Monday 20 May 2019

Athletics: Already aiming for gold in Rio

Lanigan-O'Keeffe relentlessly driving towards his 2016 Olympic target

John O'Brien

IN the bustling UCD sports hall, he's easy to pick out. He's the one standing at a table facing the wall, holding a gun in his right hand which he is pointing at an imaginary target a few inches away.

Ignoring the puzzled stares of those around him, he keeps his arm steady, counting down 40 seconds, before he gently squeezes and pulls the trigger. For the next 30 minutes he will be a perfect study of intense concentration.

Sometimes he'll skip a few laps around the table to increase his heart-rate before he picks up his gun, seeking to replicate the conditions he faces during competition. But mostly, it is just him and his gun and the imaginary target. The gun isn't loaded, of course. This is dry fire: code for a brutally tedious process he endures three times a week because he knows it will bring his dream that bit closer towards realisation.

"It's all about concentrating on technique," he explains. "Breathe, line up the sight, squeeze, pull. Over and over and over. There's no outcome. All you think about is the process. You're just drilling it into your mind. So when you are in competition it should come automatically. Click, click, click. It just runs off. It's really boring but it has to be done."

Usually, he's too busy to contemplate boredom. On an average morning he'll spend an hour running in Herbert Park, another hour in the gym before an afternoon attending lectures for the sports science degree he figures, cheerfully, will take him six years to complete. Somewhere he'll cadge a power nap if he can before the really serious business of the day begins.

Four evenings a week he'll spend two hours training with Earl McCarthy's talented swimming squad in the new 50m campus pool before finishing with a two-hour fencing session in a hall upstairs. Sometime after 10 he'll reach home, fix himself a snack and then head for bed. As soon as his head hits the pillow, he knows he will be gone. Exhausted but satisfied. The dream that sustains him drawing one day nearer.

You don't really need to ask him why he does what he does. The target on the wall might be imaginary, but the one inside his head is very real: Rio, 2016. Each part of his hectic schedule is geared towards hitting his peak on a single day almost four years down the line and the pressure he is heaping on his young shoulders seems like no burden at all. People tell him he should be chilling, enjoying student life, but locked into an ongoing process, he can't get that mentality.

"If you want it to happen, you have to put it together," he says. "It takes a long time. So I'm aiming for it now. It creeps up. It keeps coming. I remember four years ago, I was kind of thinking about London. I remember saying to myself, relax it's ages away, but it came faster than I expected. You have to be ready when it comes."

Arthur Lanigan-O'Keeffe is a rare beast in Irish Olympic sport -- a modern pentathlete. The pentathlon consists of five disciplines Irish athletes should be competent in: fencing, shooting, swimming, running and riding. Yet before he and Natalya Coyle competed in London this summer, you had to trawl back to the disrupted Moscow Olympics of 1980 for the only time Ireland sent pentathletes to the Games. The parent body was only established in 2005.

He's a 20-year-old in a hurry, eager to put his sport on the map. By not just qualifying for Rio in four years' time, but winning gold as well. He's not afraid to say it. He doesn't flinch from ambition. What was it one of his sporting heroes, the distance runner Steve Prefontaine, used to say? "The best pace is a suicide pace and today looks like a good day to die." He loves those words. You can't sit around waiting for things to happen.

Right now he is probably the hardest-working Irish athlete you are likely to meet. It isn't difficult to explain.

* * * * *

Before she knew anything else about him, Carolyn Lanigan-O'Keeffe knew she and her husband, Stephen, had bred one incredibly tough kid. As a boy, Arthur didn't appear to have any particular talents, but he had buckets of stamina and he put his heart and soul into everything he did. "Find something that switches him on," a specialist told her, "and he'll probably be very good at it."

Finding that switch was the challenge. From his earliest movements, it was obvious Arthur lacked co-ordination skills. That didn't suggest a lifetime of sporting achievement. At school, lessons would become a chore. The harder he tried to concentrate, the more blurry everything became. Although never diagnosed, he looks back now and figures he was dyslexic. "Useless at everything," he smiles. Or so he thought anyway.

Like any concerned mother, Carolyn searched desperately for answers. She heard that swimming was a good activity for kids with poor co-ordination so every weekend, despite Arthur's protests, she would drive him to their local pool in Kilkenny. "Every Saturday morning," he winces. "I hated it. I'd cry for an hour before it. I just did not want to be there."

And then, suddenly, the switch tripped. He found a coach he liked and a rhythm slicing through water that came more naturally than on dry land. By then the family had moved to Thomastown and Carolyn had become one of those mothers whose first duty of the day was to rise at 4.30 every morning and drive their offspring to the pool for training, wondering what strain of madness she had unleashed.

He swam until he was 12, winning races and getting better by the year, until they sent him to boarding school at Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick and things became tougher. "I'd have a taxi waiting a few times a week to take me to Limerick swimming club. But it didn't work. It was too stressful. After six months I quit and just swam at weekends in UL. After a while that died down too."

