Aoife Hopkins was put forward by the Irish Sailing Association as a candidate for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The 16-year-old hoping to represent Ireland at next summer's Olympics

Aoife Hopkins chats to The42 about the prospect of realising her dream in Rio.

IT’S SAFE TO say Aoife Hopkins is not exactly your average teenager. While most people her age are not as lazy and inactive as the stereotype suggests, nor can they claim to be genuine Olympic hopefuls.

The 16-year-old Dubliner, on the other hand, experienced a potentially life-changing moment recently, when the Irish Sailing Association put her forward as a candidate for Rio 2016.

“The Irish Sailing Association invited me to compete based on my results this season,” she tells The42, remembering the moment when she first learned that there was a genuine possibility she could end up on the plane to Rio.

“They said: ‘Well, you’re at the standard, would you like to compete in the Olympic trials?’  At first, I was like: ‘What?’ I was in shock. My mum and dad, and I, didn’t know what to think for a few days. We were thinking: ‘What do we do now?’ I realised what a big opportunity it was and how amazing it would be. So then we started planning.”

Hopkins has a bubbly persona and speaks with a level of confidence that doesn’t always come naturally to people her age, or anyone for that matter. Her answers have the enthusiasm and excitement of someone still falling in love with her sport — the antithesis of more seasoned athletes who quickly grow tired of answering the same journalists’ questions for the 700th time.

The Dubliner’s impressive recent results mean she is ranked 81st in the world out of 550 participants. Her excellent form also saw her qualify for the Sailing World Cup in Britain last June, alongside the perceived top 40 sailors on the planet. Unsurprisingly, Hopkins was the youngest competitor there.

To even reach the competition was a considerable achievement — Hopkins’ education means her training currently has to be limited, whereas she was up against full-time professional sailors, many of whom had competed at the Olympics and countless other prestigious events.

“I was just happy to be invited,” she says. “I wasn’t going there to get good results. I was just going to learn from it. So I didn’t really feel the pressure. Even from day one to day five, I just felt myself improve, so it was a really good learning experience.

“It was all quite hyped up because we had electronic wristbands to tag in and out of the water instead of the good old signing in and out. There were even trackers on our boats and things like that.”

Yet despite these impressive achievements, Hopkins still has much to do to secure a place in Rio next summer.

She will need to perform strongly at a number of upcoming events, including the 2015 Copa Brasil de Vela in Rio in December, the 2016 Laser Radial World Championships in Mexico in March and the Laser Radial European Championship in Gran Canaria.

And while dreaming of competing on the world stage next summer, Hopkins is retaining a healthy sense of perspective about the matter.

“I’ve been training very hard and I’ll give it my best shot. I have my Leaving Cert next year, but my dream goal is a medal at the 2020 Olympics.

“So if I make it this year and sail to my best potential, it’ll be absolutely amazing. But if I don’t, while I’ll be disappointed, I would see it as a learning experience for 2020. I’d go into the Tokyo cycle having done Olympic trials and probably not feeling as much pressure because I’ll have done it already.”


Aside from the general difficulty in qualifying for Rio, the cost of this commitment is another substantial barrier for Hopkins.

She spends roughly €2,000 a month on sailing, while participating in the Olympic trials amounts to an extra €20,000. Despite the generosity of her parents and the sponsorship of CH Marine, as well as the degree of funding given to her through a subsidised youth programme linked with the Irish Sailing Association, this income alone won’t be enough for Hopkins to realise her dream.

Consequently, the teenage sailor has linked up with PledgeSports — an organisation who facilitate Irish athletes’ crowdfunding initiatives — to help boost her hopes of reaching Brazil.

“Aoife got 150 likes on a Facebook post she put up, but if everybody there had donated €10, then suddenly you could pay for two flights to Rio,” her mother Niamh explains. “It’s great to get big donations, but it’s all those small ones that really make a difference if you get a lot. People were liking and sharing, but they weren’t donating the €10, so we’ve put more of a direct appeal out now.”

