Fiona Doyle: Swimming is an individual sport, but reaching the Olympics is not an individual achievement

From Limerick to Calgary, all roads have led to Rio for Fiona Doyle

Fiona Doyle, Rio, Olympics

Image: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Fiona Doyle has been a national swimmer for over a decade, yet many of those who will see her compete at this year's Olympic Games aren't familiar with her journey to this point.

The 24-year-old has been to the semi-finals of the World Championships twice, won silver and bronze at the World University Games, and for the past 12 years has devoted her life to the sport, undergoing grueling training regimes just to put her where she is today.

Early starts are nothing new to the Limerick native. Preparation around these Games have focused around 5am starts as she makes her way to the pool in the Canadian city of Calgary. Training isn't restricted to the pool either.

Daily runs and weight sessions are included in between to trips to the pool in the morning and evening. It's a wonder there is any time to continue her studies in kinesiology.

So does she expect support back home to tune in on August 7 when she takes to the pool for her heats in the 100m breaststroke?

"I think Ireland as a whole has become a lot more supportive toward their athletes," she tells Newstalk.com. "I think the population is slowly getting a better understanding of what it takes to get to that level. It’s not just a matter of deciding four years before that you're getting to the Olympic Games and it’ll be easy. I think people are beginning to realise that it takes more than that. It takes years and then you don’t just decide to do poorly when you go to the Olympics.

"For me, the most frustrating thing is when people become experts just before the Olympics and then they see athletes not performing to where they think they should be and not winning medals.

"People don’t realise you don’t go to the Olympics not to perform. In GAA, when your county team isn’t doing well people are blaming everything left, right and centre and you say they were terrible. You don’t know the work that has gone in. As athletes, we don’t go into championships to do poorly, we go to give it our all.

"To get to the Olympics is no small feat. In swimming there are 900 athletes who get to go and that’s it. Half of them are male and half of them are female. There are a lot more than 900 athletes swimming in the world. People tend to forget that and the level it takes to get there."

Fiona Doyle on her way to finishing fourth at in the final of the 100m breaststroke at the 2016 LEN European Swimming Championships, London Aquatics Centre in June. Image: ©INPHO/Andrea Staccioli

This pursuit of greatness has led her abroad in her study and her training, but she says that she wouldn't be where she is today without the support systems put in place from an early age. 

"I’ve always been a very determined person and have always had very big goals. So for me to turn around and tell my folks I was going to the Olympics, as surprised as my parents were, I don’t think they were really all that surprised.

"I had no idea what it took to get to the Olympics or what it involved, I just knew that you needed to swim fast. Every time I got in the pool I gave it everything I had. Thankfully I had fantastic parents and fantastic family support. Any time I said I wanted to do something, they never told me that I couldn’t.

"At the end of the day, as much as swimming is an individual sport, getting to the Olympics is not an individual achievement. Yes you might be doing the work but there are so many people behind the scenes that are getting you there. That are supporting when you are down and you just need that extra push. They’re there to make sure that you succeed. It’s never just you.

"I have had a lot of influential coaches in my life. Some not so great coaches too, but thankfully I’ve had that support.

"I started in the high performance centre in Limerick when it first opened and met a fantastic coach from Canada who could see the potential that I had."

That coach is Mike Blondal, a man who has guided Doyle through challenging times in her swimming career and helped to carve out a path for her to continue following her dream. 

"When he left I was left with a not so great coach, things were very difficult in Limerick. I ended up moving to Dublin for my last year of secondary school which was very difficult. I didn't feel like I should have to move or that I should be the one who had to upend everything just because one coach didn’t want to coach me. 

"Thankfully I had amazing support from Portmarnock swimming club in Dublin. They were absolutely fantastic to me. The coaches there were just amazing. During my last year of university [Blondal] looked into universities over in Canada and he decided to ask them if any of them could offer me a scholarship."

She was offered one of just two scholarships handed out every year by the University of Calgary and since then has trained tirelessly for her chance to fly the Irish flag at the Olympic Games.

"It was a difficult choice to make to move across the world without my family. Essentially I had never met anybody there and I didn’t know anything about it. But for me it felt like the right decision. Looking back it was probably the best decision I've ever made, both in terms of swimming but also personally. It was a bit of a rocky start at the beginning but it’s been absolutely fantastic."

Fiona's team-mates, Nicholas Quinn, Shane Ryan and Oliver Dingley who will all represent Irish swimming at this year's Olympic Games in Rio. Image:  ©INPHO/Gary Carr

Doyle now prepares for Rio in the hopes of proudly representing her coach, her family and her country. It should come as no surprise then to discover she hasn't been paying attention to the negative press that has been surrounding the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.

"If anything, I think it’s made people a little bit more curious. They want to know more about the Games. I think a lot more people will be watching because they want to see what will happen and they want to see the conclusion to all of those stories.

"It has been unfortunate that it’s had such negative press. As an athlete you hear of people saying you shouldn't watch [The Olympics] at all. It’s ridiculous. It’s difficult to hear as an athlete because you spend your whole life training to qualify for just one of these Games. You hear people say I hope it’s terrible, or it’s not run well, it’s a little bit disheartening.

"As far of the negative press goes, as long as it’s not geared towards the athletes in the sport... It’s only going to draw people and make them a lot more curious about the Olympics and about the athletes and their decisions to go. It’s to show people that’s it’s more than sport and that as athletes we have to think about what we’re doing.

"We can’t just show up in Rio and expect everything to be great, we have to be prepared enough to know that sometimes conditions will not be ideal. We’ll have to deal with poor water quality and be careful with mosquitoes so we don’t get bitten and catch anything. It’s more than just sport. 

"Maybe we’ll develop one or two more fans that stay on and stay to watch the sport outside of the Olympics."

All that remains now is to prepare mentally for the Olympics, an event at which she says is all about ensuring you are not overwhelmed by the spectacle.

"At the Olympics there’s a lot more pressure on people and nine times out of 10 people don’t get their best times at the Olympics. I hope that I am one of those people who do a best time and progress out of heats and hopefully past semi-finals. It’s anybody’s ball game after that. It’s all a matter of who can keep their head on their shoulders."

Fiona Doyle is welcomed back by Team Ireland in the athlete village after winning a bronze medal in the Women's 100m Breaststroke final at the World University Games. Image: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Doyle is another member of the Irish swimming team that is committed to developing the sport past Rio, and sees this as a chance to inspire another generation of Olympians. She firmly believes that being from a smaller nation is nothing that should deter you from realising your potential.

"I think a lot of it is about getting younger swimmers excited and telling them they can be there too. They can be whatever they want to be. In Ireland, because we are such a small country, we tend to dwell on the negative.

"Younger athletes are afraid to have big goals and have big dreams. They’re afraid to chase things that someone from the States may not necessarily be afraid to say. I don’t think younger athletes realise the potential that they actually have. Just because they come from Ireland doesn’t mean that they can’t be as good as anyone else in the world. Yes, we might not have the facilities but I think we can be just as good."

Her race may last a little over 60 seconds and her final time may fall marginally either side of achieving Olympic glory. But as Fiona Doyle kicks off the backboard to begin her first heat and the world watches with great anticipation, she'll remember this chance has been forged by the thousands of hours that no one ever saw.