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'It's more when your friends say it about the Olympics, you're kind of like, 'Jesus, yeah... It's mad''

Darragh Greene started swimming competitively after he broke his leg in fourth year, and now he’s set to represent Ireland at the 2020 Olympics.

Soon-to-be Olympian Darragh Greene.
Soon-to-be Olympian Darragh Greene.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

EIGHT YEARS AFTER taking the plunge and two years after radically changing his swimming career, Darragh Greene is on the verge of fulfilling a quite recently-formed Olympic dream.

At 24, the Longford native is not exactly ‘young’ given the sport’s age profile. At the same time, he has only been breaking records since he was 22 or so. He is the quintessential late bloomer.

A breaststroke specialist, Greene first began to turn heads at his maiden World University Games in Taipei in 2017, finishing sixth in the 50m final.

In August of 2018, he broke the 100m Irish senior record in the prelims at the European Swimming Championships in Glasgow, finishing with a time of 1.00.20. Later that same evening, he became the first Irishman to clock a sub-minute outing over the same distance, breaking his own record from hours beforehand by a full 0.28 seconds.

At the Irish Open Swimming Championships in March of this year, Greene finished two seconds clear of 2016 Rio Olympian Nicholas Quinn in the 200m and, in the process, ended Andrew Bree’s 11-year reign as the Irish senior record-holder with a time of 2.10.05.

darragh-greene-breaks-the-irish-record-for-200m-breastroke Darragh Greene breaks the Irish record for 200m breaststroke. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

But the apex of Greene’s coming-of-age 2019 came four months later, in July, at the World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea.

Another Irish-record display — this one a 59.82 in the 100m heats — was enough to ostensibly qualify for the Tokyo Olympics; Greene secured pre-validation and, essentially, a seat on the plane to Tokyo — he will have to simply swim a far more manageable time at the Irish Open Olympic trials next April in order to formalise his selection by Swim Ireland.

Mind you, his 59.82 in Korea bizarrely wasn’t enough to qualify for the World Championship semis, and so initially, Greene didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But following a couple of hours’ reflection, the significance of his achievement began to sink in.

“It was the first year every that a sub-60 time hasn’t qualified for the final at the Worlds,” he tells The42. “Ah, it was bittersweet at the time. But then, as I calmed down during the day, I kind of realised I’d ticked off the first thing that I’d gone there to do — the main thing was to pre-validate for Tokyo and that’s what I had done, like. Fair enough, I was hoping for a second swim, but I’d still be in the same boat if I got a second swim and didn’t swim as fast.

“For example, Brendan [Hyland] — he got a second swim in the 200 fly, finished 12th in the world, and he was 0.07 off the Olympic qualification time. Now that’s bittersweet.”

What makes Greene’s de facto Tokyo qualification all the more remarkable, though, isn’t so much his Irish-record times but rather the time frame in which the 24-year-old has put this rise together.

He began to swim competitively only in his mid-to-late teens, and Olympic aspirations began to truly formulate only a couple of years ago when he decided to really go after it.

And while there’s nothing left to chance anymore when it comes to training and preparation, Greene’s whole journey in the pool is, curiously, a bit of an accident. Or at least rooted in one.

darragh-greene-after-the-race Greene only began to swim competitively in fourth year of secondary school. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I only started swimming properly around fourth year,” Greene says. “I had been playing basketball and GAA and all that kind of stuff.

I had an injury in third year and I had to come off all sports altogether — I broke my leg. So, then, swimming was the first thing I could get back to doing because it’s non-contact — and it’s non-contact with the ground. So with rehab and that, I kind of got back into swimming straight away.

“I really enjoyed it then, and I started swimming competitively and fully investing into it. And I started seeing results. It kind of went from there — slowly but surely,” Greene smiles.

“God only knows what sport I’d be doing if I wasn’t swimming,” adds the Clonguish GAA man, whose sister, Aisling, won an All-Ireland Junior football title with Longford in 2016. “At home, obviously, Gaelic is the big thing — in the Midlands and especially in Longford itself. Gaelic, soccer… They’re the big ones.

You’d miss them, all right. Especially in the summer. I got the hurl out, there, pucked around for a bit, but sure it’s kind of… You enjoy what you’re doing yourself, like, because you can only get so far with Gaelic, whereas when you see it from this side, you’re travelling the world representing Ireland, you’re competing against the best in the world at what you do. You’re kind of just like, ‘This is pretty cool, to be fair.’

“And I was able to study in UCD — they gave me a scholarship to swim there,” Greene adds. “UCD really brought me up [in levels], training out there in the sprint-race programme.

