“After London I always had this fear that maybe that was my opportunity to win an Olympic medal”
By Stephen Leonard
LIFE for Olympic Sailing Silver medallist Annalise Murphy has certainly accelerated since her amazing exploits in Rio in August.
The Rathfarnham woman, who had agonisingly missed out on the podium at the 2012 London Summer Games, returned to banish that painful memory with a stunning performance in her Laser Radial in Brazil that saw her finish second only to Holland’s Marit Bouwmeester.
Greeted by thousands upon her return home to Ireland, Murphy has since been caught up in a whirlwind of promotional events and competition, only last weekend finishing runner-up to Alex Barry in the All-Ireland Sailing Championships at Royal Cork Yacht Club.
Picking up The Echo Sports Star of the Month Award for August, Murphy took some time out to talk to The Echo Sports Editor, Stephen Leonard about life after her Olympic success and how she plans to approach the next four years towards Tokyo 2020.
What has life been like for you since you’ve returned from Rio?
“It’s been pretty hectic. In my mind I was expecting it to be like when I came home from London, when I got to go and do a few exciting things, some media appearances. But it’s been a totally different experience.
“I’ve had to go to lots of different things and there was a huge homecoming organised for me and the sailors, in Dun Laoghaire, the People’s Park and the National Yacht Club afterwards. I’ve never had so many people coming up to me and congratulating me. It was pretty overwhelming at times. I’m just going ‘I’m just a normal person. I don’t really know how I did it either.
“But it’s been fantastic. It’s really nice to see that I’ve worked really hard for the last four years to get this medal and it is pretty nice when you actually get recognition for that work you’ve put in.”2
Has it really sunk in, the magnitude of what you’ve achieved?
“Not really. I was trying to describe it to someone the other day actually. I said, I’m probably not the best sailor in the world. I’m not exceptional. Ninety-five per cent of the time I’m good, but I’m nothing amazing, but then I think five per cent of the time I have managed to be better than all my competitors. I’m not really too sure how.
Generally I’ve managed to do that at the right moments, but in between I’m just in the sort of good to average.
“So I guess I’m really happy that I’ve managed to come away with a medal because after London I always had this sort of fear in the back of my head that maybe that was my opportunity to win an Olympic medal.
“It was in a place that was windy, close to home, I understood the venue, it was very similar to sailing in Dun Laoghaire, which was where I learned to sail.
“There were so many things in my favour, but I just wasn’t prepared to actually go and fight for a medal on the last day. I was just so nervous and I ended up losing it and I did think that was probably my chance gone. I’mnever going to win an Olympic medal now, I thought.
“So to be actually able to go and get a medal in a venue where, maybe not the average person in Ireland, but the entire sailing community told me I wasn’t going to be able to win a medal there because it was a light-wind venue and it was a really difficult venue.
“I kind of knew in the back of my mind that I actually had a good chance in Rio. Because it was such a difficult venue. I really enjoy trying to understand the geography of the place and how the tide works, the way the wind is, and I kind of felt that this could be to my advantage.
At the end of the day you can prepare as well as you want, but it comes down to putting it all together in that week at the actual Olympics.”
London fuelled your desire to go and get to the podium in Rio. Now that you’ve done that, has Rio fuelled your desire to go one step better?
“I was talking to some of the other Irish sailors that were on the Olympic team, saying that I wasn’t too sure if I was going to do another Olympic campaign, but over the last six months, once I took the pressure off about winning a medal and started trying to enjoy racing and that side of it again, I was thinking actually I’d love to do this for another four years. But I guess it all depends on how the Olympics go because it could all go terribly and they’d be like ‘no Annalise you’re not allowed to sail anymore’.
“I guess I’m able to look back and be a little frustrated at not getting a gold medal. I’d put myself into the position and I lost it at the end of the race but it also gives me something to strive towards, to try and win another Olympic medal.
“There are not many women sailors in the world who are double Olympic medallists, so to be in that club would be a pretty amazing thing. But I think I still have to take it one step at a time and I don’t think I’m going to make the next four years just about Tokyo, because that’s what I did after London.
“I made the four years afterwards all about Rio and it became quite overwhelming. In 2014 and 2015 I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted and my confidence got knocked and it suddenly seemed like Rio was a very long way away.
“So I think I’d probably structure my racing a little bit differently. I’ve never won a World Championship and I’d love to win it. The World Championships are in Holland in August and that will be a goal for 2017. Once every four years we have the Olympic World Championships.
It’s the biggest thing every four years after the Olympics and I’d make that a goal for 2018 and then start looking towards Tokyo rather than going, right now, everything’s about Tokyo.
Do you think, as a nation, we should be winning more Olympic medals on the water?
“We’re an island nation. I’d consider us similar to New Zealand. They won four medals in sailing, they won a load of medals in rowing, they won medals in canoeing and kayaking. They’re an island nation that proves that. One of their highest medals counts I think are from water sports. So I think that we do have an opportunity to be like that as well.
