Sunday 19 November 2017

Swimming: The making of a champion graft behind her quest for glory

Cliona Foley spends the day with teenage sensation Grainne Murphy to witness the intense

C Foley

RICH TEA biscuits. Even at Christmas time, that's the most calorific thing stocked in the home in Annacotty that Mary Murphy and her superstar teenage daughter share.

What? Two women alone in a house and no secret stash of goodies anywhere, not even one single chocolate button?

"No, honestly," Grainne Murphy's mother laughs. "Her diet is really just about eating the right food at the right time of day, it's not that strict," she insists. "But she is really very sensible herself about it and we wouldn't have anything sweeter than Rich Tea in the house."

So what would constitute a special treat for her daughter? A pinched handful of crisps, a square of Dairy Milk, a lick of a Mars Bar?

"Actually a treat for Grainne is a bit of time off to catch up with people," she explains. "When we go home (to Ballinaboola, near New Ross) on Saturdays, she spends hours just catching up with her friends over a smoothie."

Murphy's twice-daily training schedule and monastic lifestyle means she must politely reject most of the media and sponsorship invitations that have bombarded her since she won European senior silver (1500m freestyle, long-course) and two bronze (400 and 800m freestyle short-course) medals this year. But she was forced to make a rare exception prior to Christmas when she won the '2010 Irish Sportswoman of the Year award', three months before her 18th birthday.

She still trained, as usual, at 5.0 that morning but travelling to Dublin to receive the award meant missing two other training sessions and she wasn't having that.

Saturday afternoons and Sunday are usually her only 'days off' but she used them to make up for her lost training. It may have been the week before Christmas but there was no trip home to Wexford that weekend.

Welcome to Grainne Murphy's world. It is a life most dedicated, an ascetic one lived in a high performance bubble for which her family have also made huge sacrifices, and the Murphys are not alone.

They are not the only parents who get up between 4.0 and 4.40 six mornings a week to drive their children into training at the University of Limerick's Sports Arena.

That's what you do if your child is gifted enough to be part of Swim Ireland's high performance elite training squad at UL. But few others had to actually move house to join it, as the Murphys did when Grainne was just 13.

Initially they came on a year's trial and rented, when the move was suggested to them by former Swim Ireland coach Keith Bewley after watching Grainne dominate the British U-11 and U-12 age-groups. Once it became clear that Grainne was thriving, the family bought a house in Limerick, close to training and school.

Her father Brendan has remained in Wexford to run the family's 'Horse and Hound' pub and travels down whenever he can, and mother and daughter get home every weekend.

Every morning, except Sunday, if you stand outside UL's Sports Arena before 5.0, you'll witness the bizarre, twilight world that elite swimmers inhabit. Swathed in insulation, they eerily materialise out of the frosty darkness like aquatic vampires for a daily pre-dawn ritual.

Swim Ireland's high performance coach Ronald Claes unlocks the nondescript side door to the 50m pool, wedges it open with a battered red cone and they shuffle in wordlessly and get to work.

Murphy is initially indistinguishable from the rest of the girls, clothed in their unofficial uniform of baggy trackies and Ugg boots, but once the woollies are discarded you spot her trademark pearl ear-rings and broad smile.

She warms up and stretches poolside with her team-mates for a half-hour before diving in at 5.30, wearing two pairs of training togs and a HPC (high performance centre) cap. The next two and a half hours are spent gliding up and down a lane; refining her technique, doing endurance and speed drills, uncomplainingly churning out the daily aquatic grind that produces swim champions -- over seven kilometres of it this morning alone.

At 8.0 they all do a half-hour warm-down on the deck and then disperse for breakfast and school/college. Splitting her Leaving Cert over two years at nearby Castletroy College -- she sat English, business studies and German last year and will do Irish, maths and home economics next summer -- means that Murphy only has to rush for 9.0 classes on Tuesdays and Fridays. The other three school mornings she can grab another 90-minute sleep before donning her school uniform but her lessons are always wrapped up by lunchtime.

They are all back in the water again from 3.0 to 5.30, and also have to fit in one hour's daily dry-land strength and conditioning. For Murphy this is usually between 2.0-3.0, upstairs in UL's high performance weights gym, which she regularly shares with Munster's rugby superstars.

Today it's Tony Buckley who curls cartoonishly large dumb-bells nearby as she sweats her way through an hour of core work with resistance bands and a Pilates ball, closely observed throughout by Claes.

A phlegmatic 31-year-old with a dry wit, whose father was also a swim coach, the Belgian admits he took up the Irish offer three years ago because it was a first step onto the international coaching ladder.

He doesn't carry a clipboard or a whistle, yet even by today's enlightened coaching standards, Claes' pool sessions are remarkably hushed.

Like a virtuoso conductor, he co-ordinates eight swimmers of different disciplines -- sprinters, middle and long distance (Murphy) -- in four separate lanes, without ever

raising his voice. Occasionally he puts his fingers in his mouth to emit an ear-piercing staccato whistle, which acts like a stroke metronome, but it is his other senses that are most highly tuned. Claes (pronounced Class) uses sound to read how efficiently his swimmers are moving, often simply pointing out "that's a bit noisy."

