Wednesday 21 March 2018

Murphy looking to make waves in London

Swim star still has medal ambitions after a testing time, writes Marie Crowe

Olympic athletes are finely tuned specimens who dedicate their lives to top-level sport. Qualifying for the Games and competing at the best of their ability is what they're about; it consumes them.

Getting up six mornings a week at 4.30am for more than a decade isn't a big deal to 19-year-old Gráinne Murphy. She loves what she does, swimming, training, pushing herself to the limit. But what she doesn't care for is when her body lets her down and three months ago it did just that.

In April, the young swimmer got a sinus infection and missed a week of training. She recovered enough to get back into the pool but then out of nowhere seven days later she hit a wall. Extreme tiredness took over; Murphy was unable to get out of bed let alone train. She'd contracted a virus and with the Olympics just four months away it was a disaster.

Rest was prescribed and plenty of it, so for four weeks the dedicated swimmer could do nothing more than sleep. It was a waiting game; there was no cure for what Murphy had, she just had to hope the virus would leave her system soon. The plans she'd made for the year with her coach Ronald Claes went out the window. Her goals for London had to be reassessed but first she had to get better and get back in the pool.

Murphy found this setback hard to deal with, it was her worst nightmare. For almost four years, she'd trained for the Olympics but her journey started long before that. Originally from Ballinaboola in Wexford, she grew up 10 minutes' drive

from the pool in New Ross. Her older sister swam and Murphy accompanied her to training before school. She also did gymnastics and Irish dancing but was drawn to the pool.

Like most young athletes, Murphy got her first taste of success at the Community Games and schools galas. Her talent was obvious early on and at 13 she was invited to join the High Performance Centre in the University of Limerick. Initially, it was suggested that Murphy spend weekends in Limerick and train in Wexford during the week but for her that wasn't enough. She wanted to give it her all. So with that in mind, along with her mother she upped sticks and moved to Limerick. The plan was to try it out and see how it went, so they rented a house for a few months before deciding to stick with the programme and buy their current home.

It's a red-bricked semi-detached house in a Limerick city suburb close to the university. On the outside it looks like any other family home not the residence of one of Ireland's Olympic medal hopefuls. But once you step inside the front door the evidence of an athlete is everywhere. The clothes horse in the kitchen holds several swim-suits, hats and goggles; the hallway is home to gear bags with runners sticking out, it's a clean tidy and organised house, just what you'd expect from someone who gets up every morning at 4.30am.

It was undoubtedly a gamble and a huge sacrifice for the pair to relocate to Limerick but one that's already paid off. In 2009, when Murphy was 16, she won three gold medals and one bronze at the European Junior Championships. The following year she won a silver at the European seniors and then last December she qualified for the Olympics in the 800m freestyle. All the while she was attending Castletroy College and studying for her Leaving Cert which she staggered over two years. Not a bad return.

But aside from moving house another factor has played a part in Murphy's success: her dedication. She's up at 4.30am and training starts 40 minutes later in the University of Limerick.

Training begins with a bit of warming up and stretching and is usually followed by the treadmill and rowing machine. Next comes the pool for 90 minutes and by 7.0am her first session of the day is complete. Murphy will then return home for a couple of hours' sleep before heading back to the University at 2.30 for more gym training and another pool session. Her working day finishes at five or half past; she'll go home when she's done and is in bed by 8.30.

There are eight swimmers in the high-performance group at the university including open water swimmer Chris Bryan and Brian O'Sullivan, bronze medal winner at last year's Youth Olympics. They all work side by side; Murphy says they are like one big happy family. The Munster rugby team also train in UL and over the years the young swimmer has become firm friends with Paul O'Connell. He regularly meets her for coffee and gives her advice; she loves hearing about what it's like to be in a team sport but admits it wouldn't be for her.

"I like being individual, I think it's hard to have a good team sport," explains Murphy. "In swimming, it's a relay and if you want to go fast then everyone has to be in top shape at the one time. Every swimmer has their ups and downs so it's hard for it all to come together right on a certain day."

Although almost three months have passed since Murphy contracted the virus, she still has some bad days. For her it's about trying to monitor her body and manage her training accordingly and although that sounds straightforward enough for a top-level sportswoman who's used to pushing her body to the limit, it's not easy. "I'm so used to going hard at training that I find pulling back hard. But I know that I've to listen to my body and put a lot of emphasis on recovery."

Murphy is positive about her situation. She's put in the hard sessions and knows they will stand to her when she gets into the pool to race but she has to be realistic about her chances too. Her goals have changed; before they may have been about medals or times, now they are about gaining experience.

On Thursday, she will head to London, pick up her accreditation and check into her room. On Friday, she'll fly back home and continue with her preparation for the Games. She'll return to London on July 25 and race four days later. Her goals may have changed but her attitude and ability haven't -- a medal may not be a sure thing but if she wins one, it won't be a surprise.

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