Testing water in slow return to old routine
Illness ruined her Olympic dream but Gráinne Murphy is not finished yet, writes Marie Crowe
Imagine being a teenager and uprooting your family to be closer to a swimming pool and then getting up six mornings a week at 4.30am for more than a decade to train to make it as an Olympian.
Imagine the feeling of earning that qualification time, the excitement, the jubilation, the relief – and then imagine being diagnosed with glandular fever four weeks before your dreams are set to come true. That's Gráinne Murphy's story but nine months on it's one the 20-year-old has made peace with.
It was around this time last year that Murphy started to feel unwell. She was exhausted, found it hard to get out of bed and couldn't train as normal. Tests were done but they didn't yield any conclusive results. It was suspected that a virus was to blame but not one as debilitating or serious as glandular fever.
So Murphy, none the wiser, ploughed on with her training and preparation, all the while expecting to wake up one day and feel fine. But it didn't happen and the Olympics closed in. Her training suffered as extensive rest periods were required and her confidence dropped.
She was frustrated, upset and anxious; it was Olympic year and it wasn't going to plan. She already had the qualification time in the bag; the lead-in was supposed to be the straightforward part but her body was failing her. Eventually at the end of June she got answers – a blood test revealed she had glandular fever and in that instant Murphy's world crumbled. Of course pulling out of the Games was an option she explored, but with just a few weeks to go it wasn't a road she wanted to go down. She had managed the illness until now, she could do so for another few weeks.
In ways Murphy was in denial; she barely had time to process the news but ultimately she didn't want to believe that it was true. In the months before the diagnosis there were good days and bad days; actually a pattern had formed and she firmly believed that if her race fell on a good day, she could perform to a decent level.
"I'd never have stood up there if I thought it was never going to happen but I firmly believed in myself that I could do something," explains Murphy. "I gave it my best shot. In the weeks beforehand I tried to manage everything around it – I was focusing on whatever I could do to get the best out of myself."
On the morning of her first swim, Murphy didn't feel great; getting in the water was a gamble, but one she felt could go her way. She took the chance but it didn't pay off and she finished last in her 400m freestyle heat in a time (4:19.07) almost a full 10 seconds slower than her personal best.
After the first 200m she knew she wouldn't be able to do double the distance in her main event the following Thursday, but she still had to decide to pull out of the Games.
Lots of people were consulted as Murphy strove to get the best advice. Sonia O'Sullivan and Billy Walsh told her to get healthy before getting back in the pool. Paul O'Connell, her advisor and friend, told her to do what was best for herself and to trust her own instinct. She listened to those people, but before making her final decision she had to have a tough conversation with Swim Ireland high-performance director Peter Banks.
"I think he wanted me back in the water, but I think any HP director put in that position would be in the same boat because it's such a major competition and only comes every four years. It was a tough call because it wasn't my main event that I did first and for me I didn't want to put myself into a position where my main event would go drastically wrong."
Once the decision was made, Murphy felt both disappointment and relief. She opted to return home early from London, only staying until the swimming finished. She went back to Wexford, took a break and spent some time reflecting on her experience.
However, in the months that followed, the teenager was faced with more tough decisions. For five years she was coached by Belgian Ronald Claes at the University of Limerick, but a few weeks after the Olympics his contract wasn't renewed, thrusting Murphy back into the spotlight and casting doubts over her future.
"Ronald's contract was up but it was still a shock when he wasn't given a new one. There was an awful lot of things said. I kept away from it; being sick allowed me a bit to just focus on my health."
But decisions had to be made: Murphy was still a swimmer and she needed a plan and a place to train. She enrolled in a business course at Carlow IT and when she got the all-clear started back swimming in her old pool in New Ross. And once she had her swimming back on track, Murphy had to mend some bridges with Banks.
"Our relationship wasn't the best but since September it has improved a lot. Our communication is a lot better; before that we didn't communicate enough. We are in touch more now, he comes to Limerick a lot and I can now pick up the phone and call him."
After a few months' training in New Ross, Murphy decided to move the bulk of her training back to Limerick. She spends Monday to Wednesday in Wexford training with Fran Ronan and then the rest of the week back in UL working with Lars Humer, the new head coach at the High Performance Centre there. The house in Castletroy where the Murphys lived is rented out, so the young swimmer lives with other students near the college. She has the best of both worlds.
Murphy admits she has a lot of work to do to get back to full fitness, so competing again is still a while away. But luckily she is still only 20, time is on her side. Although she doesn't feel like she has anything to prove, she still has ambitions. If anything, she is more determined than ever to achieve her goals. For Murphy, a new chapter has begun.