His life is as spartan as those of his charges. Asked at a recent awards dinner what he likes most about Ireland, he candidly replied: "I'm just here to work."

He is in bed by 9.30 most nights, and when UL wanted to give him a decent Christmas present last year they chose, much to his delight, a competition-standard starting block.

OK, if Santa was being ultra-generous, he'd also love one of those electronic underwater wall-pads that can fully analyse tumble-turns.

The nearest one is in Spain but they cost €10,000 and he's already more than happy with UL's resources, which include a hi-tech underwater camera that they use every Wednesday morning to do stroke analysis from four different angles.

Claes' expertise is undoubtedly a factor in Murphy's burgeoning success, but he points out that before he arrived, she had already won a Youth Olympics bronze medal in 2007.

Her three golds, one bronze and two European records at the 2009 European Junior Championships really announced her before this year's seamless transition to the senior ranks.

She went into the European long-course championships in Budapest with a 1500m PB of 16:28.47 and came out of it with a silver medal and a 16.02 PB. She also knocked 10 seconds off her 800m PB in Budapest, where she was fourth in a stacked 800m final, which was, Claes says, "the standout race of the championships, male or female."

But how do you knock 26 seconds off your best time in one competition, even allowing for the fact that 1500m is a long-distance event?

"A lot of volume for a start," Claes explains. "She swam 2,800 kilometres from one year to the other, and will do even more next season."

It's also about high-quality training, and the forensic technical and race analysis which they emphasised in 2010. Claes is a stickler for technique and believes most Irish swimmers race far too much at its expense. Swimming faster is all about technical efficiency; about maximising your propulsion by minimising your resistance.

The only trace of pride in his voice is when he explains that, in the past year, the distance Murphy covers, per stroke, has increased by 20 centimetres, a mind-boggling statistic.

"That's strength and conditioning, that's stroke efficiency, that's technique work, that's fitness levels," Claes says, crediting the holistic approach in Limerick where his unit is supported by a strength coach, a performance analyst, a medical officer, a nutritionist, a physiologist, a psychologist and a physio.

"Grainne is a multi-talented swimmer, good at all strokes -- she's also the fastest 200m breaststroker ever in Ireland," he stresses. "But that all needs to be improved and there is a large team, funded by the Sports Council and Institute of Sport, supporting her."

Murphy clearly has the necessary physique, talent, application and determination to already be world-class, but doesn't Claes fear that all the hype around her now, as a big fish in Ireland's tiny sporting pond, could potentially distract or inhibit her? Claes shrugs and grins.

"If you're standing between the world and Olympic champions, like she was in Budapest, it's very easy to get distracted... but she wasn't!"

"PRESSURE?" Mary Murphy hoots with laughter. "Grainne doesn't understand the word, she just doesn't DO stress," she reveals. But competitive? "Oh yes, definitely. Even when she was little, if we went to the park and the kids were playing, Grainne always had to be first."

At 17, the easy, breezy, smiling girl from Ballinaboola is ranked third in the world at 1500m, 11th at the 800m (both freestyle) and 26th at 400m medley. Her European 1500m success was residual because all her training is geared to the 800m freestyle and 400m medley, partly because there is no women's 1500m in the Olympics yet.


Britain's poster-girl for London 2012 will undoubtedly be Rebecca Adlington, who won the 400m/800m freestyle Olympic double in Beijing and 400m gold in Budapest but was seventh in the 800m behind Murphy's fourth.

Claes notes that every single female freestyle title in Beijing was won by Europeans, so Budapest provided a true world class barometer.

The World Championships in Shanghai in July is Murphy's next focus.

Limerick's elite squad went to Font Romeu (France) for altitude training last September and they're headed to Australia's Gold Coast from January 7-31. Not only will that allow them to train full-time, it will also replicate the distance and jet-lag that they will face at Shanghai; no stone is left unturned. Over Christmas, Limerick's elite squad missed just three sessions (two on Christmas Eve, one on Christmas Day) and were back for 5am training on December 27.

So for Murphy, Christmas is just a rare long weekend off. She is in bed by 8.0 each night and her mum's not far behind -- "straight after the 9 o'clock news!" -- to facilitate all that pre-dawn chauffeuring, though Grainne now has her L-plates and they've starting alternating the driver's seat to training.

The Murphys' other daughter Niamh, who went to college in Limerick, is now on work placement in London and their last family holiday was a ski trip five years ago.

Aren't they all tempted sometimes to sneak a duvet day or even just decadently sleep in until 8.0, like the rest of us? But this is normal to them, Mary Murphy stresses.

"I think sometimes that people don't understand just how happy Grainne is," she explains. "This is what she does, Grainne absolutely loves her life; nothing makes her happier than swimming, and as long as she's happy, we're happy."

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport