Friday 15 December 2017

ruthless streak

Annalise Murphy admits she has been a guest at her own 'pity party' too often since her Olympic heartache. But now, as she explains to Cliona Foley, a more professional approach and a determination to show her rivals no mercy are making her a real world beater

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

ANNALISE Murphy thought she had left that Olympic fourth place well in her wake but only now, with a European laser radial title under her belt, can she admit how much it haunted her.

You will have seen her popping onto the national consciousness again in September, her tear-stricken face from London 2012 replaced by a picture of delight after winning the Euros on her home waters in Dun Laoghaire.

It's easy to spot her athletic six-foot frame strolling into a city centre coffee shop in black gym gear and multi-coloured runners after cycling in from the family home in Rathfarnham.

Her Twitter profile reads 'Olympic sailor, student, shopaholic and expert cake baker' but she has been training full-time since London and admits to having little time for anything "except training and sleeping".

The bubbly 23-year-old – whose mum was among the first generation of female Olympic sailors – is still going a mile a minute.

She's about to do a conditioning session in the nearby Sports Med gym before cycling out to Dun Laoghaire for sail training and, by day's end, will have clocked up close to 30km on the bike alone.

But a year on from that gut-wrenching Olympic denouement Murphy is a very different animal, after an epiphany that has transformed her quintessential girl-next-door persona on dry land to a ruthless competitor at sea.

The post-London doubts gnawed away at her for much longer than she thought they would.

"They were still there," Murphy confesses. "I was always doing it. I'd go into a daydream and think 'what if I had only done this?' You'd be saying to yourself 'stop doing that, it's stupid' but it was hard not to.

"I couldn't help but think 'what if that was my only chance to ever win a major competition?' That is what you really think," she admits with startling candour.

It didn't help that the start of Murphy's post-Olympic season was stymied by a series of small errors that echoed what had happened in Weymouth.

At her opening World Cup event in Miami in January she sailed "close to perfect" in her first five races but then got a penalty that dropped her from first place to eighth ahead of the final medal race, and she eventually finished fourth.

Next up she went training in Cadiz, and even though the racing was relatively minor she checked her results afterwards and realised she was fourth again.

"That was three fourths in a row and I started thinking 'am I going to finish fourth in every race?'. When I looked more closely I saw that I got a penalty for not signing out one day and it made me realise you have to be way more professional," she admits. "I would have finished second without it."

Things came to a head at her next World Cup race in the south of France.

Three days into competing in Hyeres she got disqualified in one race for prematurely crossing the start line and ended up in the silver fleet, an embarrassing comedown for a fourth-placed Olympian who is usually in the top gold fleet by week's end.

"People were going 'oh, Annalise is in the silver fleet!' but I thought you can either go and have another pity party for yourself or you can treat this as training," she says.

"Just go out every day and try and improve, and that's what I did. I treated every race in the silver fleet seriously and won them all."

She also won her next event in Lake Garda, and then went to Holland, where the field included the Olympic gold, silver and fifth-place finishers.

In the last race before the final (medal race) Murphy was "literally at the finish line in second place, which would have left me first going into the medal race, and Marit (Bouwmeester, Holland's Olympic silver medallist) just took me out!

"I was so shocked," she exclaims. "I was like 'who does that?' but actually it was fair enough, it made sense for her to do it as it gave her a better position for the medal race.

"But that really made me realise you have to be ruthless, and that I had to be. When it came to the medal race I was like, 'you girls are going down!' I sailed it perfectly, won it by a minute and won overall. It was a pretty good feeling, especially to beat Lijia (Xu, Olympic champion) and Marit, to know that I can beat them."

Bouwmeester and Olympic bronze medallist Evi Van Acker were, literally, trailing in her wake again when she dominated the Europeans, albeit with home advantage.

Two weeks later she raced in the World Championships in China, but only to get experience in light winds, and what she did next shows how driven and competitive she is.

This is a woman who came off her bike and broke her nose in the past year because she was cycling to training during a blizzard, yet somehow she has managed to add another discipline – swimming – to her fitness regime since London.

She sailed six days a week solid from April to October yet her idea of an end-of-season holiday was to immediately go racing a bizarre light-weight contraption called a foiling 'Moth' that she can barely control, and not just sail it but enter its World Championships in Hawaii.

A lot of Olympic sailors race Moths to improve their technique – the boats collapse, tent-like, into three-metre-long bags for storage, so she rocked up to Dublin airport, checked it in as her luggage and headed off.

"If you do the tiniest thing wrong on the Moth you basically go for a swim!" she explains. "But what I'm learning on it I can use in the Laser too.

"It's a way for me to keep sailing and racing but having fun, it doesn't feel like training. Even if I'm going around completely out of control and coming last – which I usually am! – I still feel like I'm learning.

"I managed to get a cheap flight to Hawaii and stay in a friend's house and it was an amazing experience. There were five Olympic gold medallists there, all men. I've only been at it since March but I learnt so much, just from talking to people."

Among them was Nathan Outteridge, the Australian sailor who famously capsized when approaching the Beijing Olympic finish line in the gold medal position.

Since then he has been unbeatable, and talking with him also helped convince Murphy that the London Olympic heartbreak will not define her career.

"Looking back now I probably wish that the competitions had been the other way around," she admits. "That the Europeans had been last year and the (London) Olympics this year because I would have known what to do, but that's the way life is.

"Sometimes you can feel sorry for yourself but sport is difficult, it's never going to be easy."

Her first event in 2014 will be the World Cup in Miami, and there are Europeans in Croatia in June, but the World Championships in Santader in September are her focus, particularly because it's the first qualifying event for the 2016 Olympics.

Training may not get easier but the logistics should be in 2014 thanks to a kind benefactor.

She used to have to borrow a van from her association to travel and race the European circuit, but a sponsor has now provided her with a Mercedes Vito van for the next three years.

She can't drive it in the city because the roof-rack (which holds her boats) won't fit into high-rise car-parks but she is already fitting it out internally, making it into her own personalised and ultra-tidy mobile boathouse and work-shop.

She says she still isn't recognised in the street, except by the sailing community, but her new van is liveried with her name and a giant action photo.

"It's a bit of a giveaway," Murphy giggles. "I'm going to have to be a lot more careful at orange lights. I'll have to be a really courteous driver from now on."

At traffic lights, maybe, but that's something she won't ever be on the water again.

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