A Silver Lining

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As published in InTouch Magazine (IRUPA), November edition.

Annalise Murphy didn’t know whether to laugh or cry after banishing the pain of missing out on a medal at London 2012 by claiming silver in the final race of the women’s Laser Radial in Rio last August. Growing up in an avid sailing home, an Olympic medal was always Murphy’s ultimate dream.

To an extent, IRUPA has accompanied her on that journey to the podium, with Dr. Kate Kirby at her side in her role as a sports psychologist. “My time with Annalise actually stretches back to 2005 when she was identified as a Development Athlete, so that medal was the culmination of over 10 years work,” Kate informs us while speaking at Huddle Dublin at the Aviva on September 29th. “But she was so driven in her own right that it turned out to be one the easiest jobs I’ve ever done!”

Joining the IRUPA team in October 2012, Kate had already gained extensive experience in a variety of fields. Having attained both an MSc and PhD in sports psychology, she has provided consultancy services for a number of sporting bodies including the Irish Olympic Sailing and Modern Pentathlon squads. Her work with IRUPA has primarily seen her work with the Irish Women’s Sevens squad in a player development capacity.

“Since I first joined IRUPA, it is clear that the organisation has taken much more of a foothold in the game. We have much more of an influence and are held in higher esteem. I would put this down to two things: visibility and manpower. When I started out we offered general services but now we can give the individual greater attention.”

“A big part of our role,” Kate continues, “is helping a retiring player to transition out of his or her rugby career. Unfortunately we can’t prevent the fall, but we can help to soften the landing quite significantly. It is therefore so important that players take the time to engage with us. To provide the best service possible we need to get a feel for them as people with their own character, passions and goals.”

“In the past the most difficult part has been trying to secure time in front of the players. We had no allotted schedule space and had to work around their diaries. With all their on-field training, gym work, physio sessions and team meetings, we had to try and squeeze in where possible. But with the work that we have been doing, I think the provinces are really seeing the fruits of our efforts and they facilitate us wherever possible.”

Working with an Olympic athlete however has brought different challenges to the table. “In IRUPA, much of our work is of an off-field dimension in that we help to develop the players from an educational and career perspective. With Annalise, it was a very hands-on, results based experience. In the beginning we had to work on her all-round skills, from how she packed her bag to how she managed her logistics. We did everything in our power in an effort to help maximise her performance levels. But as she matured and grew into the sport, the work changed. We then became more focused on her mental skills and the consistency of her racing.”

Having been at London 2012, Kate had acquired the requisite knowledge base to assist the 25 year-old manage her Olympic experience. “While she performed well in London, our work in the interim was about developing greater self-awareness and exploring how she responds in certain situations. We had established our working environment but she would be the first to admit that she became frustrated by it and drifted. In Rio she appreciated what she had to do and she got on with it.”

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“Before we made the trip out there we reflected on London, the successes and mistakes. It was clear that whatever framework we established would be crucial to achieving her goal. For instance, I stayed with Annalise in an apartment nearby the sailing centre. In London we didn’t spend as much time together and as a result our work became a bit rushed. Furthermore, Rory Fitzpatrick, her coach, lived elsewhere. This was a deliberate move designed to promote fresher interaction.”

Any success is grounded upon strong mental preparation and Murphy, with Kate by her side, perfected her approach to Rio 2016. To bounce back from such disappointment and spend the next four years planning to put things right takes an enormous amount of dedication and drive. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but as Murphy crossed the finish line every sacrifice she had made along the way became worthwhile.

 

 

 

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Michael Conlan: A Fighter, Not Just a Boxer

As published on Pundit Arena

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The Riocentro Exhibition resembled a wake-house as Vladimir Nikitin’s hand was raised aloft following Tuesday’s quarter-final bout with Michael Conlan. Shock mingled with both anger and sadness.

Having had his say with the assembled media, he stormed back to his chambers passing a troop of Irish supporters who looked at him and then at each other, bewildered by the downfall of their Belfast boy.

As with many of those looking on at these Games, not all will have understood the scoring mechanisms, but that mattered little on this day. Michael Conlan clearly won the fight – only Michael Conlan wasn’t awarded the fight.

Such was the farcical nature of the unfolding events that it was like the annual Christmas pantomime at the Gaiety Theatre. The crowd hissed and booed but on this occasion, the villains were not to be deterred. An anticlimactic sensation permeated through the arena like a dusty hangover, not so much because Conlan had lost, but because he had been clearly let down by his sport.

The record books will show that Nikitin won the bout, with Conlan down on all three judge’s cards (29-28), but any of his admirers looking on will always remember the dubious circumstances.

In the aftermath of his defeat to Nikitin in the previous round, Thailand’s Chatchai Butdee told the Bangkok Postthat he should have won the fight:

“I think I was more on target. I do not really understand the judges’ decision.”

Conlan echoed similar concerns on Tuesday, albeit with added venom.

It was a disconcerting occasion for the RTÉ Sports Person of the Year, his father John and Zoar Antia. While the Russian was beatable, he was far from being a lamb to the slaughter – indeed Nikita had claimed Conlan’s scalp before.

