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'I can't let him win an Olympic medal and I don't...that would just be really awful'

Modern pentathlete couple Natalya Coyle and Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe have emerged as two of Ireland’s leading hopes for Tokyo 2020.

WE’RE ON THE clock. Nothing new for Natalya Coyle and Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe. Time is tight and their schedule demands they’re back at the National Sports Campus later this afternoon for a gym session and second run of the day. They’ve just come from the pool and track. It’s unrelenting. Seven days a week, 365 days a year.

The nature of the business, I suppose. But they’re doing something right. The proof is in the results. Coyle, World Cup silver medalist, ends the year sixth in the Modern Pentathlon world rankings. Lanigan O’Keeffe, World Cup gold medalist, finishes 2018 third in the world. 

Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe and Natalya Coyle Ireland's power couple: Lanigan O'Keeffe and Coyle. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

We’ve just enough time to look back on their remarkable year.

“It wasn’t just one of us that had a really good season, it was both of us,” Lanigan O’Keeffe says. “It gives me confidence that it wasn’t a fluke, and whatever we did worked and it’ll work again. This year was a true representation of what we can do.”

The pair have always been prodigiously talented athletes, consistently competing at the top level and pushing for podium positions. Both double-Olympians, Coyle earned ninth and sixth-place finishes at the 2012 and 2016 Games, Lanigan O’Keeffe 36th and eighth. 

They have always challenged expectations and themselves, ensuring the progression chart has been heading in the right direction, while feeding off each other’s successes and achievements. 

Coyle was one of Ireland’s standout performers in Rio as she came agonisingly close to an Olympic medal but, it’s only in the last 18 months of this cycle, that both athletes have started to hit peak form.

Perhaps it’s pure coincidence, but having trained with each other from their teenage years, their career-best, medal-winning performances have coexisted with the start of a closer relationship, and decision to move in together. Chance? Hardly. 

“Last winter we did much more mileage and at one stage it looked like it wouldn’t pay off, but then suddenly it did,” Lanigan O’Keeffe says. 

Back in May, it all come together. 

Less than 24 hours after Coyle claimed her first individual medal with silver at the Pentathlon World Cup in Sofia, Lanigan O’Keeffe went one better to claim gold with a stunning performance. It was a memorable week for the pair, who continued their form through to year’s end. 

“When you’re standing there on the podium, you know you can do this and it sets a precedent, you believe you can do it,” Coyle says. “It showed me what I could do.

Lanigan O’Keeffe agrees: “It was nice to be reminded we can compete. You look at the table and there are athletes you would have looked up to, and they’re suddenly behind you. Then you’re going ‘okay, I mustn’t be too bad at this’. Hopefully, we’ve learnt a bit from what work we did and next year could potentially be even better.”

That’s when the serious business starts. The Olympic qualification process begins in August, and for individual athletes, their career will always be defined by what they do every four years. It’s no different for Coyle and Lanigan O’Keeffe.

Natalya Coyle Coyle (28) finishes sixth at the Rio Olympics. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

A brief three-week break in late August allowed the couple to get away to Corfu and recharge the batteries and reset their goals ahead of a tough winter block of training, which involves four-five different sessions a day.

The focus, they say, is on improving their running and then their attention will move onto the more technical events, such as fencing and eventing, as winter turns to spring and the 2019 season gets underway.

Either way, they spend much of their time together, whether it’s cooking, eating, training, travelling or competing, with the pair based most days at the Sports Campus out in Blanchardstown. 

While 2018 was the year both excelled on the world stage, there is a real sense of anticipation for what is ahead.

“Hopefully we can keep moving on,” Coyle continues. “Next year is the most important year for us. The Olympic qualification in August, and that’s everything we drive for. If we can take the form we had this year, and hopefully we know how to replicate, that would be ideal.

“Part of the key thing we realised coming up to Rio, is that the team is so important. We’re training four or five times a day and you need to have good people around you to spur you on when those days aren’t good and this year we’ve had that.”

For Lanigan O’Keeffe, the first weeks of winter training has shown him there is still huge room for improvement. 

“The really exciting part is I don’t think we’re reaching our peak yet,” the Kilkenny native explains. “Potentially in Tokyo, maybe, but the gains we’re seeing in the first few weeks of training this year, it is quite exciting. We now have the people around us to help us achieve that. 

“We’ve been training for years and basically each year we do it, our bodies are more capable of doing that amount and we can keep pushing and pushing. If we tried to do as much training as we’re doing now, say, two years ago we would crash or get injured.”

The key, they say, is having each other for support.

“We’ve got closer over the years, yeah,” Coyle smiles. “It spurs me on when Arthur does well because I’m like if he can do that, I can do that. We’ve done the same training. Even the whole way up through our careers, at 16 and 17, I was always thinking if there were no girls that were training, whatever the boys are doing, I can do.

Lanigan O’Keeffe, nominated for RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year, continues: “There used to be a bit of a friendly rivalry between us. I remember seeing whatever Tal’s mark was, I wanted to be better and the same with Tal.

Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe Lanigan O'Keeffe is currently ranked third in the world. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Back in the day it was more like ‘darn she’s done really well, I’ve got to do better’ whereas now we’re genuinely really happy for each other when we do well. We see the work we’re each putting in.”

“He kept beating me this year,” Coyle laugh, before her boyfriend insists with a grin: “We shared the joy.”

The main thing, however, is that they’re able to pick each other up on the tough days and drive one another on when the motivation levels or energy levels are low.

“There’s always going to be sessions when you really don’t want to do it,” Lanigan O’Keeffe admits. “If I’m really not feeling going out to run in the rain or whatever, then that’s when Tal’s turn to pick me up and vice versa. It just means we always keep each other going basically and I think that has contributed to our success this year.

“Some days Tal might be tired, and I’ll drive, and some days I might be tired and she’ll drive.”

With an intense training programme, comes a regimented diet and the need to refuel sufficiently after burning thousands of calories each day, whether it’s in the gym, in the pool or out on the road. 

“The sheer amount of food we actually eat is massive and I’m still not on top of that because you do a weekly shop on Sunday and that’s meant to get you to Friday, but that’s all gone by Wednesday,” Coyle explains.

“As the training level increases, the food consumption increases and sometimes we’d be eating calories at the end of the day to just get to our requirement. It’s tough.”

Our chat naturally turns to Tokyo. On the current trajectory, both Coyle and Lanigan O’Keeffe are two of Ireland’s leading medal hopefuls in 2020. They’ll be doing everything between now and then to ensure they’re in the best possible shape to do so. It will be an even greater achievement if they can medal together. 

“We both always wanted to win a medal regardless anyway, and this year has shown we really can,” Coyle adds.

I’ve known Arthur since I was 16, it has always been just medalling for Ireland, but it is great, it does spur you on. I mean I can’t let him win a medal and I don’t…that would just be really awful.

Lanigan O’Keeffe: “I think if one of us win a medal at the Olympics, both of us will win a medal.”

The competitive streak emerges before we finish.

“There’s a bet down now,” Coyle laughs.

“I think I’m first,” Lanigan O’Keeffe says, explaining the men’s event is scheduled to take place ahead of the women’s in Tokyo. “I’m throwing the benchmark out and then Tal has to beat it.”

“What happens if I win gold?”

“We’ll just both win, it’s fine,” Lanigan O’Keeffe responds.

“Third time lucky.”

They’ll leave nothing to chance. 583 days to go. That clock is ticking.

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Ryan Bailey

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