“We’re a small country but we have loads of really talented athletes and if they actually get involved in sailing or rowing it is a way up to the top. People see sailing and say ‘Oh it’s an expensive sport’ but actually to do dinghy sailing isn’t an expensive sport.
“OK you do need more than a pair of running shoes but there are clubs all over the country that are offering ‘Try Sailing’ initiative to try sailing and most clubs have boats so you don’t actually have to own a boat to go sailing. You can go down and do a sailing course and your get taught how to sail in a boat.
“I learned how to sail on Blessington Lake so that was where I sailed from when I was five until 11. Lough Derg and Lough Ree have really big sailing programmes as well and in terms of rowing, there’s rowing clubs all over the country as well.
“I’m hoping that my medal and the guys’ [Gary and Paul O’Donovan] medal in rowing is going to maybe make people realise what we can achieve and give them something to strive for.
What do you think are primary attributes you need to compete and succeed in sailing at a high level?
“I guess you need to be smart tactically and understand strategy as well as being very fit and strong. It’s a mix of both. You can’t be one or the other.
“You might do well in certain conditions. If you’re good tactically and you’ve got very good strategy you might be good in light winds but then when it’s heavy airs you won’t be any good at all or it could be the other way around. It is complicated.
“Sailing takes years to understand and master. It is like playing a chess game on the water. You’re watching the wind, the tide, what all of your other competitors are doing. And for someone who doesn’t understanding anything about sailing, it does look complicated, but once you understand it, it seems very easy. That’s what I love about it. That it’s always challenging.
“Even when you’re working hard you still have to keep on thinking. If you’ve lost out, you’ve made a mistake, there are always opportunities to get back in the race. You can look around for more wind on the race course. There are so many opportunities to gain and there are also so many opportunities to lose races as well.
“It’s about learning that side of it and figuring what works and being consistently good. That’s why we race over six days. It goes on for a long time but it’s the sailor that is able to be smart over six days. Everyone can go out have one good race but can you actually have 11 good races? That’s the challenge.
What is it about the sport of sailing that you love?
“Probably being out on the water and going fast although on the Laser you don’t go that fast. Just that feeling of, even though I said it’s nice to sail with other people, I do love that aspect of being able to be out there by myself and when I’ve finished a race, knowing that I was the person who did that at the end of the day.
“That’s one thing I love about sailing the laser is that everyone has exactly the same equipment. At the Olympics you’re supplied with a boat and the sail and everything so it’s a completely level playing field. That’s what I like the most about it, that feeling of out by myself, battling the elements. Getting to beat all these people from all around the world.
Does it amaze you how far you’ve come?
“I guess as a teenager I never thought I’d be able to be the best in the world. When I was 18 I was at World Championships in New Zealand. My sister had managed to beg our parents to let us go to the Olympic Qualifying Worlds for Beijing. I wasn’t going to try and qualify for the Olympics I was just going to experience the whole thing and try and race well.
“But when I was there I was talking to this American girl Paige Railey. She was one of the legends in the sport at the time. She is only three years older than me she was a really talented youth sailor. She was world champion when she was still a youth in the seniors, she was World Sailor of the Year. She was so good and she was my idol. Looking up at her I was like, ‘wow I just wish I could be as good as you Paige’.
“I remember actually talking to her one day. She wasn’t actually having that good of an event. She was maybe sixth or seventh and I was 80th or something like that. I was still doing quite well for my standard but I was thinking ‘I’d just love to go to the Olympics, but I’m never going to be good enough to go.
“And then the next year I actually beat her at the World Championships. I went there hoping to come in the top 40 and I finished eighth in 2009 which was way better than my standard and I just suddenly noticed this shift in people who were like ‘Oh that used to be that young chatty Irish girl whose not very good’ to ‘when did she get good’?’
“Then Paige and I had quite a rivalry over the years. We were good friends at the time and she’s come to Ireland few times and stayed. When I was a teenager she was my hero and then suddenly I was racing against her, then I was beating her and I’ve beaten her in both Olympics. Eight years ago I would never have thought that was possible.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
“I’m doing a little bit of sailing in America over the next while, just on a bigger boat with a group of people. And I’ve been sailing a foiling moth for the last three years which is a small boat on hydro foils, so I’m racing that a little bit more.
“I’m one of the only girls in the world that sails the boat so I’m racing against all of the men in the America’s Cup and a lot of Olympic medallists would be racing it because they all like to race against each other, so I’m going to try and get a little bit better in it. I’m not very good at the moment. I haven’t had more time to sail it over last years and generally I’m just out of control not really going in the right direction.
“In sailing you’re never going to be the best, but can just keep on learning so getting the sail with different sailors from around the world and even in Ireland and understand what their tactics are and just asking them questions. So I’ll just get on the water and just try and learn as much as I can over the next while and take it not quite so seriously. It’s pretty nice not being stressed the whole time.”