The school encouraged him to play rugby and he showed aptitude for that too, making the cut for the Munster under-16 development squad. One day one of his rugby coaches took him to UL for physiological testing and he ended up being drafted into an elite Triathlon squad. The thought of cycling on the narrow roads around Limerick filled Carolyn with horror, though. She begged him not to go down that road.

Her own background was in pony riding and during summer holidays Arthur would spend his days at Warrington Pony Club, competing in tetrathlon -- basically a modern pentathlon with no fencing. She remembers him winning his first competition at 14, seeing a spark in his eye she wouldn't notice again until last September when he won an historic bronze medal at the World Junior Championships in Poland. "As if you could see the speech bubble coming out of his mouth," she says. "Saying I can do this. I'm good at this."

In Glenstal, the monks would regale her with stories of her son's grim determination. Because the pentathlon involved a 3km cross-country run and he had little running experience, they would see him each morning as they gathered for their morning prayers, pounding out laps of the school grounds, trying to cajole other kids to join him, establishing the first running club in the school.

One of the monks had told Carolyn about a World Cup pentathlon schools event taking place in Millfield in Somerset and, without Arthur's knowledge, she entered him. He made the journey suspiciously but, once at Millfield, he was spellbound. The school was a magnet for many of the world's most ambitious sports stars, an oasis of facilities for an aspiring Olympian. And at 16, that's how he had taken to seeing himself: an aspiring Olympian.

"It's an amazing place," he says. "Millfield had nine Olympians in Beijing, for example, and would've beaten Ireland on the medals table. You meet people there and they go 'So what sport do you do?' You'd have a Formula One racer, a skier and a tennis player. Another guy would be one of the best young squash players in the world. Everybody had their thing, their own focus. It was an incredible environment to be in."

In the competition he thinks he finished, maybe, third last but it didn't matter. He had found a place that enthralled him and finally put to bed the complex matter of his sporting identity. He knew what he wanted to be now. He went home, made his peace with rugby and begged his parents to give him the chance to finish his education in Millfield. For an average hard-working family, however, the cost was far too prohibitive.

He wouldn't be easily dissuaded, though. Even now Carolyn still has some of the text messages he would regularly send from Limerick, begging for the chance to go to England. "If I get there," he'd say, "I know I'll make it." His only chance lay in securing a scholarship and, to achieve it, he had to impress the school's pentathlon coach, Drew Wilsher, who also happened to be the Great Britain national coach.

"He goes, 'Okay, what's your PB over 2km?' I said 6.50 or something. 'Right, you run 6.20 and you get the scholarship'. On your own with the wind blowing and the rain pelting down. I did it and finished nowhere near the time but he said it doesn't matter. He was looking for the response. If I'd said no, I couldn't do it that would've been it. What he was looking for was attitude."

He spent two and a half years in England and learned how to be an elite athlete. He checks the graph of his progress now: relentlessly upward. Thirty-ninth in the under-16 European Championships in 2007. Thirty-seventh in the under-18s the following year. Sixteenth in the under-21 World Championships in 2010, 14th in the European under-21s last year. Bronze in the World Juniors in September.

In two years his senior world ranking has rocketed from 170th to 39th. And he insists this is just the beginning. He qualified for London only because a Polish rider ahead of him got booted out after a positive drugs test and he relished the experience. Not because he finished 25th -- how could he be happy with that? -- but because it gave him an invaluable taste of what things will be like in four years' time when he will be aiming for gold in Rio.

It helps that he is not alone on the road. For the past few years Coyle and Eanna Bailey have been constant companions, serious performers in their own right, and Carolyn has been there too, as a qualified riding coach. When it occurred to her that she always had one free day during competition, she took a course to become a qualified physio and now doubles as the team's masseur. In a young, cash-strapped organisation, every small sacrifice counts.

They all add up. It amuses them when people hear the double-barrelled surname and instantly imagine a life of unremitting privilege and endless leisure time. They wish. Carolyn, as it happens, is neither a Lanigan nor an O'Keeffe. The name goes back generations in Stephen's family and both are normal hard-working parents, simply trying to give their children a good start in life. When she travels with the Irish team, Carolyn does so at her own expense and, in non-Olympic years, she will ration her trips on a needs basis.

It's an age-old story of sporting obsession, of a child born with a relentless appetite for hard work who just needed to find the right switch to unlock his potential. "The plan is to be inside the world's top 30 this year," he says now calmly. "Next year to be in the top 20, then two years before Rio, to be winning medals at World and European Championships. That's always been the target. London was always experience, but Rio is the thing."

The point in the distance relentlessly driving him on. Four years away? He's already counting down the days. Trust him. It will be bearing down upon us quicker than you imagine.

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