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Dublin: 9°C Saturday 16 January 2021

Shelving the 2020 dream for an around the world 'once in a lifetime opportunity'

We spoke to Ireland’s Olympic silver medalist Annalise Murphy as she prepares to set sail on the Volvo Ocean Race.

NEARLY SEVEN WEEKS ago, Ireland’s Olympic hero Annalise Murphy posted a statement on her Facebook page.

Annalise Murphy Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

It was 18 August, and the day before the Laser Radial World Championships were set to kick off. She had picked up a troublesome knee injury three weeks prior to that, and was forced to withdraw from the competition.

“I set these Championships as my major goal and I have put everything in preparing for them,” she wrote. “I am devastated that I won’t be able to compete.

“I have to look at the big picture and I have three years until Tokyo so getting my knee right is the most important thing at the moment.”

She added that there were ‘lots of exciting things on the horizon’ though.

The Rio 2016 silver medalist is now preparing to set sail on the Volvo Ocean Race. Sailing around the world for the next eight months or so obviously means that her Tokyo 2020 campaign will be shelved for now, but she feels that it’s the right path to follow.

Her knee? It’s ok, she assures me, but we’ll get to that later on in the piece. Firstly, how did this new opportunity come about?

Murphy tells The42 that she threw herself into preparation for the next Olympics, she was training hard and everything was going to plan. Then came an email from British veteran yachtswoman Dee Caffari, asking if she’d be interested in the Volvo Ocean Race and she was invited to do a trial out in Lisbon.

“It didn’t even occur to me that I could get picked for a team,” shes smiles. “I don’t have any ocean racing experience, I’m an Olympic sailor and I’ve never had the time to get into big boat sailing.”

She packed her bags and headed for Portugal anyway. Into the unknown, but excited by what may come. Eager to see what prospects were on the horizon.

Annalise Murphy arrival - Dublin Airport Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“The Volvo 65, they’re amazing boats,” she continues, as she briefly discusses the trial, piecing together how everything came about. “Really fast, fun to sail. Really hard work but I really enjoyed the trial.”

Things went well, and much to the Rathfarnham native’s surprise, she was asked afterwards if she’d like to be part of the team that they were setting up — Turn the Tide on Plastic. A big decision, a year into a new Olympic cycle.

“I had to have a good think about it because I was going to have to take nearly a year out of my preparation for Tokyo. I sat down with my coach Rory (Fitzpatrick) and discussed it in detail.

“This is my third Olympics. I’ve sailed my laser nearly every single day for the last… probably 10 years. He said it’s a time in the Olympic cycle where taking some time out from laser sailing isn’t going to really be any issue.

The 27-year-old recalls the conversation: “You’re going to learn a whole lot of new skills on this boat. It’s not like you’re not going to be sailing, you’re still sailing, just learning a whole new aspect of it.

“We decided that the timing was OK and that I still have two full years to prepare for Tokyo once the race is over.”

The freshness, the new venture is something that really appeals to Murphy.

She admits that after her heartbreaking fourth place finish at London 2012, she sent herself into overdrive. Her obsession with the Rio almost caused her to give it all up at one stage.

So this change is good.

Source: Volvo Ocean Race/YouTube

“It’s a completely different challenge. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the hardest thing I’ll ever do in my life! I’m sure there’s gonna be more days that I’m gonna think ‘Why am I here?’ than I’m thinking ‘This is amazing’.

“But it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to do this, and to get to do it with this young, really enthusiastic crew on a boat that’s also spreading a really important message about cleaning our oceans and plastic pollution. It’s really, really exciting.”

With the new challenge comes a completely different way of life. The jump from Olympic inshore sailing to professional offshore sailing is massive.

It’s all go. Minimal sleep, strange food, high risk at times… it all takes some getting used to.

“It’s a big adjustment,” she smiles. “But it’s good.

“I’m just kind of taking it as it comes. I’m on a high-speed learning programme. Every single day I’m learning something new.

“There’s high consequences on this boat compared to my laser. I’ve done a huge amount of safety training in the last month to make sure that I’m well prepared to sail the boat.

“At the end of the day, they say it’s one hand for you, one hand for the boat. You can’t fall, If you fall overboard in these boats, it’s really not good. It’s a big eye opener when you realise that this is dangerous.

