IN EXACTLY TWO weeks’ time, on 9 August, Nicholas Quinn will represent Ireland at the Rio Olympics in the breaststroke for the first time.
If things had worked out differently, however, he may have been competing in an entirely different sport.
Growing up, Quinn went to St Gerald’s College in his native Castlebar, a GAA-mad school, which he attended at the same time as some of the current Mayo football panel, including Aidan O’Shea.
Along with swimming, Quinn was a keen player of both football and hurling, and it was only when he truly started to excel at his current sport that he reluctantly put an end to his GAA ambitions.
“I went to school with a lot of the (Mayo GAA) lads,” he tells The42. “Cillian O’Connor and a lot of those guys. It’s great to see them doing so well for the school and the town.
“And to be honest, I was probably more of a hurler than a footballer — I know that’s strange coming from Mayo.
“I loved it. It was the last thing I dropped and I kept it going as long as I could. If I wasn’t swimming, I think I definitely would be playing at some level.
“I’m too competitive and I get too restless if I’m not doing anything. If I wasn’t swimming, I’d have to be occupying my time with something and I’d imagine it would be football and hurling, or some sport like that.”
Nevertheless, swimming was always Quinn’s first love.
I don’t remember anytime when I haven’t been swimming,” he says. “Living in Castlebar, we’re a big water family, so every weekend we’d go to the beach or do something and my dad would be cycling or diving. We’d be jumping off the pier while he was gone out.
“I guess water was always in the air and my older brother and sister, they both swam, so it was a case of following in their footsteps.
When I got into it, I fell in love with it. I played all water sports when I was younger. I just loved swimming and gradually as I got older, I decided to train a bit more. I decided to drop the other sports — I just didn’t have time. Swimming was the one left standing — it was always something that I wanted to do.”
Something Quinn isn’t in love with, however, is early mornings. Every day, his alarm goes off at 4.55am and he is in the pool within minutes of rising reluctantly. “I’ve been doing it for five years — you never get used to (getting up so early),” he says.
Yet what he clearly is used to is managing his time well. Despite a hectic schedule of regular and intense swimming sessions, he managed to score the maximum 600 points in his Leaving Cert in 2011. That achievement led to him studying a psychology degree in Edinburgh, which he is currently taking a year out from in order to focus on Rio.Source: Theo Kellner/YouTube
And with psychology so important in high-level sport, has Quinn’s degree benefitted him in anyway in the pool?
Swimming, and really at the highest level in any sport, it’s a case of everyone having done the work. You don’t go to the Olympic Games and find out someone hasn’t done the work. Everyone has done the work. So it does become very mental at that stage. It’s about who can manage day-to-day to keep themselves on an even keel.
“When you succeed and do well, it’s about trying not to let yourself get too high. Equally, when you don’t have a good swim, don’t let yourself get too low.
“If you have a bad swim in the morning, and have another in the evening, you can’t be too upset and you have to prepare for the next swim. Obviously, you’re going to be upset but you keep things in check a little bit.
Psychology has also taught me to take things day by day. The Olympics are huge. If I was to sit here and start thinking about it, I’d get overwhelmed. You just break it down to: ‘What do I have to do today?’
“You make all these choices every day, and so when you stand on the blocks, you can look back and think: ‘I’ve made all the choices that at the time that I knew put me in the best place. So it’s just a matter of ‘relax, do your best and take it from there’.
In Eindhoven (at the event in which he sealed his Olympics qualification), I even made a point of just getting out and getting away from everything in the room — switching off that side of the brain for a bit and just relaxing.
“It can become pretty intense if you’re too long in (a swimming-obsessed mindset). It’s about being really focused when you’re there but being able to take a step back and switch off as well. It’s quite draining otherwise.”
Qualifying for Rio, he adds, “was something I felt I was capable of doing but to actually do it was a dream come true”.
He continues: “It felt like all the hard work that everyone had put in, I felt like it was justification for everyone and I was just delighted.
Swimming’s not a science, it’s a fine art and it can very easily go one way or the other.”
A meticulous planner, Quinn had actually targeted the event in Eindhoven months beforehand as being his primary attempt at Rio 2016 qualification.
I knew sometime in April this year was going to be my time, or from March to April. That was going to be the period where I was going to have to try to qualify. I knew that years ago, I just didn’t know where the competition was.
“I nailed it down in September — Eindhoven. It’s a good meet, it’s a good facility, it was at the right time, it fit with the rest of our squad. So I thought ‘I’m going to go for it.’
“It was a big relief because of all the resources — Marian English, my coach in Castlebar all the way to the resources I get in Edinburgh. I just felt proud to be able to do them proud.”
One influential figure in Quinn’s road to success has been Michael Jamieson, the Scottish swimmer who won a silver medal in 200-metre breaststroke at the London 2012 Olympics.
The Mayo native regularly trains with Jamieson in Edinburgh.
“He’s an Olympic silver medallist in my event,” Quinn explains. “When I found that out, I was just so excited to get in and train with him.
You look at the Olympics and think ‘jeez, they’re super human,’ but when you’re training with them day in day out, they’re the same as you, but they execute the tiniest details really well all the time.
“That’s what I’ve picked up from Michael — some of his skills and his turns around the walls, the little things that can slip under the radar unless you really think about them, they’re the things that he’s really good at, and that’s what makes him an Olympic silver medallist — those fine details. Those fine details separate success and failure.”
Yet despite the world-class training partners and the excellent facilities available to him in Edinburgh, there are still aspects of Ireland that the 23-year-old athlete misses.
“There’s just a different vibe to being in Ireland. I miss Mayo as well. I miss going out to the beaches or going for a cliff jump and all that definitely.
Irish people are just a bit more relaxed and maybe the humour in Ireland, they don’t really get it as much (elsewhere). It doesn’t translate. But Scotland has taken me in really well and I really do enjoy Edinburgh.”
Yet the years spent away from friends and family will surely be worth it, particularly if he can perform to his potential at the Olympics next month.
All I can control is going out there and performing, getting a PB. The Olympics bring so much added stuff, but it’s trying to manage all that as best as you can and put yourself in a position where you can get in and race and swim faster than you’ve ever swam before.
“If you can do that, that’s all you can do. I feel like if I do that, I can put myself in a good position for a second swim and a semi-final.”
And while Quinn may have fleeting dreams about joining his former schoolmates on the pitch in Croke Park, for the most part, his longstanding love affair with swimming persists.
“I love the feeling of pushing myself after a hard session and thinking that it was a good session, I gave it everything, I worked hard. That tired feeling with the endorphins is a nice feeling. You can go home in the evening, sit back and think: ‘I did something good today.’”
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