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Annalise did it, why can't she? Howth's own Hopkins breaking down barriers with 2020 vision

It’s not all plain sailing for the 21-year-old Trinity College student though.

“MY DREAM GOAL is a medal at the 2020 Olympics,” top Irish sailor Aoife Hopins told The42 in October 2015.

Just 16 at the time, she went on to trial for Rio 2016 and impressed but like most of the rest of us, she watched from afar as Ireland’s Olympic hero Annalise Murphy won a silver medal in the Laser Radial class. 

aoife h Irish sailing star Aoife Hopkins.

21 now, that 2020 dream is well and truly alive. More than ever, perhaps, especially given the fact that Murphy has jumped ship to to the 49er FX class where she now partners Cork’s Katie Tingle.

While Murphy has definitely been a shining example for Hopkins to follow through her journey, the Howth native has seen it all first-hand considering she trained alongside Rathfarnham’s Olympic star for years in the build-up to the Games.

What about those Olymypic trials for Rio, so?

She was 17 and in Fifth Year of school when her coach Rory Fitzpatrick, now Irish Sailing Performance Head Coach, sat her down and told her she should go for it. Even if just for the experience. Why not?

“I mean well, why not? They were in Mexico, Rio and Miami, so funding was why not!” she laughs, in conversation with The42.

“When I first said it to my parents, they were appalled: ‘I want to go to Mexico, Rio and Miami to trial for the 2016 Olympics…’ what?‘”

Fitzpatrick then sat the trio down shortly after, and talked them into it. It took about two hours, Hopkins recalls, but they eventually made the decision that she’d go ahead and trial. The experience itself, as was advised, most definitely paid off.

“It was three senior events and I had only really started out in the senior fleet, so the experience of each one of them, especially when you’re on such a steep learning curve at that age really, really helped. I definitely wouldn’t take it back, it was fantastic.”

Older and bolder now, and having well and truly made a name for herself in the senior fleet, the Trinity College student knows exactly what it takes to succeed on the world stage. 

She’s seen Irish Sailing history written in Brazil, she’s seen that it’s achievable. If Annalise can do it, why can’t she?

Aoife Hopkins 21-year-old Hopkins is an extremely bright prospect. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Ireland is an island nation, we’ve got to remember that,” she says. “In terms of boating, it’s natural to be doing it.

“Ireland is a small country where sailing is the second-best funded Olympic sport in the country, but we’re still completely underfunded and under-resourced compared to the other countries. 

“It would be easy to kind of sit back and say, ‘We don’t have the resources to do what it takes’ but Annalise has just completely shown that we do. We’ve got the systems and with the hard work and dedication, it can be done.”

The new High Performance HQ is another huge step in the right direction and the launch is an extremely positive day, but it’s also a chance to remind other’s that being an elite international athlete isn’t all glitz and glam. 

The lack of funds she mentioned is a huge setback. So much so that she, for one, is left out of pocket fairly often after paying for her own flights and other costs related to competition.

“I don’t think people realise,” she frowns. “When you say you’re on the Irish Sailing Team — the senior team campaigning for the Olympics…

“In a lot of sport, you’d find flights, accommodation, entry fee, boat charter — well, not that in other sports — but those costs directly associated with the campaign, you would kind of assume they’re paid for but for us, they’re not.

“We get coaching paid for by Irish Sailing and strength and conditioning. Sometimes boat transport as well. It’s really tough though. My parents were amazing for the first however many years, doing everything they could to support me.”

She’s the type to look on the bright side, listing out team sponsors and praising the Irish Sailing Foundation for their financial aid. Sport Ireland’s funding team gets a mention as well as her own private sponsors.

But truth be said, it’s far from a level playing field when you look at other nations.

“It’s tough that we’re kind of behind in that,” she agrees. “Before, I would have said that that makes it almost impossible for us to go and win medals but Annalise has just gone and proved them wrong.

Annalise Murphy arriving at People's Park in Dun Laoghaire Annalise Murphy with her silver Olympic medal at the Dublin homecoming in 2016. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It’s really good to see that the systems we have are enough. There is a lack of resources there that hopefully in the future will come through, but for now anyway, we’re managing.”

And then it’s back to the positives: Irish Sailing setting up the foundation, the new HQ and how big of a day this is for the Association. For years, Team Ireland have been operating out of clubs and across the country — and even the world — but now they have a proper home.

