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'She kept her head. She was going to take that medal home if it killed her'

A silver lining for Annalise Murphy after the pain of London 2012.

–Sinéad O’Carroll reports from Rio de Janeiro

Annalise Murphy celebrates winning silver medal Source: James Crombie/INPHO

THERE’S AN OFT-repeated line in Irish politics: ‘It’s the little things that trip you up.’

The small details can make or break a campaign, a politician, a government.

“You cross the big hurdles, and when you get to the small ones, you get tripped,” former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds famously said as he resigned in 1994.

Skip forward 12 years and New Zealand sailor Sara Winther came 11th in the laser radial world championships. The 34-year-old had already qualified her country for the Olympic Games and just needed to be formally selected. This automatically happens if the athlete places 10th or above by the nation’s rules.

Despite an appeal, 11th wasn’t going to cut it for the men-in-suit brigades and New Zealand opted to leave Winther at home and send nobody to the race.

One place on a leaderboard. A little thing.

It may have been a small detail to the Kiwis, something to be dismissed, a name they wouldn’t worry about again. But what if they should have thought twice? The little thing that tripped up New Zealand was about to kickstart a journey to an Olympic medal for another small island nation.

Sometimes, in sport as in politics, the power of the small things work in your favour.

Let down by the system, Winther wasn’t fully at peace with her country’s decision, knowing she could offer something special to the 2016 Games. A fierce competitor, she has the enviable combination of killer instinct, high intelligence and a rare ability to coach.

Four years and a day ago, Annalise Murphy stood heartbroken on the seafront of Weymouth, crying while talking to the national broadcaster. She had finished fourth in the Olympic Games, a torture only few people in this world know.

On that afternoon, she vowed to come back and win that medal. At 22 years of age, it was the most plausible scenario.

But in the next four years, her confidence waned. People told her she wasn’t a light-wind sailor and Rio was a light-wind course. She lost form in big races. She lost funding. Redemption at the 2016 Games seemed to be drifting further and further away.

“We were all so terrified of London. It was such a risk,” Cathy McAleavey, Annalise’s mother and an Olympian herself (she competed in Seoul 1988), said as she waited to watch her daughter take to the podium today.

Knowing how you could feel. Sailing is the hardest sport in the world. A medal is almost impossible.

But then there are the little things.

Winther could see what Murphy could do.

“She just needed to fix some things and I knew how to do that,” she says, simply.

I obviously would love to have been racing but the next best thing is to be able to use all the information and everything I’ve learned lately to be able help a friend and a really good sailor out… It’s just as cool to be here and watch your mate take a silver medal.

Cathy believes Winther was the key to unlocking Annalise’s full potential.

“She was so important,” she told The42, noting that New Zealand made a mistake letting her go. A big mistake.

Coming out to Rio as her training partner and minder, she became an integral part of the Dubliner’s second Olympic campaign.

The hard work had already been done – 10 kilos lost, 128 days in the dirty water of Marina da Gloria and sinking the ‘Queen of the Breeze’ title – but there were still small obstacles to overcome.

Annalise Murphy 2.0 can sail in any conditions. She just needed to believe it, keep her mental calm and do it over six days of racing.

You don’t get a medal in sailing for nothing.

Winther’s talent on the water and as a coach, teamed with trainer Rory Fitzpatrick, had Murphy more prepared for a week of tough sailing.

She stayed away from the Athletes’ Village, opting for an Airbnb closer to the venue and avoiding the hype.

“In the last few months, she’s made a lot of gains in the areas, I guess, that she perceived her weaknesses,” Winther explains.

And, yeah, if people had asked her [about her chances] a month ago, she might have had a different answer. It was on purpose to play the whole thing down.

Her family travelled but didn’t actually make the beach site until the ninth and 10th races.

They had all learned from London. They all believed she would medal but they didn’t want to make too much noise, raise the expectation.

But interest was piqued when the 26-year-old went out last week and won the first race. “That wasn’t meant to happen,” were the whispers around the press rooms.

A 13th position in the second outing that day reminded the world just how difficult, unpredictable and heartstopping sailing can be.

No checking your email. No Facebook. Food, morning basketball and some family time. They were the rules set by Winther.

Brother Finn Murphy predicted that anyone who could stay mostly in the top 10 throughout would win – even if they didn’t cross the finish line first at any point again.

