No space for surrender
Rower Paul Griffin has swapped his oars for skis in his biggest test of endurance yet, writes John O'Brien
THE early morning cold has seeped through to his bones. The air is so thin it burns his lungs at each gasping mouthful. His skis are lead weights in his arms, his thighs so heavy the snow feels like treacle under his feet. He hauls his frame through it, inch by painful inch, knowing what it must be like to be a character in a Samuel Beckett play. Can't go on. Must go on.
He is in Schilpario, a tiny village high in the Italian Alps. The etiquette is unfamiliar to him here. The locals know all about the brutality of cross-country skiing, how it can wreck a man and turn him into an empty shell. On the bad days even those at the top sometimes cry enough and save themselves for another day. No one holds it against them. It is the sport's unwritten code.
Paul Griffin must learn the hard way. It is February 2009, the first race of his life. He has nothing to bring only his novicey enthusiasm and the mentality that brought him two World Championship medals and to two Olympic Games as a rower. In the rowing lexicon there was no space for surrender. No matter how severe the pain or how high your heart-rate surged, you rowed to the line and fell in a heap once you got there.
But rowing events took place over 2kms: the pain came in short, sharp bursts. Here he has a looping track of 15kms to complete, a series of hard flats and punishing gradients that sap his strength, interspersed with 120-degree turns and rapid descents that force you to concentrate so hard your brain hurts. It is 40-something minutes of unrelenting torture on such pristine, innocent-looking terrain.
He won't give up, though. Can't give up. He presses on, pushes his skis into the snow and herringbones his way up the steepest hill. And they love him for it. Word spreads around the course about the guy smashing the pain barrier to reach the finish. They gather around him and applaud as he passes. He's too busy fighting the agony to check if they are taking the piss.
He finishes 59th of 60 competitors, 15 minutes behind the winner. At the finish he is swamped by reporters. He tells them who he is and where he is from. "Ah Munster rugby," one of them says. "The fighting spirit." The next day he is a story in the local newspaper. He asks a friend to translate the headline: "The alien from Mars on snow." He sees where they are going with this.
Two weeks later, he is in Liberec in the Czech Republic for the World Championships. It is a 50km race and after five he is spat out the back. Again the crowd have converged around him. He hears strangers shouting his name, ringing cowbells in his face. And suddenly it dawns on him who he is. To them he is an entertaining diversion. A cult figure, an exotica.
He's Eddie the Eagle.
A part of him doesn't mind. Three years earlier he'd climbed to the top of the ski jump in St Moritz and his head spun when he surveyed the drop, the people milling around like little ants at the landing area below. He understood why Michael Edwards' legs were shaking before he made his leap into immortality in Calgary in 1988. To even contemplate it took guts.
Still, respect could only go so far. The simple buzz of competing, the honour of being a cult hero. He could leave that. He knew he had to get home and start at the beginning. Find the knowledge and devour it. Hone his technique. Sharpen his fitness. The next time he returned he would be sliding around the course: slicker, faster, smoother. A real racer.
Eddie the fucking Eagle? Paul Griffin would show them
* * * * *
YOU'RE Paul Griffin. From a town in the south-west of a small island on the north-western edge of Europe. You're five-foot nine and a half inches tall. People laugh about that half an inch. They don't understand how vital it is. All your life you have been competing against guys six foot or taller. You needed to work harder than them. You needed to have something more.
You remember when Harald Jahrling took over as Ireland rowing coach in 2005. Not everybody liked the harshness of his methods. You saw something, though. Jahrling had won gold medals for East Germany at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics. He knew all about winning and not flinching, not being afraid to want to be a champion. You felt there had to be something there to tap into.
You remember how he would psyche people out in the gym. One day you were doing max testing during a weights session in Limerick. Jahrling says you are going to lift 100kgs even though you have already failed twice at 97 and a half. You know he is putting it up to you. "If you can't do it when it's easy," he will say, "how the fuck will you do it when it's hard?"
That winter Jahrling arranged a winter skiing camp at St Moritz, figuring the change would induce freshness in the camp. The first winter passed inconsequentially enough. The following year, though, you found yourself more at ease on the snow. The punishing six-hour days didn't seem like a bind anymore. You started to enjoy it.
