'I've probably found this week the hardest' - coping with Tokyo Olympics postponement

Ireland hockey captain Katie Mullan talks to The42 on what would have been the opening week of the Tokyo Olympics.

IN AN ALTERNATE universe, Katie Mullan would be in Tokyo this week. 

katiemullanlidl20x20-15 Ireland hockey captain Katie Mullan. Source: David Cavan

The opening ceremony would be behind her and her team-mates would be preparing for a meeting with South Africa in Pool A. A first-ever Olympic appearance for the Ireland women’s hockey team.

Their World Cup final opponents the Netherlands are also in that group, along with Great Britain and Germany. All highly-rated sides in the international game.

As World Cup silver medalists, who booked their ticket to Japan after a thrilling two-legged Olympic qualifier battle against Canada, Ireland have earned the right to muscle it with the best.

Prior to the Covid-19 shutdown, Ireland were preparing well for the Games. They were possibly even ahead of the competition with the depths of their efforts.

Mullan, who previously plied her club trade in Germany, shocked some of the players she stays in touch with when she told them that Ireland were using heat chambers to get their bodies ready for the Japanese climate.

History is within touching distance, and yet it’s still a year away. It’s hard not to let the mind wander to what should have been this week.

“I’ve probably found this week the hardest since the announcement was made,” Mullan tells The42.

It’s always in the back of your mind that you had hoped, obviously pending selection, that you would be in Tokyo right now. But I just keep reminding myself that everyone’s health is the most important thing and obviously, it’s been a tough time for everyone.

“No matter what you do, everyone has missed out on plans they had this year so you’re not on your own.”

This week has not been without its positives for Ireland though. After a long lay-off due to the coronavirus, the players were back on the pitch again. Their training was divided into regions, with Mullan meeting her Ulster colleagues at the Queen’s University in Belfast for their run out.

The team is due to meet for collective training on 15 August.

irish-players-celebrate-the-moment-they-qualified-for-the-2020-tokyo-olympics Ireland players celebrate after that famous victory over Canada that was settled by a sudden death shootout. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

That first session was always going to leave Mullan feeling “a bit sore.” as she tries to get comfortable in the crouched hockey position again. 

The Ireland captain has been busy during the lockdown period. In addition to her job as a biomedical engineer with Axiall 3D in Belfast, Mullan has also been lending a hand to promote the 20×20′s ‘No Proving. Just Moving.’ initiative.

“It’s just about forming an exercise habit,” explains Mullan who is an ambassador for the campaign, “and it’s about getting as many females, especially females, to get out there and form an exercise habit.

“Not getting the itch and trying to go out and run a half marathon and then not being able to do anything for a few weeks, but more just finding something that you can do every day and that you’ve got access to be able to do. Even if that’s walking or running or cycling, and just encouraging people to do something that’s sustainable to a daily routine.

She’s also been able to go for a few pucks and reconnect with her camogie roots. That was her first love in sport and she hopes to be able to line out for her club, Eoghan Rua again some day. But her attention is on another stick sport for the moment.

Mullan has been living with a niggling hip problem over the last few years and these lockdown weeks have allowed her to do some important rehab work. She has all the training equipment she needs in her garage gym at her family home.

With all this unexpected down time available to her, it’s almost a shame that lockdown could soon be ending.

“This is the thing,” she begins when discussing the prospect of returning to the old ways.

“For me, I would spend a huge amount of week travellling. I travel to Belfast for work and then I travel to the gym in Belfast as well. And then we obviously travel to Dublin most weekends for training, so I’ve found, for myself physically, not sitting in the car has been brilliant.

“In addition, you just have more time in the day for the likes of your recovery and stretching. I can train before work easily, once I’m at the desk for 8.30 or 8.45am. And then if you finish up in the evening, your entire evening isn’t spent doing that one running session you have to do.

You can actually do the running session, come home, have a cup of tea and relax a little bit. It just shows that you can do a lot with your time when you’re not having to travel.”

The lockdown time at home has offered Mullan more time to spend with her family. 

“It’s been challenging. But I’ve been blessed spending some real quality time with them, especially in the real strict lockdown period. We had an absolute ball here. My heart really went out to anyone who was doing that by themselves because we had such fun times.

I live on a farm so we spend a lot of time on the farm, helping Dad. I think he enjoyed that. He had a few extra sets of hands to drag us out in the morning to help with the feeding.”

Living close by is Mullan’s grandmother, Joy. Or granny Joy as Mullan calls her. The Ireland star recently retweeted a photo of them following that incredible Olympic qualifier win over Canada last November in front of a record-breaking crowd at Donnybrook.

The pair are very close and Joy has been supporting her granddaughter’s sporting career since she was young. She travelled to Singapore to watch Mullan play at the Youth Olympics in 2010 and was planning to go to Tokyo this summer. She hopes to still be able to travel for the rescheduled Olympics next year.

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There were more opportunities to see her during lockdown but it was a bit of a struggle to get her to co-operate with the social distancing restrictions.

“She’s kind of a socialite, so we had to put the foot down and isolate. We had routines of myself and my cousins going around. She would have had someone go around and visit her everyday in the garden.

We joked that she had a bit of a café set up in the garden and we would come around. We saw loads of her and she’s seen more of her grandchildren during that time because we were all at home and able to spend time with her. 

“She’s my number one fan. When the game was over against Canada, they were bringing parents down onto the pitch. I was like, ‘where’s Mom, Dad and Granny? I need them down here to enjoy this moment.’ That’s when that photo was captured.”

Measures are gradually being eased as the Irish team prepare to restart their journey to the Olympics. The European Championships, which normally comes after the Olympics, will be the next tournament on their radar.

The competition has been brought forward to June, a move which Mullan feels will benefit her team as they will have intense games under their belt before heading to Tokyo. 

michael-d-higgins-with-arlene-boyles Arlene Boyles with President Michael D Higgins. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

They will have to make that journey without manager Arlene Boyles, who will be stepping down from her role in August following 30 years of service to international hockey teams in Ireland.

“She’s a big loss for us,” says Mullan saluting Boyles’ contribution to the sport and her assistance in helping them qualify for the Olympics.

“She brings a huge amount of experience. She’s always there to listen and I know she still will be. Arlene’s goal was always for us to qualify for an Olympic Games, and she’s helped us do that. She’s been on the rollercoaster with us. We wouldn’t have achieved what we have without Arlene’s influence.”

‘Lidl Moves for 20×20′ is Lidl Ireland’s new exercise programme and microsite which was launched as part of their support of 20×20′s ‘No Proving. Just Moving.’ initiative.

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