Monday 18 November 2019

Sailing: Annalise plotting new course to Rio

Cliona Foley

FOUR months later she still feels a little sheepish about her immediate tear-strewn reaction. Yet she was consoled by the unexpected public support, and especially the backing of one former Olympian who was among the first to comfort her on the Weymouth quayside on that fateful day.

"Sonia O'Sullivan (Ireland's Olympic chef de mission) had come down especially to watch my medal race and I'm still worried that I was a little bit rude to her immediately afterwards," Annalise Murphy confesses.

"I was still feeling very sorry for myself, wailing and saying things like 'none of you understand what it's like!', but she was so nice to me and pointed out that she was actually fourth at an Olympics too."

Fourth is the most scarring of all finishing spots at an Olympic Games.

Yet Murphy's wounds appear to have healed remarkably quickly, and one of the unexpected benefits of her barnstorming exploits last summer is what they did, not just for her personally, but for her sport.

Let's be honest, most of us wouldn't know our aft from our elbow, though you certainly wouldn't have thought that on the August Bank Holiday Monday when Murphy was seemingly heading for the podium.

It was the climax of a week in which the nation suddenly became overrun with sailing enthusiasts, all nodding sagely and bandying about phrases like 'tacking across the beat' and 'windward line' like we were to the ocean born. It was all thanks to this unassuming, athletic six-footer from Rathfarnham, who went to the Olympics a relative unknown and came home a national heroine.

Yes, after being in pole position for a full week, Murphy heartbreakingly blew a medal finish in the final leg of her laser radial event. "I was like a golfer who led a tournament right to the very last shot of the very last hole and then lost it," she reflects.

But the standard Murphy set, and the drama she provided, especially in that harrowing final medal race, left the nation transfixed with admiration.

Her power and athleticism also earned new-found respect for her sport. Outside of sailing circles few people understood Murphy's medal potential beforehand.

Twenty-four years ago her mother Cathy MacAleavey sailed in the first women's Olympic class in Seoul, with her father Con as coach, so their three children grew up with salt water in their veins.

Eighth in the 2009 World Championships (which earned her the U-21 title) and sixth at the Worlds in 2011, Murphy had climbed in to the top 10 in the world rankings ahead of London and won bronze at the big pre-Olympic regatta on the same Dorset course.

From the minute the first klaxon sounded at the Games, she set an extraordinary pace, winning all four of the first two days' races, practically unheard of in international racing.

But on the day that Katie Taylor finally entered the Olympic ring to raucous support 100 miles away, Murphy's medal dream met a watery grave.

After discarding her worst result (19th) her brilliant series of races (1-1-1-1-8-19-2-10-3-7) left her in the heart of a four-way medal tussle with Xu Lijia (China), Marit Boumeester (Netherlands) and Evi van Acker (Belgium).

Just one point separated them, and double points were on offer in the final medal race.

Everything had boiled down to what was a high seas version of a 100m sprint. Before the Games, Irish sailing experts reckoned Murphy's only weakness might be her youth and inexperience.

When boats shift on volatile winds in these speedy, oceanic chess-games, taking the right split-second option is vital, and Murphy now admits she was rattled by the enormity of the occasion.

She led around the first marker, then took the opposite side of the course from the rest of the fleet, caught a bad downwind and dropped to ninth.

She managed to recover to second around the third marker but, caught downwind again, was pipped for bronze by Van Acker on that last leg. She only watched the tape for the first time three weeks ago.

"I saw a lot of mistakes I made because I was just so nervous," Murphy admits.

"You dream about this scenario for so long but, really, you never honestly think it's going to happen to you. I went into the medal race knowing I could win gold and I was just terrified! It was the most nervous I've ever been in my life.

"When you lead around the first marker, all the boats behind you then get the wind first. They cover it from you so you try to get away from them," she explains of why she then took such a different line.

It was a tactic that backfired but Murphy has learned to live with it, encouraged particularly by the fact that she is still young and can emerge even stronger from such a chastening experience.

"Those three other girls were regular medallists, either at Olympics, World or European Championships, and experience counts for so much in sailing," she says.

"I'm still only 22 and I think I can use what I learnt to go and win some of those titles and go to Rio (2016) with much more experience. That is my big motivation now."

The immediate aftermath was horrendous. Her coach Rory Fitzpatrick zipped over to tow her the 30 minutes back to the quay, during which she became hysterical, veering constantly between crying and laughing.


The sight of her tear-stained face un-tacking her boat and gulping her way through the mixed zone was heartbreaking.

'Murphy's Mound', as her supporters' vantage point was christened, was a considerable distance from the race venue and it was three hours before she reached the sanctuary of family and friends.

But her yacht club (the National in Dun Laoghaire) had organised a surprise reception at a local restaurant, and to her shock she walked into a small army of supporters, and a standing ovation, in a banner-strewn room.

By night's end one small Weymouth bar had evolved into a raucous Irish pub, helping to lift her mood.

"I just couldn't believe so many people had come over. Sailing is something I love doing but it's quite a solitary sport, so you really don't expect anyone else to be interested. The support was amazing," she says

It didn't end there. Murphy arrived home to an avalanche of well-wishes and cards, many from strangers.

"Some were just addressed 'Annalise Murphy, Olympic sailor, Dublin' and I still got them," she says.

She took part in the National Championships a fortnight later, competing in the men's laser for fun and finishing second to fellow Olympian James Espey.

She took nearly four months off sailing then but, like all athletes, the lure of pushing her mind and body soon became too strong to ignore.

Her training involves clocking up serious mileage on the bike so she dipped her toe into triathlons, including a half-Ironman triathlon in Lanzarote (1.9km swim, 90km cycle and 21km run).

From a field of 850 she finished second in her age-group – in six hours and 21 minutes – yet still she wasn't happy.

Murphy had put her science degree in UCD on hold pre-Olympics. She has returned since and switched courses but admits that she'll have to find some compromise between training and study, especially with Dublin Bay hosting the European Championships next September, which will be her focus in 2013.

Tuesdays are her toughest days. They start with an early-morning gym session in the city centre, followed by two and a half hours on the water in Dun Laoghaire. From there it's back home to Rathfarnham before returning to the same gym for an evening 'turbo' class. Her transport, throughout, is her bike.

But there's not a murmur of complaint from Murphy and few regrets.

"I won't lie. I was devastated immediately afterwards, the fact that I was so close, had three chances out of four for a medal and still didn't get one," she says.

"But I know where I've come from. Four years ago I was 86th at the World Championships and ranked 180th in the world. I worked incredibly hard and had made a gigantic leap compared to everyone else.

"All that time you're wondering, 'what, after all this work, if I'm just not good enough?'. But, this summer, I realised I am.

"In my event the average age of medallists is 26-30 and medals don't usually come until your second Games. I had a brilliant Olympics in so many ways, most of it was like a dream and I enjoyed close to every minute of it – just apart from those final four to five hours.

"I've been amazed at people's reaction, and if it helps to get more people to try out sailing then that will be fantastic too.

"I'm still young in my sport and these Olympics will stand to me hugely. Finishing fourth was hard but it's what is already driving me to get up early for the gym every morning and to get back out on the water in the cold weather."

Irish Independent

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