Being Harald, he had to arrange a little race among the squad. You won, of course, and he presented you with a sleeveless ski jacket as a prize, a trophy you would have to defend when you raced again two days later. Jahrling suggested you might have an aptitude for the sport, that it was something to think about in the days beyond rowing. Like that, he lit the torch.
So in Beijing you approach Stephen Martin of the Olympic Council of Ireland and tell him about your plans to qualify for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in February 2010. You're not sure if you've made an impression but, a few months later, Martin puts you in touch with Rory Morrish, a Corkman who raced at the Turin Olympics in 2006. Morrish, in turn, gives you a number for a Swedish friend of his, Rolf Hagstrom.
By December, you are on your way to Sweden to meet Rolf who introduces you to what seems like every coach and athlete in the country. The first thing you learn is that Rolf knows everybody. You grab bits and pieces with guys here and there. You watch them like a hawk, their technique on the snow, how they warm down afterwards, what they eat in the canteen. Every day you learn a hundred new things.
Back home in Killarney, you immerse yourself in books and watch countless videos of the great Norwegian racer, Bjorn Daehlie. In February, you attend an FIS development camp in the Czech Republic. You learn that rowing opens doors for you. You meet a guy at a race in Sweden who happens to be a former rower who owns a chain of hotels around the country. Now you have free lodgings in Sweden whenever you wish.
The more you learn about the sport, the simpler rowing seems. You learn that cross-country skiers are among the hardest and most respected endurance athletes of all. You learn that Daehlie has the highest VO2-max ever recorded. You learn why the Inuits have so many different words for snow and how the texture changes every place you go: wet, dry, warm, cold and so on.
You learn too about the multi-million euro business that is waxing. It is the black art of the sport. The wax is melted onto the base of the skis, ironed and dried before being scraped off. The process is repeated up to 10 times. The top guys are notoriously secretive when it comes to divulging their secrets. At first you wondered if it wasn't all bullshit, but Rolf assures you it can save you as much as two minutes in a 15k race and you'll take that any day of the week.
Rolf used to wax for the Swedish national team and knows what he is doing. He is your waxer, mentor and friend all rolled into one. When you raced in Sweden two weeks ago, he put you up in a friend's house and arranged for a former national coach to spend an hour on the snow with you. The hospitality and willingness of people to help a total novice has bowled you over.
Now it is your obsession. Getting to Vancouver. Under the rules you have to have completed at least five designated FIS races and return an average of less than 300 points. You have two races down and are on target to achieve the B standard. The trouble is each nation can only send one athlete with a B standard and there's a guy, PJ Barron, a Scot who declared for Ireland last year, also hoping to compete. The cut-off point is January 17. If you both have the qualifying standard, it will be up to the OCI to decide.
People ask why you put yourself through this torture so soon after Beijing and you go back to the desolate days after the Athens Olympics in 2004. The adrenaline that still coursed through your veins with no outlet for release. For weeks -- no, months -- you drifted aimlessly, wondering what could fill the terrible void. And competition, of course, was the answer. The only answer.
In 2008, you knew you would be better prepared as well as older and wiser. And you would have the beautiful prospect of Vancouver too, a goal to flatten out the downward curve. You thought about the two other Irish athletes who became double Olympians: the rower Pat McDonagh and javelin thrower Terry McHugh, who competed in the bobsleigh in Albertville in 1992. If you make it you will be the first Irish athlete to do it in two endurance events and that sense of achievement drives you on.
It is a voyage of discovery now. To see if you can take everything you have learned from 15 years on the water and adapt it to one of the toughest endurance sports in the world. You are an athlete. This is what you do. Nothing else makes you feel so alive.
* * * * *
HE hasn't forsaken rowing. He isn't the former rower Paul Griffin. He started rowing for Fossa Rowing Club when he was 15. He loved it the second his first boat hit the water and there was so much physical exertion for such little movement. He thinks the pure enjoyment of it ceased around the turn of the century. It became an obsession then. A regime of daily toil for a day in the future when the rewards may or may not come.
They didn't come in Beijing last year. He remembers the disappointment welling up in him the day they left the Shunyi rowing stadium for the second last time, having finished fourth in their semi-final and failing to reach the A final. A year from the Games there had been turmoil in the boat and Jahrling had been dropped as coach of the lightweight four. The preparation was far from ideal.
