Friday 17 January 2020

'I can see how it happens, if they think they're going to get away with it': Former Olympian Derval O'Rourke on performance-enhancing drugs

For the next month Derval O'Rourke will be glued to her TV screen and the 2016 Olympic Games… with a box of home-made granola treats in hand. Here the former Olympic hurdler tells our reporter why, in order to compete at the highest level, she had to learn to cook - and shares exclusive recipes from her new book

'Fit Foodie': Derval O'Rourke wears: Purple cap sleeve dress, €1,670, Roland Mouret, available exclusively at Costume, Dublin. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
'Fit Foodie': Derval O'Rourke wears: Purple cap sleeve dress, €1,670, Roland Mouret, available exclusively at Costume, Dublin. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Derval and husband Peter O'Leary on their wedding day in 2013
Derval in the semi-final of the Women’s 100m Hurdles at the London Olympics in 2012
Derval O'Rourke winning silver in the Women's 100m Hurdles at the European Athletics Championships in 2006

Maggie Armstrong

Thirty-three is an alarmingly young age to retire from a job you love. Derval O'Rourke - Olympian and world champion in sprint hurdles - took off her spiky boots in 2014 and was forced, like every athlete must, to recreate herself. Now 35, she has become a player development manager for the Munster rugby squad, a cookery writer and a public voice for better eating. This week she released her second cookbook, The Fit Foodie.

You, dear reader, own many cookbooks and can find recipes everywhere you look - in these pages, or on your phone from your favourite chefs, or if you switch on daytime TV, or go to the shops for milk. There will always be someone, cooking a dish and telling you how. So why should you choose this book?

"With any of my work, I ask myself, do I think there's real integrity behind it? Is this something I would want to spend my own money on, and would I be happy with it?" O'Rourke says, over a virgin mojito in a bar in Dublin.

Her eyes are lavishly made-up for our photoshoot and a silky shirt falls around her lean, freckled arms. She is instantly warm and good-natured, with that delightful Cork-girl way of saying "yah!" She speaks as you would expect a sprint hurdling champion to speak, rarely stopping for breath.

Derval and husband Peter O'Leary on their wedding day in 2013
Derval and husband Peter O'Leary on their wedding day in 2013

There is a touch of silliness that is very endearing - she apologises for being "rambly" and gasps as she describes meeting one cookery peer, Roz Purcell: "I was like, oh my God, she's so beautiful, I was just staring at her beautiful face. I actually kinda felt like telling her, and then I was like, I'm sure people tell her… I would totally be happy going to her house for dinner, maybe she'll invite me? I'd totally go."

Two years ago, just retired, O'Rourke decided this cookbook was going to have "integrity". She was newly married to Olympic sailor Peter O'Leary, pregnant with their first child and cooking in a box kitchen when she created the recipes.

The book is straightforward, or as O'Rourke puts it, "even slightly more simplistic" than her first book, Food for the Fast Lane. There are freezer symbols, clock symbols, nutritional breakdowns and calorie counts, with a focus on speed that befits someone whose success was once measured out in milliseconds.

Experienced cooks may well baulk at the simplicity of the recipes - to me, the book seems perfect for anyone who has somehow reached adulthood without ever having to lift a finger in the kitchen, those who, as O'Rourke writes inside, "might not know which end is up with an avocado".

Who is her target reader? "Anybody who is busy but likes to eat really healthy, tasty food and has a really balanced approach," says O'Rourke. "It's for someone like my mum, who wants to go for a walk, or for someone like me, who wants to go to the Olympics."

She reminds me that her first book became a number-one best-seller. "People used to tell me all the time, 'I can't cook' and now they tell me all the time that I've taught them to cook, which is like a ridiculously big compliment."

Derval O'Rourke wears: Blue structured dress, €270, Reiss; runners, Derval’s own, from Skechers. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Derval O'Rourke wears: Blue structured dress, €270, Reiss; runners, Derval’s own, from Skechers. Photo: Naomi Gaffey

If there is one thing I - a person who once cooked - like about the book, it's that it doesn't align itself with any fad, such as veganism, or nose-to-tail eating, or traditional Irish, or the dreaded 'clean eating' of today's Instagram dolls.

O'Rourke's larder is fad-proof. You'll find a melange of ingredients from tinned sweetcorn to agave syrup, coconut oil to full-fat milk, chia seeds to cheddar cheese.

In the book, you'll find recipes you may have thought you didn't need: lasagne, mash, leek and potato soup. Some recipes appear to have been pulled together in an intense state of pregnancy, like the tuna pesto pasta (an unorthodox mix, with scallions). The recipe for spicy eggs mex was actually invented when her baby was a week overdue, she tells me - she cooked it and the following day, gave birth.

There are recipes that I would like to make, such as cocoa and hazelnut bombs. Most of all I like the upbeat, wholesome person that comes through in this pretty book featuring a large helping of pictures of O'Rourke cooking, running, feeding hens and frankly, winning us over with her wide grin and gloriously strong limbs.

She has carved a niche - the "fit foodie" is someone with a "balanced approach" to eating who goes on "fit dates" with friends.

