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'I've struggled with confidence along the way' - dropping other sports, injuries and team-mates as role models

It hasn’t been an easy ride for Irish badminton star Sara Boyle, but she feels she can push on now.

LONG BEFORE THE 2020 Olympic dreams of many others were forced on hold, Sara Boyle had parked hers.

The Dublin-born badminton star won her first national singles title in early February, and while we spoke a few weeks later — still long before the Covid-19 pandemic had realistically thrown the Tokyo Games into doubt — she knew she wouldn’t be there. 

The Olympics have always been, and will always be, on her radar though.

sara-boyle Badminton star Sara Boyle. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Obviously, growing up, 2020 was always something I really looked to so that’s a disappointing factor,” she said at the AIG 20×20 ‘Show Your Skills’ Competition Launch.

“I struggled with injury, I didn’t get results that I wanted and a whole different load of factors. I’m learning from this experience. Even though I’m not going to make this, I’m committed to the next cycle.

“Now, it’s about trying to compete at the next one, not even just qualify.”

Who knows? 2021 could now be an option rather than putting all her eggs in the 2024 basket.

***

It all started when Sara Boyle was about nine-years-old.

Badminton wasn’t exactly the biggest sport in her area of Portmarnock, but once she got a taste for it, she well and truly caught the bug. 

“All the way up, I was sports-mad,” the 22-year-old recalls. “I played for the boys teams until I was U13 in Gaelic and hurling and football, everything.

“My sister, Rachel, started playing in Baldoyle badminton centre. It was through the school, someone came in asking who wanted to play, and I just followed in her footsteps. I actually began to really, really like it.

I was just doing so much, and at about 16, I was between the camogie with the Dublin U16s and badminton on the Irish team. I got injured then for like eight months, I had to pick so I went with badminton. I loved it.

“The excitement of Olympics… it’s the biggest event, and that for me was the huge draw. I got to travel and everything. It’s funny though, I miss my camogie team.”

There and then, a nod goes to Dublin star Laura Twomey, her former Naomh Mearnóg team-mate who’s across the room doing interviews of her own and fulfilling her duties as a 20×20 ambassador. 

“It’s funny seeing her here,” Boyle giggles. “Every now and again they’re like, ‘Oh, are you coming back?’ Ah, it’s great to see Laura, she’s done so well and it’s great to have that locally.

“In Portmarnock, badminton is not big, but there’s a club in the Portmarnock Leisure Centre now and I coach the juniors on Sundays. That’s great because hopefully now it will become bigger in Portmarnock and hopefully, like Chloe [Magee] was a role model for me, I can be that for others. That would be nice.”

While Boyle was crowned national singles champion for the first time earlier this year, she also landed her second doubles title. Last year, she triumphed with Rachel Darragh, while this year, it was with her role model Magee.

The Donegal native has had a huge impact on Boyle’s career, as have many others like her brother and playing partner Sam Magee, and 19-year-old sensation Nhat Nguyen.

They all train together in the country’s top group.

The big thing is role models,” Boyle explains. “I’ve seen Chloe go to three Olympics, I’m training with Chloe every day. It’s obviously experience on my side. 

“Her brother Sam as well… having that experience, encouragement and trustworthy advice is great because you know they’ve been through it. You can really trust that. It’s a big thing in training.

aig-show-your-skills-launch Boyle (second from left) launching the AIG 20x20 “Show Your Skills’ Challenge. Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

“Nhat, I’ve known him since the first day he was training. He was in my club when I was like nine and he was seven, me and him have kind of gone the whole way up. It’s great to see him doing so well. His quality is so high, for our training group it’s such an asset.”

At the time of our conversation, Nguyen — who was born in Vietnam — was set to qualify for the men’s singles in Tokyo while the Magee siblings were battling for a mixed doubles spot.

While Boyle’s goal on the court had changed, she was completing her Business Studies degree in Dublin City University [DCU] after splitting her final year over two to facilitate sports.

My plan now is coaching. I’ve done a bit of coaching so that’s how I’ll fund everything and my plan then really is just to train full-time pretty much with the others. At the moment, my training schedule is full time but I’m doing college as well.

“I’m going to look into doing a Masters in Accountancy, hopefully I’ll continue education so when I finish my career or if anything ever happens I can switch over.”

On the court, competition-wise, there was plenty happening too.

“For me, I just need to keep improving,” she continued. “In my age now, Chloe is finished her singles career and she’s focusing on mixed so there is a gap in women’s singles in Ireland — especially for the Olympics.

“Now it’s between me and probably the most likely is Rachael Darragh to battle it out for that number one spot. The whole way up, we’ve been touch and go with each other. For us, we both benefit from each other but at the same time, we know we’re in competition.

“It’s a weird dynamic. We’re great friends and we played each other all the way up too. We need each other, you need that edge of competition. Sometimes if you’re the best, you can nearly get comfortable in it. We’re both pushing to take that spot from Chloe.”

She’s mentioned injuries a few times already, and Boyle grins when she’s asked about them. “They laugh at me in training, they call me glass,” she giggles.

The one that kept her out the longest was when she was 16, the aforementioned eight-month lay-off which came as a result of tendonitis in her knee.

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The same inflammation damage then came in her shoulder, and sidelined her for three or four months. That happened twice.

Ah, I’ve had tendonitis in my feet, in both knees, I’ve torn a muscle in my tummy, I’ve been out with my shoulder,” Boyle frowns. “Literally, if you had a little diagram and you point, the whole thing would light up! I’ve big-time struggled with injuries.

After avoiding them in 2020 thus far, Boyle was hellbent on a positive year, pre-Covid. The coaching was going well too, after it came as a natural progression at the DCU badminton club and locally.

“When you put so many hours into your skill, it kind of is a natural progression,” she added.

“It’s a job that I know so much about. Obviously coaching is completely different, you need a lot of experience and it is a different dynamic to playing. But it’s an easy transition for me.”

Boyle was also hoping that her national title victory would raise her profile and parachute her towards funding from Sport Ireland. There are lower tiers of funding available, so she’s working through them and hoping for the best.

sara-boyle In action in 2016. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“That’s my route to get funded then by the Sports Council,” she explains. “I’ll get some tournaments hopefully paid for by Badminton Ireland, hit the results, get my ranking up then and that’s when you can get carded.”

The main thing Boyle finds, however, is that she’s playing well and of a positive mindset. It’s a mental game, she concludes.

While she’s utilised sports psychologists in the past, she’s mainly relied on her older team-mates like Chloe Magee and her coach, Daniel Magee, for that.

“If I needed to talk about something I was struggling about mentally in the game — say I was finding it hard to finish out a game, which I was in the nationals! — that’s who I’d go to,” she nods.

Confidence, for me, I’ve actually struggled with along the way. If I’m out injured, I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Starting this year with the nationals was a huge confidence-booster for me like. Even, I didn’t get any ranking points or anything, to say that you’re national champion is obviously a huge confidence-booster.

“I really feel that I can build on that this year, and it’s really, really given me a boost of confidence. I’m training better, I’ve had a good six-month block now without a major injury, which is huge for me.

“I really feel that now I can push on.”

Push on, she can. And push on, she will.

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Emma Duffy

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