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How are Ireland's Olympic hopefuls dealing with the coronavirus crisis?

Ayeisha McFerran and Judy Reynolds tell The42 about how their preparations for the Games have been disrupted.

Ayeisha McFerran (file pic)
Ayeisha McFerran (file pic)
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

THE DECISION seemingly to postpone what feels like the increasingly inevitable postponement of the Olympics has proved controversial.

USA Swimming today sent a letter to the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee calling on them to push for postponement of Tokyo 2020.

Other high-profile figures have also advocated for the Games to be put back, including legendary Irish athlete Sonia O’Sullivan.

Speaking to The42 yesterday, Irish hockey player and current secretary of the European Olympic Committee Athletes Commission, David Harte, put forward his belief that it would not go ahead in the planned time-frame.

But how are the athletes themselves feeling about the prospect of competing in Tokyo, or perhaps not, depending on what happens?

Ayeisha McFerran is set to be part of the first-ever Irish women’s hockey team to compete in the Olympics, having been instrumental in a sensational sudden death shootout against Canada to secure qualification last November.

The 24-year-old Antrim native is currently based in the Netherlands, where she plays hockey with Kampong.

“I’m surviving,” she tells The42. “I just have to keep reminding myself there are bigger problems in the world than having to stop hockey for a few months. For me, because I’m still based in Holland, I have to get on with things as much as possible, keep on living a daily life and whatnot.

“We’re probably ahead of you guys [in Ireland], we shut everything down a lot sooner. [The media are saying] it’s the same kind of progression rate as Italy if it keeps going the way it is, so they’ve taken all the measures to shut shops, schools, everything where there’s some sort of public space or gathering.”

Ireland incredibly made it all the way to the World Cup final in 2018, with McFerran subsequently named goalkeeper of the tournament.

The Olympics would be another momentous occasion for this history-making team, but the accomplished stopper — like so many others — would be “surprised” if it goes ahead in the allotted schedule.

“There are so many unknowns at the minute and this isn’t going to go away in the space of a couple of weeks.

“From reading research on it, it’s taken China a couple of months to level off their levels and it started in December for them. So when you think about it, I think it’s possible, but it could be very difficult for it to happen.

Of course, it’s what everyone has trained for. But you have to think there are more problems in the world than just hockey and the Olympic Games. You have to think about the health and development of society and daily lives functioning — that has to be the priority with everyone staying healthy. If the decision is made that it doesn’t happen this year, we have to trust the officials who have made the decision that it’s for the best for countries around the world.

“Recently, there’s been a lot more awareness of it.  There has to be more research into what can be done. So I think there it has to closer to the time that the decision is made based on Tokyo and the countries involved with that.”

As with many athletes, McFerran is limited in what she can do right now, with isolation encouraged in Holland.

“Unfortunately, there’s no hockey at all, so we’re not allowed to get into any hockey clubs or anything, so we’ve had to adjust. We have our running programmes, which we can still go outside and do. It’s just trying to find a safe space to do that and modify your gym [training] and see what equipment you can get. It’s very much an adjust-and-adapt scenario and I know it is with a lot of the Irish girls at home with facilities and stuff being closed down.

“It’s just controlling what you can control and trying to get on with your preparation as much as possible.”

judy-reynolds Judy Reynolds (file pic). Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Judy Reynolds echoes McFerran’s sense of frustration mixed with an ultimate acceptance that there is little she can do to change this situation.

Unlike McFerran, the 38-year-old Kildare-born dressage rider has previous experience of competing at the Olympics, having represented Ireland in Rio four years ago.

In addition, last August, she played an integral role in helping an Irish dressage team qualified for the Games for the first time ever.

While in Reynolds’ sport, athletes qualify a place for their country rather than themselves specifically, she will more than likely be chosen to compete in Tokyo if the Olympics do go ahead.

Currently based in Dorsten, her plans have inevitably been disrupted significantly by the coronavirus crisis.

“In Germany, we’re doing as little as possible, restricting movement,” she says. “All our competitions are called off like everybody else, which means we’re at home training at the moment, trying to make the most of that and use our time. It’s not easy at the moment, but that’s everywhere.

“Schools are closed, bars and pubs are closed. Shops are still open for the moment. But it’s the same in Ireland — social distancing and really not trying to make contact with people unless it’s necessary.

“I train with a horse myself every day, so I’m still doing that obviously. My husband helps me a bit at home anyway, so he’s still able to do that. So from that side, it’s not so bad.

We’re just trying to use the time we have really, but the downside for us at the moment, with all the competitions cancelled in terms of the Olympics, we aren’t able to qualify a back-up horse, or a new horse, or something like that, because they have to go to competitions to qualify. Although we’re qualified and we have our start place, it limits your options, I suppose.”

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Reynolds, of course, understands that “health and safety comes first,” though that knowledge doesn’t make the present predicament any less difficult for somebody who thrives on competition to the point where it is practically an addiction.

“I’m probably in a lucky position in that the sport I do, I can do it a bit older than a lot of other athletes,” she adds.

“Whereas I very much would like to be part of the Olympics and I really want to compete at a second Olympics, I still probably have time. I could do another couple of cycles if I need to.”

Reynolds does believe the Olympics will go ahead, though not necessarily as soon as anticipated.

“In some shape or form, it has to go ahead. I don’t see how you can not have an Olympics, it’s inconceivable that the whole thing would be cancelled.

“It’s something that you work years for. It’s a four-year cycle. And to think that all your work would be unfulfilled is very difficult to deal with mentally.

“Obviously, it has to be safe for people to travel and getting that many people together from all over the world, it can’t be with risk to life, absolutely not.

“Secondly, at the moment, in every sport, qualifications aren’t going ahead. So I don’t know how, although I think 53% of the spaces are filled currently. It’s very difficult to see how a lot of those other spaces will get filled without the necessary competitions at the moment.

It’d be very tough on emerging talents who would have thought they’d have April, May and June to qualify. Now to say, ‘sorry, we’re going to take last year’s results,’ or last year’s world rankings and they weren’t a part of it at that point, I can understand that that’s a bitter pill to swallow. I think, in some shape or form, they have to put a bit of a delay on it to allow the qualification process to be completed and have enough time for people to do that, because in certain countries, people aren’t able to train at all at the moment. 

“Personally I would hope [it takes place] maybe at the end of the year, whether that’s feasible. Or sometime maybe in the winter, or maybe early next year. I would personally hope they don’t say what has been reported — there was a rumour going around that it might be a two-year delay. I hope it doesn’t go to that extent. 

“With stuff like the preparation, you’d like to know as far in advance as possible what’s happening. As much as possible, we’re working towards what the IOC are saying at the moment, which is that it will take place when it should. So we’re trying to keep that in mind. The more that goes on, the more critical it will become, because you want to peak at that point and you can’t hold a peak level of performance over such an extended period of time. You’d want to know enough in advance so you can plan and aim to peak at the right time.” 

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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