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'I don't want to waste time and energy on a relationship. It sounds selfish, but it's what I need to do'

Mark Downey on the sacrifices often required in elite sport.

Mark Downey (file pic).
Mark Downey (file pic).
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

MARK DOWNEY, ALONG with team-mate Felix English, recently qualified Ireland a spot for the Olympics in track cycling. In his fifth column for The42, he looks at sacrifices required in elite sport.

You definitely need to be a bit crazy to succeed in cycling.

When I was 18, I had a decision: do I go to university or try to make a career out of sport? You’re at that age where most of your peers are partying five days a week, whereas by choosing cycling, I might only have 5-10 nights a year to really go out and enjoy myself.

It was a big decision to make at such a young age. The maturity you develop over the years — you go to different countries and have to stand on your own two feet. 

Most 18-year-olds were going to college and I was going to bed at nine o’clock. Mates I had gone to school with were FaceTiming me when they were a few beers in for a laugh, and I was starting to think: do I wish I had that other lifestyle?

We only get three or four weeks off a year and you get to party or go out with your friends for drinks. It’s only then you realise that’s not what you want to do every Saturday night and you decide that the initial decision was right.

I was an ambitious person and set out what I wanted to do right from the start. It was like a to-do list — I want to do this, this and this. 

So the decision to pursue sport came quite easily, I never batted an eyelid. It was more persuading my father that was difficult. He’s a teacher, and was looking for me to focus on education. 

He agreed to give me the funds to pursue a cycling career, which I would have got for going to university, for the first year. He said: ‘If you can’t fund it yourself from then on, you have to come back and go to university.’ 

I managed to get funding and hit the criteria to be able to stand on my own two feet.

It’s a results business but there are outside pressures that the fans don’t see. The pressure comes from yourself and the programme and your coaches if you’re not competing at the level you should be — other people around you are under pressure too. The main worry is financial — if you haven’t got any money, you’re not going to go very far.

The next challenge then was to really break into the scene and start to get the results that I was chasing for my career.

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In terms of the constant travel in cycling, people say: ‘It’s class, you get to see a lot of the world.’ And that is a real nice part of the job, but you’re seeing a lot more hotel rooms that tourist locations.

The way I look at it, I’m there to do a job, I’m not there for holidays. You’re going to Australia and New Zealand, but you’re not going there to sun yourself and there are different things you have to take into consideration.

So the travelling is something I’m relishing not having to do at the moment, because you live out of a suitcase. When I come home, what I normally do, I wash all the clothes I have in my suitcase and then repack the suitcase, so that when I’m leaving, it’s ready to go.

On the relationships side of it, when I first started out, I had a serious girlfriend. I went to professional sport and she went to university. It fizzled out fairly quickly after that. I was chasing one thing and told her to enjoy the university experience.

My lifestyle now is not really conducive to a relationship. It’s a lot of hard work and I’m at that age where I’m wanting to make these years count, to be successful. I don’t really want to waste a lot of time and energy focusing on a relationship.  It sounds quite selfish that I’m just focusing on myself, but that’s what I need to do to get to the level that I aspire to be at. So it’s something I’m not really looking for at the minute, a relationship, and settling down. I’m on a mission to go where I really want to be and to do that, you really have to make sacrifices and that probably is one of them.

I’m surrounded by a lot of good people in my family, so it does make things easier, to share the weight of the pressures of what I’m experiencing. My brother and parents can put me on the straight and narrow.

There’s a lot of people, like my brother, Sean, who has also experienced life as a successful cyclist and for many years had a long-distance relationship with his now-wife. She was really understanding of what he wanted to pursue. So it’s just a matter of finding the right person and every situation is different regarding relationships. Maybe I haven’t found the right one yet.

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Mark Downey

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