Their difficulties didn't end when they reached China. In their first race they were surprised by a strong Polish performance and, unexpectedly, forced to race a heat. Then their heat was postponed by, of all things, bad weather and for athletes who struggled to make the weight it was a crushing extra hardship. For his part Griffin felt in the best shape of his life. But it didn't matter. As a unit the boat wasn't as strong as it needed to be and the semi-final quickly moved away from them.
"I know you couldn't have foreseen bad weather but we should have coped. You have to be able to deal with the unforeseen; expect the unexpected. It's like a fella said to me years ago, a champion will go through anything to win. Excuses go by the wayside. You never hear of the hardships the good guys went through. Fellas who didn't make it, you hear all the hard luck stories. We went through the same things as other guys. They were able to get through. They had some sort of mental mindset that enabled them to cut through it all."
It remains his burning ambition to be part of the first Irish rowing crew to win an Olympic medal. He believes there is a group of lightweight rowers in the country capable of achieving it but London, he senses, will be their last chance. He sees little coming up behind them. That's why London will be such a critical Games for Irish rowing.
"We have the people here if -- and it's a huge if -- the practical steps to make it happen are taken. It's like when Colaiste na Sceilge won the All-Ireland title. The population is decreasing and they felt they'd have one more chance to win it and they did. No disrespect to what's coming up but we just don't have that dense pool of quality talent with medals and experience anymore. And the group will be too old after London."
He thinks of the names and wonders where they are: Sam Lynch, Gearoid Towey, Timmy Harnedy. Lynch is one of the best endurance athletes the country ever produced. Does he want to come back, risk being hurt and let down one more time? Griffin would like to think so. What do they need? Five guys, two boats and a plan that ends in the middle of August 2012.
"When I think about Athens, I think about going on the blocks and this ferocious heat in my face. I think about lifting the boat over my head after a training session in Beijing and all this liquid splashing over your head and it's your own sweat. All these things coming out of your body that you need when you're a lightweight rower. I think of London and see no problem. I think of winning a medal on that course in 2006. I don't have to imagine it. Because I know what it feels like. I've done it.
"That's why I think this could be such a good Olympics for Ireland. Not just for rowing, but all Irish athletes. And that's exciting. But people would need to start making up their minds pretty quickly. Are we going to go for it? Or will we let the opportunity pass and then start regretting it when it's too late?"
In his life Griffin has no use for regrets. He turned 30 in September but it was no big deal, no sense of a major milestone passed. He remembers Niall O'Toole offering him advice in 2004. "Hang on to it man," O'Toole urged him. "Live every day. Enjoy it, enjoy it." Griffin didn't get it at the time but, looking back, he knows he lived those words anyway. He gave his 20s everything he had. Same as he will do with his 30s.
His target in Vancouver, if he makes it, is to finish top of the B-ranked competitors which means beating the likes of Australia and New Zealand, nations with long-standing traditions in the sport. He thinks too of Russia in 2014 when he will have four years of racing under his belt and be able, luck permitting, to take his place somewhere middle to front of the main pack.
For now living the life is enough. On Thursday, he left for Norway. Flight to Oslo. Train to Vinstra where a bus would be waiting to take him to the race venue in Gala. A tame affair when you consider his journey to Lapland three weeks ago. Three flights took him from Dublin to Kittila where he boarded a bus for Inari, 300kms inside the Arctic Circle. They lost his skis somewhere in transit.
In Inari, he met a Portuguese skier by the name of Danny Silva who introduced him to his friend, Philip Boit from Kenya. Turned out Boit had been a talented Kenyan 800m runner who had arrived in Finland in the 1990s through a Nike project to see if he could cut it as a cross-country racer. In Schilpario, he met Tucker Murphy, a skier from Bermuda, who had already qualified for Vancouver. So many athletes with so many diverse tales to tell.
And he knows it sounds naff but in these snowy outposts, in the stories of Boit and Murphy, in the crazy passion of the locals with their cowbells and their friendliness and the respect they have for the athletes, he has rediscovered an enduring truth about sport and about life. "I believe sport is the last outpost where bullshit counts for nothing," he says. "Where it gets incinerated 100m into a race. I know there are cheaters. But when I'm out there on the snow it feels raw. Man and skis and racing. It's like back to the good old days. No layers of bullshit from civilisation on top of us. It's pure truth."
Or as near as you're likely to get these days.