“And then I moved out here [to Abbotstown] two years ago, and that was a complete game-changer, then. The main factor was that 50s aren’t an Olympic event and there’s no point in even considering changing your event a year out, trying to do everything in one year. So, it’s one of those conscious decisions that has to be made earlier, one of those sacrifices where you have to just go with your gut feeling.”

jordan-sloan-brendan-hyland-and-darragh-greene Greene and Irish team-mates Jordan Sloan and Brendan Hyland at the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Greene was in the middle of a Sports Management degree in UCD when he made that decision to park college and head across the Liffey to the Sport Ireland campus on a full-time basis. He received a diploma after two years and, as he explains with a chuckle: “The studies are waiting for me at the end of the Olympics. September 2020. Sure we’ll see what happens.”

It was Swim Ireland’s high-performance director John Rudd who spotted Greene’s capacity for endurance and essentially rebooted his swimming career, which consisted of little noteworthy success in the junior ranks. In Abbotstown, Greene’s race distances, training regime and food consumption were ramped up, gradually morphing the Newtownforbes native into a different kind of animal altogether.

Rudd is a former Team GB head coach who steered Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte to Olympic gold at London 2012 when she was just 15. His addition of prodigious Scottish head coach Ben Higson to the Swim Ireland high-performance setup is described by Greene as “huge — one of the main reasons why I decided to come out to Abbotstown.” Higson has accomplished plenty at a young age, Greene explains, and “he knows pressure”.

Higson and the support staff plan everything to a T. “Ben knows every session that I’m doing right up to the last day of Tokyo,” Greene smiles. “He’s that far ahead. So, say, whether Tokyo even happens or not, he has every single day planned out.

“But then, like, it’s kind of down to you, the athlete,” he continues.

The coach can only do so much. When you’re behind that block it’s really just you. It’s physical, obviously, but it’s more a mental thing when you’re racing. Your first World Championships, standing behind the block next to the likes of Adam Peaty and all them, racing in front of a serious crowd — I think there was over 20,000 there… It’s mad!

darragh-greene Greene in the 200m breaststroke heat earlier this year. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
But Rudd is beginning to cultivate a make-or-break mindset in his top athletes by way of his revolutionary restructuring of Irish swimming’s high-performance culture.

Gone be the days of a multiple-choice method of qualification for major meets, including the Olympics. Swimmers are now told to be at a specific race or be square. The Irish Nationals of a fortnight ago and next April’s meet are the two “benchmarks” of the 2019/20 season, as Greene puts it, and if you’re not at the former, you can’t go to the latter. And if you’re not at the latter, you can’t go to Tokyo.

“It’s cut-throat, like,” Greene laughs. “You can put everything into it, have a bad day and all that hard work doesn’t show on the timing board. And you just have to take it for what it is.

I actually, to be honest, enjoy that. The bigger the meet, the more I get a buzz or a thrill out of it. You can nearly let the nerves get to you in a good way or in a bad way. You have to not overthink it, but at the same time say to yourself, ‘This is it. I could be going to the Olympics or not based on this.’ The scenario out in South Korea was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve done this time before, but now look at what’s riding on me doing it again.’

darragh-greene Greene surveys the pool. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
And yet, naturally, there were plenty of times when that buzz wasn’t especially evident, when Greene wondered if sacrificing the ball sports for this more solitary pursuit was worth the hassle.

Suffice to say he’s glad he stuck to his guns.

“It’s funny because if you look back in the day with swimming, especially around Juniors or at a young age in Ireland at club level, there’s so much dedication involved — you’re training every day before school and stuff, right? Compared to, say, if you were playing Gaelic or soccer, where you might train once, twice, three times a week.

But in Gaelic or soccer, you’re guaranteed a match at the end of the week, while in swimming you’re up every morning and you might not even have a competition for two or three months, maybe. As you get older, there’s a lot more competitions available to you, but at that young age, it is hard, like. But it’s one of those things that you have to just stick with, and whatever you put into it, you will get out of it in return.

“It’s kind of like, once I stop myself and kind of think back…,” Greene pauses. “See, I still feel like I’m learning so much in the sport. There’s so much I still want to accomplish in the sport, it still feels fairly new to me, or fresh. It’s not like I’ve been at it all my life and I’m still wearing and tearing at it, if you get me. I definitely feel like I’ve an awful lot more to give.

It’s more when your friends say it about the Olympics you’re kind of like, ‘Jesus, yeah… It’s mad.’ There’s kind of no modest way of saying it or playing it down or something. You’re just thinking, ‘You did the qualifying time, like. You did the time to get yourself to the Olympics.’

“And it is mad when you think back even to only a couple of years ago, and having that dream of doing it, of getting to an Olympics.

“Even, there’s only a handful of people that have done it — that have been an Olympian — from Longford,” adds Greene, who was recently crowned his county’s sports star of the year for 2019.

“You think of the likes of Ray Flynn, the runner,” he says, trailing off.

“Hopefully I’ll be the first swimmer and hopefully I can do everyone proud.”

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