Thursday 23 November 2017

Lanigan-O'Keeffe and Coyle embrace great expectations

Arthur Lanigan-O'Keeffe and Natalya Coyle. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Arthur Lanigan-O'Keeffe and Natalya Coyle. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Sean McGoldrick and Barry Lennon

A bronze statue of Ollie Walsh, arguably one of the greatest goalkeepers in the history of hurling, stands in Mill Street in his native Thomastown.

He will be forever synonymous with the picturesque town which was also the birthplace of the late Monsignor Tommy Maher, regarded as the father figure of modern-day Kilkenny hurling.

By Saturday night though, a new name could be about to join the sporting heroes from the town built on the Nore as Arthur Lanigan-O'Keeffe is one of the leading contenders for a podium place in the modern pentathlon at the Rio Olympics.

European competitors have traditionally dominated the event and Lanigan-O'Keeffe is the current European champion.

Read more: 'It sounds arrogant but I can beat all those guys' - Keane

Four years ago, at the London Games, the then 20-year-old was the rookie in the 36-man competition.

"I was the second youngest competitor and the youngest European and I had two weeks's notice when I got the call-up after a Polish competitor failed a drugs test.

"It was amazing to finish 25th given my preparations. Now I'm going in as the European champion having beaten the previous Olympic champion and world champion. So I have much different expectations."

Growing up in Thomastown, Lanigan-O'Keeffe was initially interested in swimming. But his parents were involved in horses and as he got older he became involved in other sports and ultimately settled on the modern pentathlon.

So when he finished fourth year in Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick, he secured a scholarship to a prestigious school near Glastonbury in Somerset called Millfield College, which is essentially a cadet school for young pentathletes.

Nowadays, he's based at the new Sport Ireland campus in Abbotstown where he has been training full time since postponing finishing a degree in sports management in UCD.

The competitors don't use their own horses in competition - they are supplied by the organising committee. Logistically it would be a nightmare for competitors to transport their own horses all over the world and wildly expensive.

"You get half an hour to familiarise yourself with the horse you are allotted and then you have to do a jumping course. But at the Olympics all horses are good," he says.

The scoring system is complicated with competitors awarded points after each event. While the swimming is straight forward; in the fencing the 35 competitors face each other once with points being calculated on the number of wins and losses.

Ireland's female compeitor in the event Natalya Coyle concedes that Lanigan-O'Keeffe's early qualification added to the pressure on her.

The 25-year-old, who trained alongside the Kilkenny man since the pair were in their teens, only qualified in June - almost two years after Lanigan-O'Keeffe.

However, the Meath woman insists the campaign to reach Rio was made more difficult by following up her impressive performance at the last Olympics, which saw her finish ninth.

"This time around people said, 'sure you've qualified before why haven't qualified yet'. That made it tough. But you have to take it. In some ways, it's nice that people ask about the sport," she said.


The London result made her think medals were in reach and that turned out to be a double-edged sword. She hit training hard on her return from London, quickly burning herself out before an enforced break.

The time out allowed her to finish her business degree in Trinity College but meant that her warm-up for these Games was put back. "I needed to go through it. I'm stubborn and I'm not great at listening in the first place. I've to work on it."

Fortunes improved for Coyle, daughter of the former owner of Tayto crisps Ray Coyle, picking up World Cup gold early this year with Lanigan-O'Keeffe.

London is a far cry from Rio but will provide a blueprint.

"I need to do what I did in London, hit personal bests in every event and who knows what can happen. There's no point in putting a number on it. What if you won a medal but you've had a really crap day?"

Irish Independent

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