Day Two. A fourth place and a seventh place. Consistency.

Annalise had already decided that it was best her sports psychologist – pushed for time off work – should be there for the start of the series, rather than the end. Again, the hard yards were done but Kate Kirby was a presence in the Largo do Machado apartment – the team’s hub.

Day Three. Fifth and second. Everything consistent – except for the weather. Rio was doing its best impression of Ireland. Four seasons in the one day.

Day Four. A tough one but survival ensured. 17th and 12th.

Day Five. A show of mental strength as races could have slipped by but didn’t. Sixth and seventh. Third overall going into the medal race.

A bronze wasn’t a mathematical certainty so the demons weren’t exorcised just yet.

A rest day.

“It’s just another regatta,” the family mantra. “We’ve been here before.”

Except it’s the Olympics.

Monday. 15 August. Medal Race Day.

The Murphy clan has a set routine. Father Con has to distance himself. He’s a race official on another course at the Games. Kirby has gone home, her role fulfilled.

Cathy, sister Claudine, Finn and Winther are nervous. Flags are bought. Faces are painted. Tickets are stockpiled.

The weather isn’t playing ball.

Katie Taylor loses. (“God, I hope Annalise doesn’t hear that before going out on the water.”)

Hours tick by. A text from RTÉ: ‘Will they race today?’

The general population doesn’t know about sailing but these delays are normal, part of the sport.

“We’re used to this. Annalise is used to this.” That’s Claudine. The secret is out that her sister is as prepared as she can be for whatever this regatta throws at her.

It goes from deathly, smotheringly calm to godly breeze to whirling winds in 10 seconds, just shy of the cut-off point for sailing.

The Murphy camp is elated. Yes, she’s shaken the ‘Queen of the Breeze’ label, but that doesn’t mean she can’t return home every so often.

Boats are launched, songs are sung and the small Irish contingent get ready for a tense 40 minutes.

But, the little things.

A race official speaks over the intercom, apologetic there will be no races for the rest of the day. There’s no light, there’s big wind and it’s simply too dangerous. A boat has already capsized in the water.

Monday night is a haze of empanadas for dinner, rebooking flights (‘My sister’s in the Olympics and her race was changed,’ is probably among the most far-fetched reasons given to Iberia customer care), checking Airbnb contracts and staying calm.

It’s going to have to be Take Two on Tuesday.

“Did you get any sleep, Cathy?”

“No.”

“Did you light another candle?”

“My electric one. You had to wait until it went out to put money in otherwise it wouldn’t go on because only one of them was working.”

The little things.

As slow as Monday rolled by, Tuesday was an Olympic day on fast-forward. Plans for fresh nail paint and leisurely croissants and coffee were quickly changed into a gulp of café com leite and some (stale) bread while packing up the apartment that needs to be vacated (without notice) by noon.

The Irish camp in Marina da Gloria is small but loud. Tricolours are placed where supporters can see the big screen, anxious they won’t miss a mark.

The start is a good one for Annalise and a bad one for the Belgian Evi Van Acker sitting in fourth. Winther is happy, her previously tense demeanour relaxing. Everything she had told Annalise about her abilities was being played out in the sea before her.

“She’s doing it,” she says at the halfway point with unshakeable belief in her teammate.

Annalise Murphy celebrates winning silver with brother Finn, mother Cathy McAleavey and sister Claudine Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Banishing all thoughts of fourth, of London, of bad form, of needing breeze, of being tall, of not being 55 kilos, Murphy sailed with the composure and mental strength of a champion. They say once an Olympian, always an Olympian. A deserved title.

“Is there another lap?” asks someone in the crowd as the boats head downwind.

“No.”

“What?”

She really is doing it.

The small crowd rushes the beach, crushing a young boy’s sandcastle en route – an early lesson in having to rebuild, perhaps – and waits for the official announcement.

The maths is all worked out. A solid fifth places gives Ireland its second silver medal of the Games.

Her mother’s final words on the matter: “She kept her head. She was going to take that medal home if it killed her.”

More from The42′s team in Rio: 

‘This has been the longest week ever!’ Annalise Murphy’s family overjoyed at Olympics success

Annalise Murphy told nobody but she came to Rio for this Olympic medal

Belief but no expectations yet: Murphy family quietly proud of Annalise in her quest for Olympic glory

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