That said, it does all go back to the club. It’s where you start and where you finish, and it’s fair to say that Hopkins holds Howth Yacht Club close to her heart.

Interestingly enough though, she absolutely hated it all at the start.

“Well, sailing in Ireland in the winter, it can be cold,” she laughs, recalling an evening she fell asleep in her dinner after a long, horrible day on the water. “You go out, you get wet, cold, tired. At the beginning, it wasn’t love at first sight anyway.”

She speaks highly of her sailing-mad parents, and giggles when she thinks of them almost forcing her out the door.

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“Growing up in Howth as well, it’s almost a right of passage — throw a kid out on a boat!

“I just stuck with it and it grew on me almost. More as my friends were doing it, it was fun to hang around with them. Now I just absolutely love it. I can’t think of anything better than being on the water.”

It all began to click and her love for the sport grew and grew as she went up through the boats and the pathways. From the Optimist to the Topper to the Laser, she raced more and more and her star really began to rise. 

Her parents supported her through thick and thing, by her side every step of the way. With success and recognition came further enjoyment, slowly but surely.

And then came a defining moment.

“It’s terrible. Something has to be taken away from you before you realise you love it. It’s terrible but that’s the way it happened.

aoife hopkins 2 Hopkins hopes to represent Ireland at Tokyo 2020. Source: Aoife Hopkins Sailing Facebook.

“I still joke with my coach Rory Fitzpatrick, he signs off on all of the youth squads and everything. I joke that he dropped me from Leinster squad. Well, I completely deserved it, I had terrible results that season.”

Dropped. Just like that. 

“It was suddenly like, ‘Hang on, I’m not on the squad? I’m not going to be sailing every weekend?’

Not that she didn’t appreciate it or that it was a given, it was just the norm. And that made her realise just how much she wanted it. The moment that made Aoife Hopkins, perhaps.

“I think I had just been so used to sailing every weekend. As I said, in the winter it does get fairly grim sometimes. Especially around that age, I think I was 14 or 15, there’s other stuff going on. You’re missing out on doing things with friends and stuff like that.

“But yeah, I had to have that setback. I really fought for it then and really realised how privileged I was to do it as well. I really began to appreciate it then.

“I sailed that winter in Howth by myself really, got back on the squad the next year and kept going with the progression after that.”

She battled gamely against that adversity, and was rightly rewarded in 2017 when she was crowned U21 European Champion for Laser Radial.

And here she is in 2019, with what appears to be an extremely bright future ahead.

Studying Mathematics, Hopkins has opted to split her First Year over two and is currently in the second half of that. All going well, she’ll qualify for Tokyo 2020 this year and defer her Second Year in Trinity in the direct lead-up to the Games.

That really is all going well though, she stresses. 

Things are going to plan as of now anyway. She’s busy putting in the hard graft with her training partner Tipperary’s Aisling Keller — who was actually the silver medallist in the 2017 U21 Laser European Championships.

They’ve known one another what feels like their entire lives, and their friendship intensified as they trained with Murphy in the lead-up to Rio. Neither are full-time and both have college commitments, so it’s pretty much a match made in heaven.

sailing Hopkins (front, centre) and the Irish Sailing team at their new HQ.

They sail from Monday to Friday and spend between two to two and-a-half hours on the water, as well as squeezing in a gym session or a cycle — sometimes both — too.

Weekends mean no sailing, but it’s still full steam ahead with the fitness.

“It’s all go, no rest for the wicked,” she laughs. But that’s exactly what it takes.

Next up for Hopkins is the World Cup in Genoa from 15 to 21 April, and after that is the Europeans in Porto in mid-May. There’s a few exams in between, she grins, but that will all be done. Then, the real fun starts.

“Then we’re out in Japan for two months,” she enthuses. “Our Worlds is our first event out there which is the Olympic qualifier, then we’ve got the Olympic test event which is a dry run for the Olympics really — more for organising authorities more than anything else, but it should be run the way the Olympics will be. Then we have a World Cup out there.”

The qualifiers in Sakaiminato from 17 to 24 July though, they’re the big one. 

That’s the target?

“Absolutely. That’s what we’ve been really working towards since August of last year, and will do until July of this year.”

No doubt she will. One big step closer to that dream goal, hopefully.

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Emma Duffy

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