A niche is important: like many cookery writers these days, she has never run a commercial kitchen, never worked under pressure to feed many mouths food they are paying for.

Derval in the semi-final of the Women’s 100m Hurdles at the London Olympics in 2012
Derval in the semi-final of the Women’s 100m Hurdles at the London Olympics in 2012

How does she feel, faced with her chef competitors? Winning all that bronze, silver and gold must leave a person competitive. "I definitely wouldn't be taking on Derry Clarke." She pushes away her virgin cocktail. She feels "shy" sometimes in the hard-bitten society of celebrity chefs. Starting out: "I was a little bit intimidated by the cookery world, because everybody knows me for running, so I think I was a little bit worried that people wouldn't think [my cookbook] was good enough.

"I know it's not fine dining," she says, and sighs. "I want to cook food that people would eat a bowl of, with a spoon, and that they love it and it's really handy. I want to cook food that can be put in some Tupperware in the freezer, that people will eat all the time and bring to work."

She talks about batch-cooking with something like passion.

This here is less a "chef" than an old-fashioned home-economist; a mother, who cooks for sustenance, not for show. She describes herself as a "messy" cook who hates washing up (her husband does it). Writing the recipes, she even got out her "scribbled over home-ec book", and re-educated herself on freezing.

"It's very practical. Which isn't very sexy! But the reality is that most people, day-to-day, aren't very 'cheffy'. They just want to eat healthy, tasty food."

Celebrity cooking on TV, she believes, "it's aspirational cooking. There has to be a sense of reality to [cooking]. I'm all about reality."

Derval O'Rourke winning silver in the Women's 100m Hurdles at the European Athletics Championships in 2006
Derval O'Rourke winning silver in the Women's 100m Hurdles at the European Athletics Championships in 2006

There is a post-war feel to what Derval O'Rourke does, a salute to the efforts of our grandmothers and Mrs Beeton and those domestic economy bibles that sit unravelling on our mothers' shelves. What does she hate most about cooking?

"I hate waste. I hate food waste, hate throwing stuff away, the whole wastefulness of it!"

With her Olympic sailor husband, her baby girl, her hens and her dogs and all those rustic-wood surfaces in the photos, O'Rourke appears to have an ideal, most Pinterestable life. But she muddles along, too. These recipes were all made in her mother-in-law's house, O'Rourke stopping six or seven times during each shoot to breastfeed her then three-month-old baby.

She has been working from a "tiny kitchen" in Cork for two years while they build their house. She lives by her own belief: "If you have a hob, you can cook."

That she has heart and pure good sense shimmers through when I ask which recipe she is proudest of. Not something involving skill with a German cleaver knife, designer vegetables or flair, no: "Overnight oats." That's porridge.

"This morning driving up, I had a Tupperware, with overnight oats and, like, strawberries, chia seeds, toasted hazelnuts, and a little bit of agave syrup. It's not complicated, but it makes a difference to your life."

As for that leek and potato soup. What has it got that you won't find elsewhere?

"Did I put chives on top of it? Yah. That's probably the only difference. I just love fresh herbs."

In the winter, after a run, there is nothing greater than leek and potato soup, she adds.

"I ate terrible food at first," says O'Rourke of her early years an athlete. The daughter of Eva and Terry, with sister Clodagh, she grew up in Douglas, Co Cork, "with an Irish mammy who did everything for me".

When she was 16, she got a job in Michael's restaurant on Patrick Street, which she recollects in notes of wonder: "The stuff they had, like parmesan cheese and onion sourdough bread!"

Years later, she would travel the cities of the world competing in games and become fascinated by food. But at 18, in college in Dublin on a sports scholarship, she ate "chips and beans and sausages," frozen pizzas and other delicacies from the UCD canteen.

"And then, what happened was I got really slow." Irish convenience food made her lag: "I didn't run very well."

Weeks before the 2004 Olympics in Athens, she was holed up in a hospital in Thessaloniki in Greece with severe food poisoning and appendicitis. In Athens, she gave the "worst performance" of her career and arrived home skinny and unhealthy.

She wrote a shy email to her "hero", Sonia O'Sullivan, asking her what she should she do. O'Sullivan replied, suggesting she look at all parts of the "puzzle", including what she ate and how she slept.

O'Rourke made some basic changes.

"I stopped eating s**** and started cooking everything from scratch."

After the London Olympics, she spent a month in the Dublin Cookery School, taught by Sandy and John Wyer (of restaurant Forest Avenue) - they, together with Darina Allen, Rachel Allen and Trish Deseine are O'Rourke's "heroes" in cooking.

Ten years ago, at the World Indoor Championships in Moscow, O'Rourke reached the peak of her 12-year career.

"I brought my own snacks with me. I had baked a banana bread and I had made flapjack granola bars. I brought them with me through the airport."

She remembers eating half a granola bar before the race, knowing for certain she would win. When she got the gold, she stunned the other athletes.

"They were like, 'You totally pulled it off.' I was like, 'Yah, I'm totally world champion.'"

The dark side to all this granola is that O'Rourke found food while other competitors found performance-enhancing drugs.