“You have to be sensible, smart and careful all the time. It’s really been drilled into me.

“I’m not particularly looking forward to eating freeze-dried food for say 24 days in-a-row, but it’ll be OK!”

And the race itself: “You’re racing for weeks, not hours. We’re not 50 minutes anymore!

Annalise Murphy celebrates winning silver Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It’s just staying focused and looking after yourself, making sure you’re eating enough and trying to get enough sleep. It’s nearly impossible to get enough sleep. But I’m quite lucky that I’m a pretty good sleeper.

“Whenever I get a chance to sit down, I’ll pass out. I’ll sleep anywhere, so that’s probably one of the good things for me in this race. The minute I get told I can go to sleep, I’ll be knocked out until someone wakes me to go on watch again!”

She flew to Lisbon last night, they christen the boat on Friday — the official launch — and they’ll have a prologue race from the Portuguese capital to Alicante on Sunday.

The race kicks off from there on 22 October.

Back to the knee though. Murphy doesn’t like to dwell on the past too much, but admits that this — her first serious injury — really did knock her.

“I was pretty heartbroken,” she recalls, of when she first picked up the injury.

“Initially, it looked really bad. There was this discussion that I was possibly going to be out of action for five months. It wasn’t even going to be that I wasn’t able to do the World Championships, I mightn’t have been able to do anything up until Christmas time.

“Even though it was pretty disappointing to miss the World Championships this year, it’s one year. Still, I’ve got years left. There’ll be World Championships next year and there’ll be one in 2019, and 2020.

“It’s a small loss for getting my knee right. Hopefully I won’t have any problems with it in the future.”

She’s a self-admitted ‘good healer’. She’s worked hard — ‘went above and beyond what your average person would do to try and make sure I could get back sailing as quickly as possible,’ she grins — and followed all of the orders handed out by her physio.

Annalise Murphy Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

It hasn’t troubled her recently, but Murphy knows she has to be careful. Fortunately, in one way though, her arms are of much more importance in this boat.

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She’s altered her gym programme, and it’s clearly playing dividends.

“I’ve kind of surprised myself at the moment by how strong I am,” she laughs.

“I was convinced that my bag in the airport weighed 10 kilos, and they put it on the scales and it was 27. She (the check-in worker) was like ‘Your bag’s too heavy’. I was like ‘No, no, it’s only 10 kilos’. Anyway, I had to wear my entire suitcase onto the airplane!”

As aforementioned, the race finishes up in June 2018 in The Hague, and immediately after, the focus returns to Tokyo.

Surely it’ll be on her mind as she sails around the world, hitting host cities like Cape Town, Hong Kong and Cardiff, but those thoughts will firmly be to the back of her mind.

Actually, with Christmas falling in the middle of the action, what will the story be there?

“I’m going to be in the Southern Ocean for Christmas,” she laughs, slightly nervously. “Our scheduled date to get into Melbourne is the 28 December. We might get there faster than that but I don’t think we’ll get there three days faster.

“I think I’m going to be having probably like freeze-dried scrambled eggs for breakfast, then for lunch I’ll be having, I dunno, chicken tikka masala, and for dinner, maybe like noodle hot-pot.”

So no turkey and ham?

“Christmas dinner is my favourite dinner of the whole year! It’s going to be a bit of a shock to the system. Christmas dinner 2018, that’s going to be good!”

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

But June 2018, after the Volvo Ocean Race, it’s all systems go for Tokyo.

“I’ve quite a short period between the race finishing and my first opportunity to qualify Ireland for a spot in Tokyo,” she responds when it’s put to her.

“I’m also quite lucky that there’s a whole group of young Irish girls coming up through. I’ve kind of showed them what’s possible and they’re all training really hard now.

“They’re going to be biting at my heels. It’s going to give me some motivation to make sure that I’m up to speed quickly and push me to jump up another level.

“It’s brilliant for Irish sailing in general that we have this whole group of talented youngsters coming through. It’s really exciting to see. I know that someone can always come and be better than me, so I always have to sail at my best and do my best.

“It’s a good incentive that I know that I’ll have to get back to it quickly.”

Olympic silver medallist and Liberty Insurance brand ambassador Annalise Murphy has insured her newly restored Olympic medal ahead of the Volvo Ocean Race.

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