Monday 22 January 2018

Coyle just a thoroughly 'modern' girl

Natalya's life has changed for the better as National Sports Campus provides one-stop shop for her riding, running, fencing, swimming and shooting, writes Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

LIFE has got a whole lot easier for Natalya Coyle this past year. That might sound like an exaggeration, considering she is a student who trains two or three times a day, six days a week and is also the in-demand poster girl for a sport – modern pentathlon – that is still in its fledgling state in Ireland.

As we speak, she has just finished a run in the Phoenix Park, returned to her city centre home to shower and changed into her swimming gear.

Next up she is headed to the National Aquatic Centre (NAC, in Abbotstown, near Blanchardstown) for a two-hour session with the local swimming club.

But the Meath multi-eventer's naturally sunny disposition insists that the fact that she's no longer having to drive to four different training locations around Dublin, like a demented lycra-clad taxi-driver, has made her hectic life a whole heap easier.

Training facilities for her five-event sport have improved considerably in the four short years that she's been involved in modern pentathlon, not least thanks to her own meteoric rise to finish ninth in London 2012 in the most quintessential and demanding of Olympic sports.

In 2012, Coyle was juggling her business studies in Trinity College with dashing from city-centre fencing practice to Santry Stadium (for running and shooting), the NAC (for swimming) and grabbing a bit of horse-riding practice whenever she could get it.

But Pentathlon Ireland have since completed a training centre for shooting and fencing on the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown and the recent completion there of a new training centre for Horse Sport Ireland is another huge bonus.

Everything Coyle needs to train for her five sports is now on the same campus that also houses the Institute of Sport which provides much of her medical and sports science support.

Throw in the fact that she has been able to move her college lectures into a night-class format twice a week and her life has become a lot less frenetic, though still just as physically taxing.

"It's brilliant now to be able to do all my training in basically the one place," she enthuses. "Before London I was flitting from place to place, all around Dublin. The M50 was my home!"

Her sport involves travelling to far-flung countries to compete in one-day events that combine fencing, shooting, horse-riding, swimming and running.

Dashing across the globe to such events sounds like the glamorous lifestyle of a professional stunt-woman or action-hero, but the reality is far more prosaic and so are some of her training facilities.

Ireland's new pentathlon training centre is a converted corrugated barn that was already on-site because the National Sports Campus is built on what used to be Department of Agriculture land.

To Coyle such a facility is still heaven and the fact that the NSC already houses the FAI and is developing pitches for the IRFU and GAA, means she is no longer whizzing around the perimeter of Irish sport, but is one of many high performance athletes who regularly bump into each other and share experiences in the elite hub in Abbotstown.

The logistics and sociability of her life have improved immeasurably.

She's got a sponsored car and a team of coaches and insists that the variety helps to make training easier, but she's still got to expend a lot of sweat, pain and hours in her relentless training schedule.

At its peak, her week involves four two-hour swimming sessions, five runs, four shooting practices, five fencing sessions, a couple of hours' horse riding and any additional training and treatments needed

A mid-December baby, she won't take a break for either her birthday or Christmas.

"On my birthday, I'll probably just be in the pool or out in a field somewhere running and I always train across Christmas, depending on what day of the week it falls," she reveals.

"I generally have Sunday off, but, whatever happens, I usually go for a run with my brother on the Hill of Tara on Christmas Day. I love the occasion, especially going home to my family for it, but otherwise it's just another training week."

Coyle was only 21, with just three years of international competition under her belt, when she became the first Irish modern pentathlete to qualify for the Olympics.

Three men had represented Ireland at the sport in Moscow 1980, but got in because of the political boycott and did not have to qualify.

She had made the finals (top 36) of the World Cup in the two previous years and finished top 20 both times, but went to London 2012 with a world ranking of 35, so finishing ninth exceeded all expectations.

Horse riding is the sport she needs to practice least, partly because it was her first love and she started out in 'Pony Club', that great games-based team relay competition for kids which is a key building block for so many of Ireland's top jockeys and show-jumpers.

Through 'Pony Club,' she got into tetrathlon (running, swimming, riding and shooting). Fencing was foreign to her, but, tellingly, the sport at which she has made most progress since she "accidentally" fell into modern pentathlon in her late teens.

The numbers taking up her burgeoning sport – a lot of them also through the equestrian route – have swelled since London 2012 which is already a blur disappearing in her constantly moving rearview mirror.

In the long wait to her event, she made new friends with many other individual athletes like Chloe Magee (badminton) and Annalise Murphy (sailing), played "a lot of pool" with the boxers and was completely star-struck by Katie Taylor.

If anything, Coyle's achievement in London was lost in the glare of the boxers' and Cian O'Connor's medals and the timing of her own event didn't help.

Women's modern pentathlon is the very last event on the Olympic timetable. That not only creates an interminable wait to compete, but means its media coverage is usually a bit of an afterthought, squeezed into the last-day reviews and medal counts.

And she jokes that she also has a bone to pick with Rory McIlroy whose USA PGA victory coincided with the last day of the Games and stole lots of headlines.

"It was a bit mad really," she recalls. "I finished competition around 5.30 or 6.0 and immediately jumped into a car and was whisked straight back to the Olympic village and just had time to change into my uniform and rush back out to the Closing Ceremony. It was all a bit frantic and I was so exhausted."

The exhaustion really hit her half-way through the past year, forcing her to take a break earlier than planned, but not before herself and Eanna Bailey won a silver medal in the mixed relay in Palm Sprints last February, Ireland's first World Cup medal in the sport.

She returned to full training in late August and her World Cup season will begin next March/April. There are European and World championships to look forward to next summer.

Doing so well on her Olympic debut has only fuelled her ambitions further and convinced her to work harder.

"Fencing will always be one of the sports I work hardest at because it's the last sport I picked up and it's very technical," Coyle explains.

"But, over the next two years, I'm going to work a lot on my swimming because that was my weakest event in London. I'll eventually be up to six to eight hours swimming and, obviously, a pure swimmer does a lot more, but that's a lot for me with my other disciplines."

She still laughs at some of the things she gets asked, like when she visited a school recently as part of a Sky Sports schools' mentoring project.

"Kids come out with the funniest questions!" she exclaims. "We'd done our usual presentation, the whole 'six keys to success' thing and this little girl asked me what colour I paint my nails before each competition?

"It probably didn't help that there was a photo up of me in the Olympics with my nails painted bright pink. She was like 'your nails look great there!'

For all her sportiness, Coyle is a girly girl who loves her fashion, not least because she spends so much of her days in tracksuits.

Her lifestyle and ultra-competitive nature makes her the perfect role-model for young girls and has seen her also chosen to promote the 'Pumped' schools health initiative.

But her training and travelling schedule also means hers is a particularly expensive sport and, even with top funding from the Sports Council, she could do with more sponsors.

A recent article that labelled her 'the Tayto heiress' didn't impress her and produces a heavy sigh when mentioned.

Thirty-three years ago her father was growing potatoes for Tayto; now his Largo Foods company owns Tayto, Hunky Dory and multiple other snack products as well as a theme-park.

She may have inherited her drive and ambition from him, but Coyle is fiercely independent and wants to be judged on her own merits.

"I didn't really enjoy that description because I do sport and I'm very much my own person," she admits.

"Obviously, I love my family and am very close to them and when I get time off, they're the first people I want to be with. But, as an athlete, you want to be independent and do everything for yourself."

Irish Independent

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