In 2010, at the European Championships in Barcelona, she won a silver medal, beaten by a hair's breath by a Turkish pole of muscle, Nevin Yanit. The same Yanit beat her again in 2013 at the European Indoors. Weeks later, Yanit failed a drug test. O'Rourke had been cheated.

When we met for this interview, it was still unclear to what extent the Russian team would be banned from the Rio Olympics because of its appalling doping record. O'Rourke retired from sport in 2014 because, she says, "I actually was a little bit jaded by it."

"I remember definitely having times where I thought, this is not a level playing field and I don't like that. But I also remember thinking, like, the only lane I can control is the lane I run in. I'm in a lane, I've got 10 hurdles. There's nothing else I can do about any of the other lanes.

"There were very few occasions in my career where I felt like I got robbed by drugs cheats. There were like, two or three. Those people ended up testing positive.

"You can't consume yourself with things you can't control," she insists. "No giving out about it or getting consumed by it would have made me run any faster or fix it."

Can she understand what would lead an athlete to pump in a few steroids, knowing the risk to their good name and future, the betrayal of their supporters and themselves?

"I can see how it happens, if they think they're going to get away with it. People cheat in loads of walks of life, unfortunately.

"I don't think the sanctions are great enough. [In Ireland] it's not state-sponsored like it was in Russia, there is no support for taking drugs in Ireland. If you're in Russia, and everyone's taking drugs, you're only going to benefit by being in that system, unless you get caught."

She seems mellow about the medals she lost - even when I mention "that Turkish girl" she just rolls her lovely eyes.

"For me, I never started out in athletics thinking I want to be world champion. I started out going, 'I wonder how fast I can go.' That was genuinely what interested me. It ended up being very fast. Not many people could beat me in the world."

O'Rourke hates needles, and found it "ironic" and "frustrating" that she regularly had to get up at 6am to give urine and blood tests while her rivals could skip off to the Olympics on drugs.

"I viewed athletics like the love of my life. Other people look at it as a business decision, that 'I can make this amount of money from taking these drugs.' And that's how it's justified. Especially if you're in a country that seems to turn a blind eye.

"Ireland's gold standard. If there was an Olympic gold medal for drug testing, Ireland would totally win it."

Her wholesomeness might make you hang your head in shame, it is so complete. Is she really as spotless as this cookbook makes her out (bearing a tray of lasagne in her powerful arms, flexing her considerable quads or laughing with her baby)?

"I'm very," she muses, "not boring - but I work a lot, on things that I really like and believe in, and then I just do… not very exciting things. I walk my dogs and play with my baby, and hang out with people."

She loves nothing better than to lace up her runners and run for 20 minutes, even in the pouring rain. Running, she says: "I feel quite free. I feel like it's one of the most freeing things."

She adores wine and coffee, and believes everyone should eat chocolate cake.

Did she have a wild youth?

"No," she says without regret.

Did she at least embarrass herself in nightclubs once or twice when she came to Dublin for college?

"No, isn't that so boring?"

She preferred elite athletics, and there was "no better feeling" than wearing the green at the Olympics.

"It's like being invited to the best party in the world and being the most important person at it."

Golf pros Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry both pulled out of the Olympics this summer, due to fears of Zika contraction, clearing a spot for Padraig Harrington. Would O'Rourke do a Rory or a Padraig? A Padraig, she answers in a burst of: "I'd still be there, without a doubt. I'd be there in a heartbeat."

She "wouldn't even think about" Zika.

She still gets "goose bumps" watching the 100-metre hurdles. She is avidly following the progress of 24-year-old Irish sprinter Ciara Mageean, who will compete in the 1500m next Saturday.

"I always want more girls to do sport," she says. "Because sport is great for girls. It instils great confidence in them. That confidence doesn't just come from anywhere. As a girl, sometimes you have to work harder for the same recognition."

She is clearly besotted as she talks about her own baby girl, calling her "my baby" throughout.

"Oh my god she's amazing, everything about Dafne is amazing. I'm totally obsessed with her. In a good, healthy way."

As O'Rourke gets ready to hit the long, boring motorway back to Cork, I ask if anything makes her angry. She says no.

"I'm very glass half full."

Is there anything she would like to change about Irish food?

"If I had a magic wand… every child should have to learn to cook at school, I think it's a life skill."

Then she says something everyone reading should probably write down on a piece of paper and stick in their back pocket, instead of buying The Fit Foodie and getting freezer tips.

"You eat every day, so you need to be able to nourish yourself. There's something very empowering about being able to cook for yourself. You're not putting your nourishment into someone else's hands."

She makes an agile step for her car where she has stored a Tupperware of cocoa bombs.

Photography: Naomi Gaffey

Styling: Corina Gaffey

Hair: Catriona Farrell for Peter Mark Make-up: Jessica Corbally using Flormar Cover image: Textured fit and flare dress, €240, Reiss; runners Derval’s own from Skechers Shot on location at The Design Yard, 15 Erne Street Upper, Dublin 2

'The Fit Foodie' is published by Penguin Life at €20.99.

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