The 24-year-old has always been the better fighter though. As Nikitin took to the task with fury, going all-out to deny Conlan his accustomed dominance, the Irishman remained at a distance. The crowd began to find their voice as the Belfast man slipped a flurry of punches before landing several of his own. Nikitin never looked to have landed a telling blow. The Russian support grew silent, while those bedecked in green rose to their feet.

Yet, as Conlan returned to his corner after the first round, his hand punching the air with satisfaction, his coaches quickly realised that they would have to conceive of a way of beating not only their immediate blue opponent, but also those seated at ringside. Nikitin was deemed to have bettered his Irish adversary.

Conlan is not the World, European and Commonwealth champion for nothing, however. His adaptability has been one of his greatest strengths and so there was no immediate concern from a strategic perspective. His greater movement would take him away from a Russian flurry while his accuracy would secure the points.

Those sitting at home though were alive to the unconvincing adjudication that has dominated these Games. At the outset Hugh Cahill and Darren O’Neill, commentating for RTÉ Sport, expressed some concern for the private volitions of the Brazilian, Sri Lankan and Polish judges.

But what could Conlan do other than to control the controllable?

Thereafter the statistics back up the claim that Conlan should have been the rightful victor. Over the course of the next two rounds, Conlan out-landed Nikitin 71-49 while throwing an average of 122 per round.

At the end of the bout, Nikitin looked completely deflated. His bloodied head and beaten body stumbled back to his corner resembling that of a broken man (his injuries were such that he was forced to forfeit his place in the competition on Wednesday). Conlan, meanwhile, skipped the other way in anticipation of another Olympic semi-final.

The moment Nikitin was declared triumphant spoke volumes about what had actually played out. As Nikita’s hand was raised triumphantly aloft, his knees buckled beneath him with a mixture of delight, disbelief and exhaustion. Conlan looked at the Algerian referee with disgust: “f*** off!”.

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Immediately faced by the television cameras, an exasperated Conlan left us in no doubt as to who he blamed for the debacle:

“AIBA are cheats. F**king cheats. As simple as that. That’s me, I’ll never box for AIBA again. They’re cheating bastards, they’re paying everybody,” said Conlan in an interview with RTÉ after the fight.

“I was here to win Olympic gold. My dreams been shattered now. You know what, I’ve a big career ahead of me. And these ones? They’ve always been cheats. Amateur boxing stinks. From the core right to the top.

“It’s like Katie (Taylor) yesterday. No way she lost that fight. It was a close fight, but she didn’t lose.

“I thought I boxed the ears off him in the first round, but they scored it against me. So I had to fight his fight, which I did, outfought him. It’s a shambles to be honest.

“I’m gutted, from the bottom of my heart. I wanted to go back with a gold medal to Ireland. Now I feel I’m going back a loser. I’m not a loser, I’m a winner. Today just showed how corrupt this organisation is.

“Cheating b****rds” he exclaimed, “My Olympic title has been robbed from me!”

Some inevitably questioned his use of language throughout his tirade and the bitterness with which it was spewed, but taken in context, what is more surprising is that Conlan didn’t go any further.

Speaking to Pundit Arena as part of our ‘Secret Olympian’ series in the lead up to the Games, Conlan professed:

“This game is my life. It is not for everybody and I understand that. To get to where I have got to, to become an Olympian, I have dedicated my life to the sport of boxing. It has made me who I am today.

“I have done the early mornings, I have done the late nights, I have given up things that young people my age take for granted in their lives.”

Conlan is a mature individual. He has had to be. Growing up on the Falls Road in west Belfast, Conlan’s childhood was marred by underage drinking, drugs, theft and vandalism. Given his growing reputation in boxing circles, Conlan managed to keep much of his misspent youth under wraps. There was also the added fear that his brother Jamie would find out.

As an acclaimed boxer in his own right (he is the current Commonwealth and WBO Inter-Continental Super Flyweight Champion), Jamie undoubtedly had a positive influence on his younger brother, while Michael’s growing awareness of his own talent prompted him to take stock of his spiralling lifestyle.

Conlan is mindful of the environment from which he emerged. He will always be a home boy, but he appreciates that he managed to escape a life where many have succumbed to depression, economic uncertainty and even death. Thankfully, Conlan chose a different path.

At all times shrewdly managed and expertly coached, he ascended through the ranks with ferocity. His determination shone through like a beacon of light for Irish sport. No longer was he a fighter – he was now a boxer.

Conlan became a national hero when he claimed bronze for Ireland in London four years ago. His star has been rising ever since, with European and Commonwealth medals adding to his haul. Then last December he was named as RTÉ’s Sports Person of the Year having become the first ever male boxer to return home with an AIBA World Championship gold medal.

Now the proud father to Luisne (1) and fiancé to Shauna Olali, Conlan is a settled character and his one burning ambition was to claim gold in Rio 2016. From the very floor of society, Conlan was set to scale the peak of his world.

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To have such a dream, one to which he has dedicated his life, taken away in such farcical circumstances beggars belief. It is generally accepted that athletes go to their first Games to compete, to their second to challenge.

Gold has undoubtedly been in Conlan’s sights ever since Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez put an end to his tournament in London four years ago. This time around, there would be no stopping him – other than those beyond the reach of his gloves.

The fighter in Michael Conlan resurfaced on Tuesday, but nobody should begrudge him of that. We all have our dreams.