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Ireland's Annalise Murphy on great expectations, Rio’s unclean water and coping with light winds

The Irish sailor chats to The42 about her big year ahead.

Annalise Murphy faces a big few months ahead.
Annalise Murphy faces a big few months ahead.
Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

ANNALISE MURPHY IS facing potentially the biggest year of her career.

The 26-year-old Irish sailor has already achieved some significant feats in a relatively short space of time.

In 2012, Murphy was the subject of national attention after a series of exceptional performances at the London Olympics put her on course for a medal.

Having been second going into the final event at London 2012, the Rathfarnam native ultimately finished fourth, narrowly missing out on a medal in heartbreaking fashion, but still managing to produce Ireland’s best sailing performance at that level since David Wilkins and James Wilkinson claimed silver during the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

The following year, the Irish athlete partially made up for her Olympics disappointment, winning gold at European Championships, and subsequently earning a nomination for RTÉ Sports Person of the Year.

In 2014, her success continued, as she qualified Ireland for the 2016 Olympics owing to her performances at the ISAF Sailing World Championships in Santander, Spain, after finishing 20th overall from 120 boats.

Irish Olympians homecoming Annalise Murphy pictured at the Irish Olympians' homecoming. Source: Niall Carson

Yet the pressure on Murphy to succeed is now arguably greater than ever. Having seen her finish fourth in London 2012, the casual fan will likely expect a more experienced Murphy to go one better and claim a medal in Rio this summer — if only it were that simple.

The solo Laser Radial sailor faces a different challenge altogether in Rio, however. In recent times, Murphy has struggled to perform in events with light winds. In both her previous big successes, at the 2012 Olympics and the 2013 European Championships, the strong breezes have been perfect conditions in which the Dublin-born athlete could comfortably thrive.

Annalise Murphy Ireland's Annalise Murphy competing during the opening day of the Laser European and World Sailing Championships in Dublin Bay back in 2013. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Nevertheless, in Rio, the winds at Guanabara Bay rarely go above 10 knots. Consequently, there is a concern that she may struggle in such an environment, given her past problems in adapting to light winds.

Before then though, Murphy has more pressing concerns, with the European Championships later this month and the Worlds in April. It is only after these events that she can fully assess her progress and start focusing on Rio.

“I’m just trying to improve generally and improve my confidence in the surfing conditions,” she tells The42, when asked about the challenges facing her this year.

I’m doing trials at the moment. I’ve done two of the three trials. I’ve got one more to go… I need to sail well and prove that I deserve my place at the Olympics.”

London Olympic Games - Day 10 Ireland's Annalise Murphy (left) trails China's Lijia Xu and Great Britain's Alison Young in the Laser Radial Medal Race at the 2012 Olympics on Weymouth Bay. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

While Murphy is desperate to fulfill her potential, she is keen to manage expectations at the same time.

To be honest, I haven’t been sailing as well as I could have over the past year and a half,” she says. “I think my training’s been going really well and my preparation’s been good. My racing hasn’t been at the standard that I’d like it to be at.

“Of course I want to win a medal at Rio, but I have to be realistic about what my goals are and what I want to achieve. We’ll see in the next few months how I’m doing.”

Brazil OLY Rio Filthy Water In this June 1, 2015 file photo, a discarded sofa litters the shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. About 1,600 athletes will compete in Rio during the 2016 Summer Olympics. Hundreds more will be involved during the subsequent Paralympics. Experts say athletes will be competing in the viral equivalent of raw sewage with exposure to dangerous health risks almost certain. Many sailors have described the conditions as sailing in a toilet or an open sewer. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Another concern for Murphy and all other top-level sailors is Rio’s notoriously unclean waters. Back in December, World Sailing acknowledged it was a big problem that they were doing their utmost to resolve.

Recent tests revealed high levels of bacteria and viruses emanating from human sewage found in the city’s Olympic waterways, leaving ‘chance of infection very likely’ according to reports.

As if this controversy was not enough in itself, the former chief executive of World Sailing, Peter Sowrey, last month claimed he was effectively fired for strongly advocating a change of venue owing to this issue.

