Tuesday 12 December 2017

Grainne Murphy back in pool and loving every minute after year of turmoil

Back in the pool and now a regular college student, life has finally resumed some normality for Grainne Murphy, who would prefer to forget the London Olympics.

Despite having to listen to many people gush uncontrollably about the sporting year that was 2012 during the recent 'review season', she's not among the hysterical 'best Olympics ever!' brigade. That is not just a measure of her own traumatic experience but also of her steely maturity and ambition.

Right now the Wexford teenager, who turns 20 in March, is only looking forward – that's not surprising given the bout of glandular fever that left Murphy still sick and below par when London's great five-ring circus rolled around.

For Irish swimming's golden girl, who has won three European senior medals (and four junior), her only dip in the Olympic pool saw her finish an unprecedented last in her 400m freestyle heat, nearly 10 seconds slower than her personal best.

It confirmed that she wasn't going to be able to do herself justice in her 800m speciality and she took the admirably mature decision to pull out.

Many athletes, with essentially an access-all-areas pass to the greatest sports show on earth, would have chosen to stay and squeeze what joy they could out of it, but Murphy wouldn't contemplate acting the Olympic tourist. After watching what remained of the swimming, she flew home a week early with her parents.

However, her traumatic year didn't end there. Swim Ireland subsequently let her highly-rated Belgian coach Ronald Claes go. They haven't yet replaced him at their training camp in the University of Limerick and there has been heavy speculation that Murphy will follow him or go to train in America.

Apart from insisting that she has not contemplated moving abroad, Murphy refuses to be drawn into that controversy, politely declining to even answer an enquiry as to whether she has spoken to Claes recently.

Murphy has always been cautious in her press dealings, so it is hard to know how significant it is that a Swim Ireland official sits in on this interview.

But she is prepared to reveal the extent of her illness and recovery and her immediate plans. After two months of complete rest, she has finally got the green light to resume training and is back in her old pool in New Ross with local coach Fran Ronan.

It's seven years since she trained locally because, when she was 13, her parents bought a house in Limerick to facilitate her training. But Murphy says it serves her needs at present.

"It's a pool and water, and right now it doesn't matter that it's 25 metres," she insists. "If I need long-course (50m) training in the future, I'll deal with that then, but I'll definitely be in New Ross for the next while.

"I work really well with Fran, Swim Ireland have been very supportive and we're working with them and the Institute of Sport a lot at the moment to get the programme in place."

Murphy also split her Leaving Cert over two years to facilitate her gruelling training regime and was training full-time by the time the London Games swung around.

Now she has started college, studying business on Carlow IT's extended campus at St Peter's, Wexford, and is loving it, despite recently sitting her first two exams.

"I needed to get an education," she laughs, describing her new routine, which, to her delight, involves training starts at 6.0 in the morning, giving her an extra hour's sleep from her previous regime.

"I needed to get my head back in the books. It's the first time I've studied since the Leaving and I actually love it, and Carlow IT have been very good in facilitating me," she says.

She actually started college 10 weeks later than her new classmates due to her recovery from the virus she first picked up last March. Murphy seems remarkably sanguine now, but how close was she to not travelling to London at all?

"With glandular fever, it's very hard to know if you're recovered. Some people take two years, others take a year, others are over it in weeks," she reflects.

"It was my decision to go and it was very hard to tell because on your good days, you would be good, and I was managing my good days really well."

But just how bad were the rough days? "It depended really. You're tired all the time and you just can't perform, but I always went to training," she stresses.

"I always turned up and did something, whether it was a recovery session or something I was going to get something out of. I kept training.

"I had a few bad days when I was very tired, but once I was awake I was awake!"

So how quickly on her Olympic debut did she realise there was no gas in the tank?

"I didn't really, I knew it wasn't a top swim but I had different things to concentrate on during it. I didn't really notice anyone else, I never do. I just concentrated on my own race and, on that day, that was the best I could do.

"I finished, I touched the wall like everyone else, I was at the Olympic Games and I gave it my best shot," she says firmly.

After her 'swim down' in the warm-up pool, she talked to her coach and Swim Ireland's high-performance director, Peter Banks, and spent the rest of the day with her parents while also consulting with Sonia O'Sullivan (chef de mission) and boxing guru Billy Walsh.

"They said to go with what your gut is telling you, to make your decision based on what you feel. Everyone was on the same page, that you have to do what you have to do," she says.

After a break that included trips to Dubai and Lanzarote, Murphy looks tanned and relaxed now, but was she not an emotional wreck afterwards?

"I think I was actually prepared for it, coming home. I knew I was sick and needed to get checked so I always had one thing after another to get on top of, and we always get a break anyway after a major competition."

She has been healed, too, by the massive public support and sympathy, especially in her native Wexford.


"I feel good now, I'm back in the pool and I'm just taking it day-by-day, setting little goals each month to try to achieve and not thinking too far ahead," says Murphy who was recently named a sporting ambassador for Wexford County Council.

As it transpired, the defending Olympic champion in Murphy's 800m speciality – British darling Becky Adlington – had to settle for bronze behind new US wonder-kid Katie Ledecky (15). Did Ledecky surprise her?

"Not really, in an Olympic year you never know who's going to step up and we saw her times at the American trials. Ledecky wanted it more than anybody else and she's a fighter," Murphy notes. "She got in there and she fought with them from the start."

That's a pretty perfect description of Murphy herself, which should help her as she attempts to leave London 2012 and all the ripples that followed it firmly in her wake.

Irish Independent

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