“The first step was fundraising and I’m basically doing the same amount of training as I was before,” Aoife adds. “I’m in full-time education, I’m in fifth year. I can only train a maximum of four days a week. I do Wednesdays and Fridays and then Saturdays and Sundays if I’m not catching up on study from the week. By the time I get into the gym in town and get home again, that’s three hours out of the day — I also have to do that three times a week. So I’m training as much as I can at the moment.”

And despite the significant degree of dedication required to maintain her current level, education remains a priority for Hopkins, though the Howth youngster is confident she can have a balance between the two.

A student of Santa Sabina in Sutton, Hopkins says the school have done all they can to accommodate her sailing needs.

“The school have been really supportive,” she says. “They have given me study periods that I wouldn’t have otherwise and let me stay after school on days where there’s a bit of a gap between study and gym, and it’d be too short to go home. So things like that really help. I’ve been studying on trains and planes a good bit. Our coach has put dedicated study time in when we go abroad.”

Niamh, meanwhile, emphasises the level of thought that has gone into ensuring the balance between school and sailing remains healthy for her daughter.

“The Youth and Development manager and the Olympic Coach, Rory Fitzpatrick, came in to Aoife’s school and met her year head and looked at the programme as a whole. They looked at how much sailing she needed to do to keep up her level while still balancing school, so she’s received great support,” she explains.

“The Irish Sailing Association employ Sports Med Ireland for the gym and they’ve actually asked one of the trainers to come down and do a session in my school once a week,” Aoife adds. “So things like that are going to make a huge difference. It’ll get me hours extra study a day, so they’ve been really good with things like that.”

sail2 Gareth Craig Gareth Craig

Therefore, what started as a “social thing,” a sailing course she participated in by chance with friends in Howth as a nine-year-old, has developed into a full-blown obsession. Having watched in awe along with the rest of the country upon witnessing Annalise Murphy’s incredible London 2012 achievements, Hopkins now trains with Ireland’s best-known sailor on occasion. The precocious teenager cried upon learning of her invitation to last summer’s World Cup, but is determined she won’t be overawed by any occasion, no matter how grandiose.

And while acknowledging that she has to miss out on “a party or two,” Hopkins still finds room in her hectic schedule for normal teenage things, such as reading books, running with the dog and hanging out with friends.

Hopkins admits to giving little thought about the degree of fame that may come her way in future should she qualify for Rio, preferring to focus purely on the sailing and shut everything else out. More than anything, she relishes the immense challenges that her sport presents.

“Most people don’t realise that it’s a really complicated sport — there are tons of variables — the conditions are always different so you have to look where there’s more wind, more pressure, the wind shifts, there’s tide, there’s local and land effects.

“I think it was all that complexity that got me really focused on it. I really enjoy that focus – there’s an uncertainty to it and you just have to go with what happens sometimes.”

And what is it, does she believe, that separates her from other teenagers her age — many of whom are talented but few are so prodigious as to be put forward as a candidate for Rio?

“Some natural talent is needed to make it,” she says. “I kept at it, because I enjoyed it, whereas some of my friends enjoyed their hockey more and went that route. I got more involved. It was also the hard work and a supportive background (that made it work) — mum and dad are really encouraging if I have a bad day.

“And I think if you really love something, no matter what age you are or what circumstances you’re in, you’re going to keep at it.”

Moreover, in her short career so far, Hopkins has already overcome one considerable setback — her demotion from the Leinster squad at the age of 14.

“I was really upset because I’d had a bad season,” she remembers. “I’d gone through a teenage athlete phase where everyone feels a little bit less motivated and they say: ‘I want to go to that party, I don’t want to go training at mid-term.’ And I kind of went through that and after getting dropped for a few weeks, I was really disappointed.

“But then I decided that I would prove them wrong, and I started going out training on my own or with other people and coaches, and just working really hard. Then, the next year, I was on the national squad.

“So it’s just about bringing back that focus, which can be easy to lose track of. Since then I haven’t (lost it). It was just that one moment. But I said ‘no, I love this. I’m not getting dropped from the squad. I’m going to work harder.’ And since then, I’ve never really looked back. It’s just been plain sailing,” she laughs.

For more info on Aoife, visit her official Facebook page. You can also donate to her PledgeSports Olympics campaign here.

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