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'I kind of wish I'd appreciated it more in the moment'

In part four of our series, Olive Loughnane discusses life after the Olympics.

Olive Loughnane pictured in 2000.
Olive Loughnane pictured in 2000.
Image: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

LEAVING HIGH-LEVEL sport behind is tough for any athlete, but particularly so for one that achieved the kind of success that Olive Loughnane managed.

The Irish athlete had an illustrious career, competing in four consecutive Olympic Games, starting in Sydney 2000 and finishing up at London 2012, with a seventh-place finish in Beijing her highest ranking.

The pinnacle of her career though was without doubt the gold medal she claimed at the World Championships in Berlin in 2009, though Loughnane only belatedly received it in 2016, after disgraced Russia athlete Olga Kaniskina — initially declared the race’s victor — was stripped of the win.

In addition to this memorable occasion, Loughnane says competing at the Olympics was a career standout.

The accomplished racewalker was 24 by the time she made her Olympics debut and 36 when she bowed out after finishing 13th in London. Naturally, the aftermath to both were quite different experiences.

“My first Olympics was before I got married, so you go home and the party continues for a bit,” she tells The42. “Then my last two Olympics, I had my daughters, so it was about catching up with family again. So it depends what stage you’re at in life.

“When I was in Sydney, I was working full-time. I would have been a lot less mature then and the financial support I had kicked in towards the end of my career. 

“But I think I went back to work pretty quickly after the Sydney Olympics. After the London Olympics, I was on career break. It was different. It took a while before I went back to work. The Olympics and sport in general, you have to stop trying to recreate the high that you would have had. You just find different ways to enjoy the memories, because if you keep trying to recreate the very special moments, there’s nothing that’s ever going to compare to it.

“You’re thinking in four-year cycles but my last Olympics was also the end of my sporting career. Before that, you were just looking towards the next World Championships. It was just about a process. You had a three-week break and then you got right back into it.

“It was only at the very end that you thought about it at all.”

And for Loughnane, the decision to retire after the 2012 Games was a fairly straightforward one.

For me, it wasn’t as bad, because I left sport on my own terms. I was competing at a very high level. While I could have stayed on and qualified for the Olympics in Rio, I just felt I wasn’t going to be at the same level and made the decision that I wanted to have more children.”

Going into London 2012 knowing it would be her last Olympics did not add to the pressure, she explains.

“As an athlete, you’re always trying to get the best out of yourself. You’re always going to try to maximise your performance, so it peaks at the most important race of the year, but then naturally, part of you is going to perform whatever the occasion. A really big thing for me was not allowing the fanfare to impact on your performance.

“I think it was only since I retired that I appreciated how special competing at the Olympics was. At the time it was all about competing and getting the most out of yourself.

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“That’s not to say I didn’t have some fantastic times and really good team-mates and everything. You took the good bits without dwelling on it too much.

“You often hear rugby players talking about the process. If I was to get caught up in the what ifs, what if I do amazingly well here and I become Olympic champion, that would impinge on my performance.”

olive-loughnane These days, Loughnane is a Sport Ireland board member. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

When she wasn’t representing Ireland on the international stage, Loughnane was working in the Central Statistics Office

“People were really good to me,” she recalls. “I finished second in the World Championships in 2009 and was subsequently upgraded. So there was always an enormous sense of pride and even though I was out on career break for the 2012 Olympics, there was a banner up at work outside flagging the fact that I work there. 

“I look different now to when I was competing, but still the name ring’s a bell [to strangers]. People just love to hear the stories. I’m not sure I appreciated how great those stories were myself at the time, but I do now.”

And given all she has experienced, does Loughnane — who in addition to her day job is a Sport Ireland board member now — have any advice for Ireland’s future Olympians?

“I suppose just be kind to yourself. The trouble is to get to the point where you’re competing on the Olympic stage, it takes a certain personality type. It takes a lot of commitment and a very strong-willed person.

“You’ve got to make sure you realise you’ll leave that peak behind in a sense when it’s all over, and cherish the memory.

“It’s unique what I experienced as an Olympian and it took myself a while to realise that I was never going to be recreating it. 

I kind of wish I’d appreciated it more in the moment. I don’t know if that’s possible. But I should have probably smelt the roses a bit more. It was always about the next performance and the next medal and the next championship, but that’s the nature of it.

“In terms of how special the Olympics are, it wasn’t until I went through a full Olympic cycle that I fully realised that I retired. There was always that thing where I could go back for one more, so it took a lot of time to get that out of the system, even though my life had moved on hugely. 

“It is an addiction and generally athletes are hard on themselves, because they have to be really tough to get to that level. Just relaxing a bit is important too and to value what you’ve achieved, but your focus as an athlete is very much on your performance.

“To give some indication as well, I would have really enjoyed the opening ceremony for the Sydney Olympics, but I wasn’t at the opening ceremony, or in Beijing or London. It was a fantastic spectacle, but as you compete a bit more, it becomes more about the performance than the Olympics itself.

“I know there’s a very romantic notion about running out in the opening ceremony, but that wouldn’t be top of your priorities when you’re trying to get a performance out of yourself.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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