Brazil OLY Rio 2016 Filthy Water Fish carcasses litter the Jacarepagua lagoon shore in front of Olympic Park, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015. Thousands of tilapia, sea bass and mullets started washing up Friday. Brazilian environmentalist and biologist Mario Moscatelli says the fish most likely died because of insufficient oxygen due to pollutants and untreated human waste flowing into the lagoon from nearby condominiums and sprawling shantytowns. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Plans have been implemented to tackle the pollution problem, but Murphy is sceptical when asked whether she is optimistic that they will alleviate these issues before the Games begin.

“They’re not going to sort it out. I’ve been sailing there for two-and-a-half years and it’s exactly the same as it was two-and-a-half years ago. I don’t think they’ll be able to magically clean up the bay suddenly.

“It’s something you’re just going to have to put to the back of your mind, they’re not going to change the venue, so you just have to get on with it. There’s stuff in the water — the water’s dirty — but I’ve never been sick and I’ve spent a lot of time out there.

“Of course, the water doesn’t look nice and when you get splashed in the face by it, you do wonder what you’re getting splashed in the face with. But you just have to get on with it and try to not let it affect your racing.

“For me, the bigger concern is a plastic bag or some kind of rubbish getting stuck on my centre board and my rudder, which would slow me down during racing. That’s the bigger concern.

“Hopefully, I won’t get sick out there, but it would be pretty disappointing if I ended up losing a race because of it. But I’ve also sailed in venues before where there’s been a lot of seaweed and you just have to check for seaweed on your foils, so this will be the same sort of thing.”

London Olympics Sailing Women Annalise Murphy sails during the Laser radial class race at the London 2012 Summer Olympics. Source: Francois Mori

Since the Olympics, Irish sailing has thrived. Murphy lists Matt McGovern and Ryan Seaton (both of whom competed together in 49er class at the 2012 Olympics, finishing 14th ultimately), as well as Andrea Brewster, Saskia Tidey, Ewan McMahon and Aoife Hopkins among the sailors to watch out for in 2016 at various levels.

Annalise Murphy 20/12/2012 An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD presents the 2012 Sportswoman of the Month award for July to Annalise Murphy, alongside Kevin O'Sullivan, Editor Irish Times and Kieran Mulvey, Chairman of the Irish Sports Council. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The recent successes led to sailing being one of the best funded sports in the country, receiving significant funding from the Sports Council, but for the money to keep flowing in, this level of achievement must be maintained. Is Murphy feeling under extra pressure as a consequence of all these expectations, compared with the ostensibly less stressful build-up to London 2012?

Leading into 2012, at the Olympic venue I had some events beforehand and I finished 10th, 6th and third against all the competitors I’d be competing against in the Olympics. So going into those Olympics, I was pretty confident that I was a potential medallist.

“This time around, I haven’t performed as well in Rio. I’ve had one top 10 but it’s definitely not a venue I love compared with how I loved sailing in Weymouth. There’s not much pressure — I just want to perform to my best. I want to be happy with my result and how I sailed.

I can look at external pressure and people say ‘oh, you’re guaranteed a medal, because you came fourth last time,’ but it’s not like that. I have to train harder than I ever have before.

“But there’s so many variables in racing and I can only go and sail my best and at the end of the day, knowing that I couldn’t have done anything else. If I can go to the Olympics knowing that I couldn’t have done anything else to be prepared, I think I’m going to be in pretty good shape. That’s all you hope for and all you can reach for.”

Annalise Murphy Ireland's Annalise Murphy pictured competing in the Women's Laser Radial Classs Medal Race at the 2012 Olympics. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

And are conditions such as the hot weather and the light winds Murphy is likely to face something she has spent a considerable amount of time contemplating and preparing for?

This is what I’ve been focusing on for the past three-and-a-half years. It’s their winter time when the Olympics are on, so it won’t be particularly hot — maybe 20 to 30 degrees, it never gets much hotter than that.

“It’s generally lighter, so that’s what I’ve been working on. It’s harder, because when you have to work on your weaknesses all the time, it’s never enjoyable. When you work on your strengths, life is pretty easy, but your weaknesses, that’s hard.

So it’s about trying to chip away every day and make every session count, and that’s what I’ve been doing.

“I’ve been out to Rio seven times, I’ve done a lot of training out there. I know it quite well. I’ve got bad Portuguese to get by. It’s a great country. The people are so welcoming there. I’m able to get good training done out there, because it’s warm all year round. You don’t have days where it’s too cold to go sailing. So I’m looking forward to the challenges of the next six months ahead and to see where I can get to.”

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Paul Fennessy

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