Tuesday 20 March 2018

Sometimes the journey is greater than the destination

Paul Hession knows all about the trials and tribulations of qualifying for the Olympic Games, as he tells John Greene

What if my best just isn't good enough? This is a question that must torment athletes.

You put hour upon hour of work in, striving to attain your next goal, hoping to shave a second off your best time, or to jump a little higher, or swim a little faster, or box a little better. Inch by inch you strive forward.

Maybe you are knocked back by an injury, or perhaps your form deserts you. And in those lonely hours, away from the glare, you might one day find yourself asking, what if my best just isn't good enough.

"We are competing against ourselves as much as anyone," says sprinter Paul Hession. "This is a personal journey. Because people don't see us except once every four years, the motivation has to come from inside, and that's where it comes from. It's all the sweeter when you do well because you've only got yourself to thank for what you've done, and how hard you've worked."

Hession is one of eight athletes featured in a fantastic new documentary to be screened by Setanta this week. It's Not The Taking Part follows the fortunes of eight Irish athletes in the countdown to London. The others are high jumper Deirdre Ryan, 400m runner David Gillick, three-day eventer Sam Watson, boxers Kenneth Egan and Paddy Barnes, swimmer Melanie Nocher, and badminton player Scott Evans.

Hession, and Deirdre Ryan, both qualified early for the games so the film follows the ups and downs of their preparations, dealing with blips in form and battling niggling injuries. In Hession's case, there was also the decision to change coaches, leaving Stewart Hogg and moving back to Ireland to join up with John Coghlan's sprint group in Santry.

"It was a massive risk for me," he told me during a break in training last week. "Stewart's the man that made me into a world-class athlete and we still get on extremely well. I still ring him, at the moment I'm onto him a lot on the phone. We're just good mates. If I stayed I probably would have ran 20.5 again. The times weren't dropping to where I was hoping they'd drop to, especially after last year's World Championships, which were a bit of a disaster."

Last week, Hession ran 20.37 to win the national title, fending of Jason Smyth and Steven Colvert in a tight finish. He also qualified for the European 200m final in Helsinki, and won a warm-up race in Italy last night.

"It was a risk but it seems to be paying off finally. The start of the indoor season, around the time of the injury was challenging, but I think with any change you are likely to go through these kind of teething problems. Generally it's been very good, and the last month has been excellent. It's really coming together and if I have another month like the last month, and if the times improve to the same extent, it could be a great championships for me."

The injury he refers to is an Achilles tendon problem which surfaced earlier this year. At the time, he faced a choice: surgery and a five-month rehab or to continue on. In the end, there was no choice.

"It's not going to go away fully but I've learned how to manage it," he says. "I know the days I have to ease back a small bit and the days I can go for it. Thankfully, there's more days that I can train 100 per cent than otherwise, and that's good. I'm feeling fit, I'm feeling healthy and things are starting to come together."

For the other six featured in the film, the camera follows their journey through the last year as they attempt to qualify. The film-makers were granted extraordinary access and the honesty of all eight makes for some compelling viewing.

"There was no leading or anything, any time you asked them for advice they didn't even give it because they just said whatever you think yourself and I think that's quite good," says Hession. "Maybe that made it more natural."

And, of course, because it's sport, there is agony and ecstasy, laughter and tears, along the way.

The Olympic Council of Ireland took some flak for holding a tough line on its decision to send only 'A' standard athletes and swimmers. Unlike previous games, the OCI did not relent. There is still an argument -- and one which is held by many countries -- that there is no harm in identifying young, talented and improving athletes to send to an Olympic Games purely for the experience, and perhaps to accelerate their development, but that is not going to happen now, and maybe that's an opportunity lost for the likes of, say, Jessie Barr and Steven Colvert.

There can be no argument, though, that the strict stance taken by the OCI did force some athletes to dig deeper than ever before to achieve their Olympic dream.

As John Watson, father of Sam, notes, "The Olympian effort in the Olympics is getting there." Hession agrees. "The journey is greater than the destination," he says.

The moment when Watson learns that he will not be going to London as part of Ireland's eventing team is a brutal reminder of the cruelty of sport. Throughout the three-part film, Watson's wide-eyed enthusiasm and sheer bloody-mindedness in pursuit of his dream leaves an impression.

"It'll be nerve-wracking if I've put myself in a place where I'm 50-50," he says at the outset of the film. "My aim is to make sure that there's going to be no doubt about them picking up the phone to me, and if things haven't gone to plan it's going to be a bit of a knife-edge and that'll certainly be nerve-wracking."

Sadly, for Watson, one bad day at the office leaves him fearing the worst and when the call finally comes the look of crushing disappointment says more about his journey than anything he can say. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that he had taken a similar call four years earlier before Beijing.

"The only people that know the journey you've gone through are the people close to you, the people that really matter to you," says Hession. "They are the only ones that realise the ups and downs that you go through, and the sacrifice you make, but also how much you love it when things are going right.

People maybe don't understand why you do something; maybe even watching the documentary they still won't understand it. Maybe though the ups and downs will come across, but also the faint hope of something special."

'It's Not The Taking Part', a new film produced by Midas Productions, will be broadcast over three nights this week by Setanta, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 9pm

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