“Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion”, a quote famously accredited to Muhammad Ali could just as easily apply to Olympic sailor, Annalise Murphy.
“If I’d won a medal at the London Olympics, I don’t know if I’d have what it takes to win a medal in Rio,” says Murphy over the phone during lockdown. “I spent four years learning what it would take to win a medal from losing the one in London.”
For the Rio Olympics cycle, the suffering that would make Murphy a champion asked more of her than the usual preparation. This time, Murphy had to lose weight. Like cycling, running and boxing, there’s an element of ‘making weight’ in sailing, of being light enough to perform at a physical peak, while remaining strong.
The weight-to-power ratio had always existed, but for Murphy – 6” 1’ and athletically built – it had generally worked in her favour. London in 2012 was a heavy/high wind destination, meaning she didn’t “have to worry as much about weight and what I needed to be.” Murphy and her team knew Rio wouldn’t be the same.
The lighter wind cycle needed Murphy to be lighter, to take up less space on the boat to ensure its speed. “It seemed like such an easy thing,” she said, “but it turned out to be the biggest struggle for me.”
From the end of 2013 and “pretty much until the Olympics” Murphy’s preparation included struggling with lowering her weight. Somewhere along the way, this altered her thinking about food and exercise.
“I went through phases of doing huge amounts of exercise to compensate for what I’d eaten.” It was “a bad way to be in,” recalls Murphy, “exercising to lose weight, training to be as slim as possible.”
For Rio, the silver medal was a tightrope walk between strength and being light.
"There were days when I stepped on the scales and if I had a ‘good’ weight, I’d sail well,” she explains. Similarly, "a ‘bad’ weight meant (she’d) sail poorly" that day.
The pressure of managing her weight wasn’t something she’d put much stock in before, and “pizza and cake after the Olympics was all I was talking about. Despite the struggle, it massively paid off for me (in Rio), I was well below my natural weight.”
Murphy came home a champion, an Olympic silver medallist. Although she will always have the medal, what it took to get to the Olympics – the mindset, the body, the training – had to go as it was unsustainable. Yet it was this new attitude to weight that Murphy couldn’t shake.
“So much success at Rio went to making weight and to being a smaller version of myself that I started to associate being successful with being thinner and lighter.
After the Olympics, there were awards, media, TV, interviews to be done. I was afraid people would think I was overweight or not the medal-winning athlete anymore.
“The only way I could be successful was to be skinny. People meant well and would say ‘Annalise you look great’ but I didn’t feel it. I was hungry and tired all the time. Pretty much from the Olympics to Christmas, body image played on my mind.”
This, Murphy laughs, is “absolutely nuts in hindsight.”
Undoing the mindset that had taken her to silver in the Olympics required a reminder that weight isn’t an indicator of value and that food can be an enjoyable experience.
This was achieved through two wholly immersive experiences: Ballymaloe Cooking School, in Co Cork in 2017 and the Volvo Ocean Race in 2018.
In Cork Murphy, for the first time since she was a teenager, was “surrounded by great food that I was allowed to eat and didn’t need to restrict myself. Food I wouldn’t have allowed myself to eat, I was now able to eat and cook all the time.”
The Ocean Race, though, “that was challenging,” Murphy pauses. “If someone told me before the race that I could only sleep for short bursts throughout the day, be cold and wet all the time, live off freeze dried food, sleep wet, I’d have said ‘not a chance.’ But doing it, finishing it, made me feel like I can do anything difficult again, it makes you realise how amazing your body is.”
For 2020-’21, what’s changed for Murphy isn’t her diet, or her calorie intake, but her mindset. “It isn’t all about being the right weight, but it does play a big part in performance. Weight and shape don’t dictate whether I’m happy or not that day.”
Prior to Covid-19, Murphy’s Tokyo cycle had already been different, strengthened by her mindset and a new underlying self-belief.
“I spent so many years in the 2012 cycle and mid-2014 cycle thinking that ‘oh, I’m not actually good enough to do this’ and I kind of always thought ‘I‘m probably going to fail’.
“What I’ve learned is that I might fail, but I could still do this and I could be the best in the world. There are days when I still don’t think that obviously, but up to that point, until Volvo, I was afraid I was going to be found out, that everything had been a fluke to that point.
“Getting through Volvo and finishing it, I gained some self-belief in myself that I didn’t actually have before . . . I’m always afraid of losing.
“Sometimes I’m so afraid, it’s like ‘this isn’t worth doing because if I lose this it will be terrible’, but people are gonna fail.
“That’s why we’re drawn to sports. I can be afraid of losing but I can’t let it stop me from doing it.”