Tuesday 16 January 2018

Serious medals and serious sacrifices in a long-distance life

Ireland swimmer Grainne Murphy announced her retirement from competitive swimming last Tuesday, at the age of 22. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland swimmer Grainne Murphy announced her retirement from competitive swimming last Tuesday, at the age of 22. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Some time later in her life it might become a consolation for Gráinne Murphy that she actually made it to an Olympics, but it probably isn't much of a comfort right now.

The casual, arbitrary cruelty that sport frequently inflicts on its most dedicated practitioners has meted out one final blow to her dreams.

Last Tuesday, aged 22, she announced her retirement from competitive swimming. The career of the most talented Irish swimmer for a generation has ended not in lights and medals but in a newspaper sidebar, and to public indifference.

It is one of the sadder stories that sport in Ireland will serve up this year.

It is particularly poignant not because a great talent went unfulfilled but because years of enormous effort were so poorly rewarded. Murphy did everything she could to honour her talent. And so did her family. They cherished it; they gave it every chance to shine; they made every sacrifice to help her become the best she could be in her chosen discipline.

And what a punishing discipline it is. Elite swimming makes extreme demands on the human body. It makes ludicrous demands on a person's time. And even for the best, the material rewards it offers are parsimonious. It is an utterly unreasonable sport.

So Murphy and her family did what it demanded they do: they built her life around it. She handed her life over to swimming. The other essential parts of a conventional existence, like education, socialising and relationships, were squeezed into the margins around it.

Famously, at the age of 14, she left her home in Wexford to become a full-time athlete at the University of Limerick's 50-metre pool. The family bought a house close to the campus. Her mother moved with her; her father stayed at home to run the family hotel. There was a lot of travelling cross-country from Wexford to Limerick and back again as they strove to make it work. Gráinne enrolled in a local secondary school. She took her Leaving Cert exams over two years so that her studies, too, would fit around her training schedule.

And morning after morning after morning she clocked up the miles in the pool while the rest of the world was sleeping. Typically she would wake at 4.35am. Some time after 5.0 she was on a treadmill in the gym, then onto the rowing machine, maybe some weights and skipping.

Then, the water: as anyone who's ever tried it knows, pushing against water is gruelling work. She would push against the water for hours every day; in time the hours became years. Her power through the water was a sight to behold. In the early days she would cover 50 metres in 50 strokes. As she streamlined her technique and amplified her velocity, it would come down to 33 strokes, 35 max.

Unbeknownst to even the sporting public, she was turning her body into a world-class swimming machine, an aquatic human, an instrument of the water. If there is such a thing as the loneliness of the long-distance swimmer, then Murphy endured it without complaint.

The morning session at UL would take some four hours in all. Off to school then - and back again for another two hours of gym and pool in the afternoon. Home by five, bed by nine, the world passing her by. Repeat the next day. Repeat for thousands of days.

In 2010, the hard labour turned into the hard currency of medals. Prestige medals at that: a silver in the 1,500m freestyle at the European senior championships, a pair of bronze medals in the European short course championships at 400m and 800m. The year before, she won three gold and a bronze at the European junior championships. Murphy was looking good for a couple of Olympic finals at London 2012.

If elite sport is a high-wire act, nothing is higher than the Olympics. A lifetime's work is funnelled into that two-week window. The athletes who make the podium have come through the eye of a needle. Nothing is harder in sport, which is why the achievement is everlasting. But, the slightest wobble at the wrong time and the Olympics will spit you out without a second thought. The crash, the comedown, is profoundly painful.

Murphy got sick at the wrong time, glandular fever in the spring of 2012. She qualified for London but the virus had corroded the machine. She finished last in her 400m heat and withdrew from her other events. The crash, inevitably, was terrible for her and her family.

And it seems that she never fully got back on the rails. After London, Swim Ireland got rid of her coach and plunged the UL swim programme into uncertainty. The cumulative traumas cut deep and sapped her morale. Early in 2015 she tried to pick up the pieces by moving to a high performance programme in the south of France. She sounded optimistic about setting the record right in Rio. But last November she was hit with a lung infection which lingered in her system far too long.

Murphy will always be an Olympian. She has won serious medals in a global sport. These are formidable achievements. One hopes they will indeed become a source of consolation. But if sport had any conscience it would have given her and her parents a lot less heartache.

She, after all, gave her young life to it.

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