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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 20 June, 2019

'It's mentally draining': Life at the top and coming down from that Olympic high

Modern Pentathletes Natalya Coyle and Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe compare their experiences following both London 2012 and Rio 2016.

COMING OFF THE high of an Olympic Games is no easy task.

And Modern Pentathletes Natalya Coyle and Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe know better than anyone.

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

London 2012 was both of their maiden Games. Coyle became the first Irish woman to represent her country in the Modern Pentathlon, and impressed in doing so, finishing ninth overall.

Lanigan O’Keeffe on the other hand, learned of his qualification for the 2012 Olympics just a month beforehand, after a Polish pentathlete failed a drugs test. He went on to finish 25th out of 36 competitors. Not too bad given the circumstances.

Catapulted into the limelight, the Olympic dream was all they had ever asked for, and more. Until their respective returns to home soil.

A mixture of coming off the high, and trying desperately to keep up the colossal training load and fitness levels lead to near burnout on both counts.

“I wanted to stop completely,” Coyle recalls.

“I almost retired in 2013,” Lanigan O’Keeffe echoes her words. “I stopped for like three months. Stale.

“I never got a break after London because I had the Junior World Championships three weeks afterwards. When everyone got to party and have fun, I didn’t do any of that. I went home straight away and started training for Junior Worlds.

“My season finished when everyone started training again so I basically went on again and didn’t stop. That was a nightmare.

They’ve both learned from their mistakes this time around, however.

Coyle had a proper plan in place on this time of asking – a holiday, catch up properly with family and friends, and to compete again in 2017.

Natalya Coyle after finishing 7th Coyle after her performances in Rio. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Well-earned considering her impressive seventh place finish in Rio, which has since been retrospectively upgraded to sixth following a failed drugs test.

She decided to take a step back through the winter, and just run and swim before starting competition later than usual, all guns blazing again.

“I knew after London — I went way too quick back into it,” the Meath native continues. “I ended up burning out in March, I was so injured and so ill.

“So I decided this year that I’d run and swim over the winter and then I’d come into competition later. Just like we’ve done — that was my first World Cup [in May], normally I would have started in February. Primarily just so I didn’t get injured.

“It’s really long, the whole season. It’s from February till the end of August and I didn’t want to do that this first year [of the Olympic cycle]. I wanted to make sure that I got through the whole year with a full block of training so that I could push on.

“In 2013 I ended up taking off four or five months, and trying to get back from that took so long. I wanted to make sure that I hit the ground running again.

“Training is the main thing. Even if you’re going to retire, I think you need to start doing something immediately. You can’t just go from being the fittest you’ve ever been in the world to suddenly stopping doing everything. You need to keep going.

“You need to learn from your mistakes and other people’s as well. I always say to those coming behind us ‘You always need to make sure you understand what training you’re doing, learn from other people’s mistakes and use that knowledge.”

Lanigan O’Keeffe also took his return from Rio, with an eighth place finish, in his stride. The polar opposite to what he had done in the aftermath of the London edition.

He found himself back in UCD in September, finishing his degree in Sport and Exercise Management, which he had previously put on hold to concentrate on the Games.

He completed his final exams in May, prioritising his education until his sport could take centre stage again.

Ireland's Arthur Lanigan O'Keeffe celebrates his 8th placed finish with supporters Lanigan O'Keeffe celebrates in Rio.

“It’s been a tough year for me trying to balance everything. But I’m finally back full-time training. It’s been manic, but I think I needed it for my own head, coming off from the Games.

“I remember last time I got very excited by the Olympics and decided I’d jump back into training really really hard, and then realised three years out ‘Ah lads, this is a long way to go. I almost burnt out mentally.

“This time, I preempted that and I made sure that I had something to go into straight away after the Olympics that wasn’t 100% sport.

“I think the break is 95% for your mind, and 5% for your body because we’re used to keeping that going.

“You need to make something fresh, a little bit of a change. If it means instead of running on a track, you travel out to Howth and run by the sea, you just need to change it.

“Otherwise, you get a year down the line in an Olympic cycle and everything seems stale. You lose that motivation and drive.”

When asked on whether he’ll pursue his degree after graduation, the Kilkenny pentathlete is apprehensive.

“I’ll mostly train full-time to be honest. I’ve got a few hobbies that I’m going to do alongside. I’m going to do more courses in filming, I’m quite into that.

“A few things like that but nothing heavily, because I still believe there’s a lot to achieve in my sporting career.”
Not only does Modern Pentathlon challenge the body, it tests the mind to the limit.

Switching from discipline to discipline throughout the day is mentally-draining, not just physically.

Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe and Natalya Coyle Coyle and Lanigan O'Keeffe at the Launch of Laser-Run World Championship, Dublin 2018. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“The majority is mentally draining,” Coyle says. “You don’t realise how much is taken out of you and that stress, until you’re like ‘Oh wow, I’m really tired…’ It’s not physical, it’s mental.

“Sure look, we’ve learned,” Lanigan O’Keeffe smiles. “We’ve done it well this year and I think we’re both more motivated than ever. Absolutely.

“We’ve got a new coach, we’ve got a new team, the whole system has changed. It’s exciting, it’s new, it’s fresh.”

She jumps back in: “Everything’s a bit fresher now and I feel like I haven’t pulled my body through disaster already this year. I’m ready to go, I’m ready to keep pushing on. Instead of most of the time, you get very tired after a lot of competitions.”

The duo teamed up to open their season with gold in the mixed relay at the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM) World Cup IV event in Poland towards the end of May.

“We planned that,” Lanigan O’Keeffe grins when questioned about their late season opener. “Make sure we get fit for the last few [competitions] of the year and then next season…

“We’re going to take over next season.”

The 25-year-old who fell in love with rugby growing up, and played with Glenstal Abbey and the Munster development squad before deciding ‘I want to go to the Olympics’ beams when fencing is brought up on the agenda.

At the time of our conversation nearly three weeks ago, they had just teamed up with a new fencing coach – Walid Sayed from Egypt.

“It’s actually very exciting. He’s coming from Guatemala where his previous athlete has a world record in the fencing event. He won the Junior World Championships this year, U21s, come seventh in the world.

Arthur Lanigan-O'Keeffe and Natalya Coyle Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“He’s an incredible coach and all his athletes and previous athletes have been phenomenal fencers.”

“It’s also really good for us at our stages in our careers,” Coyle adds. “He has a real technical focus and that’s what we really need because we understand fencing to a level, but you want to really fine-tune everything, and that’s what he brings.

Back to him: ”He’s coached multiple World champions… he’s incredible.

“The only thing he hasn’t got is an Olympic medal and that’s why he’s moved over here apparently. That’s a good sign!”

It is a good sign and it does bode well, but Tokyo is still a long way off.

And so, year one of the Olympic cycle rattles on with their joint effort and title defence of last summer’s Mixed Relay at the World Cup final in Lithuania later today.

They have three simple words: “Bring it on!”

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Emma Duffy

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