well, but easy ways for eating well. The second book - The Fit Foodie - was heavily influenced by having a newborn, and sometimes having to cook with one hand. I got the Olympic-team dietitian to work on the content, because I wanted a layer of credibility. During my career, it became evident that I trained better if I was eating well.

So many people ask me about the transition from retiring from athletics to not doing it any more. For me, that was quite easy, as I had other things lined up. The transition to becoming a mother was much more difficult. Your life changes overnight, and I had to adapt. You can't leave the house unless you're bringing the baby, or your husband is at home. But also, it made me really aware of what I want in my life.

I'm self-employed and I've set up my life so I can choose when I'm on and when I'm off. Dafne is the main priority in our family, but that doesn't mean you park your ambitions. You find a way to make it work - so that might mean working through lunch, or at night, when she is in bed. I go to Dublin once a week for work, but I cut back on the hours. If I'm not there when Dafne wakes up, I need to be home when she goes to sleep.

I fit in training during the day. I have much better clarity of mind when I train. I might run 5km outside my house. It takes about 25 minutes. I'm not very quick at it. Everyone thinks that I should be quicker, but I only used to run for 12 seconds, so 5km is quite a long distance for me. I love training with other people. I have two friends, who are also mothers, and we often train when our kids are in bed.

Peter comes home from work at 5.30pm, and we try to sit down and have dinner together. Peter is so calm and really relaxed; horizontally relaxed. He can be really detail-orientated and patient. I'm none of those things. If something is frustrating me, he'll sit down with a pen and paper and map it out. When we make our plans, he'll say, 'That's OK, but what fun things are we going to do?' When I was pregnant, he bought a small fishing boat with his brother on DoneDeal. This was his preparation for the baby. I thought it was odd. He was an Olympic sailor, and he loves being on the water, but I don't sail. He wanted to find a middle ground. Now, it's our hobby. We've done it since Dafne was born, We go out with a picnic, drink some tea and try to catch a fish. Dafne loves it.

At night, I always read fiction, because I like escapism. I read for pleasure. It takes me a while to go to sleep, but once I'm out, I'm gone. If I didn't need to get up for work or for Dafne, I could sleep for 12 hours. And every now and again, I do sleep for 12 hours. It's great.


In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

'Ireland's Fittest Family' airs on Sundays, 6.30pm, RTE One, until December 17

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