Confirmation last week that the re-arranged Olympic Games will go ahead in Tokyo this summer has provided a timely boost to Ennis swimmer Rory McEvoy, he spoke to Ronan Judge.
22-year-old Rory McEvoy is at the start of an intensive block of training at the Sports Ireland campus in Dublin as he bids to to book a place on the plane to Japan. The postponed Irish Olympic Trials are just around the corner and after the uncertainty of the last 12 months, McEvoy is fully focused on the task at hand.
After a welcome visit home to see family at Christmas, McEvoy is back in the pool with fellow members of Swim Ireland’s high performance unit as Olympic preparations step up a notch.
“Since we came back last week, it’s full steam ahead for the next two weeks. I’m based in Dublin and training out of the Sports Ireland campus in Blanchardstown. We’re in the thick of one of the biggest blocks of training of the year. I’m looking to get the mileage done and get loads more hours in the water,” McEvoy says.
“I was home for a few days over the Christmas period. It was really nice to be able to see the family given the current climate. I was absolutely glad to see them and I was glad that none of us were affected by COVID so I was able to see them. In fairness, we all have been quite meticulous and diligent in staying fit and healthy. I got to spend a few days at home and I was back up to it then. I’ll be here for a few weeks just trying to get my work done.”
As a member of an elite sport, McEvoy and teammates were among the few groups of sportspeople allowed to train during the months of lockdown. Confirmation that he would be allowed do so despite the recent spike in Covid-19 numbers came as a huge relief and has McEvoy focused on the important period ahead.
He says, “In fairness because I am training in the High Performance Centre and the National Centre, its deemed elite sport so we were allowed to continue under strict Covid-19 guidelines and strict social distancing regulations. We had the whole pool pretty much quarantined off for us and there was nobody else in with us during Level 5 lockdown. It was almost the best thing for us because we were staying away from each other and we were still able to train. The first lockdown was a complete lockdown and I was at home training, but through the second and third lockdowns, we are exempt. It’s really, really great to be able to train. The way the cases rose so rapidly recently, we wondered would we get an exemption. In fairness to us, we have been very wary. Everyone has been quite diligent and everyone is making the right choices”.
Training has been a comfort and a realm of consistency throughout a turbulent year, but there were times during the early months of the pandemic when McEvoy wondered if he would get the chance to chase his Olympic dream. But confirmation of the games going ahead has provided “clarity and solace”.
“At the end of the day, we’re all human and we’ve all been affected by this one way or another. The one thing that we have got clarity on is that the Olympic games are going ahead, regardless of whether Covid-19 is present in Japan or not. We have a framework made and there is a plan that the Olympic games will go ahead, with or without crowds. We have got a lot of clarity and solace from that. We have a goal to strive for and its not just all dark; we have something to train for. I’m just grabbing that with both hands,” he says.
“But yeah, there was periods in the first lockdown where it was hard and you couldn’t see the end. It was another two weeks after another two weeks. That was the longest time I’d spent out of the water and I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
The Ennis man says it is a real privilege to be in the pool at a time when many others cannot.
“At least now we’re back on track properly and my motivation couldn’t be any higher. We are are really getting a lot of good work done. It was a big, big relief to know that we are still able to do what we can do and what we do best. We are one of two centres for swimming in the country that are open. That’s amazing in itself; that I’m part of such an unique group who are so privileged to be able to train when so many cannot”.
This is a crucial period for McEvoy. Last year’s Irish Olympic Trials were called off days after the announcement of the first lockdown last March. Those re-arranged trials now loom on the horizon and McEvoy knows that every day between now and April counts if he is achieve his goal. He is relishing the challenge.
“We were gearing up for the trials,” he says, “they were supposed to happen on April 1 and the first lock down came in on March 23 or 21. We were literally in the best shape of our lives, hoping this lockdown wouldn’t come and we could actually race. They were postponed. It’s year for year so what was supposed to happen last year is happening this year. We have our trials in in early April which is 15 weeks and a day until they begin”.
“I’m really excited. It’s definitely been different; this year of training, without a doubt, but I can take comfort in the fact that everyone in the world is in the exact same situation. We are back in a situation where we can do great work. I’m really excited for it and I know that our coaches are as well. We have done a lot of good training and we have been in the water pretty much uninterrupted since the last lockdown. That’s a good, good few weeks of work done so hopefully that will pay dividends.”
McEvoy hopes the the experience gained by working with the “best supportive staff” and at the “best facilities” will help him secure one of the two places available to compete in his chosen event, the 100 metre backstroke. Two other Irish swimmers also have the same goal and McEvoy says the competition has stepped up in recent weeks.
“There are three of going for two places so that has definitely sparked some competition between us. One of the lads is the renowned backstroker, Shane Ryan. He’s a previous Olympian, an amazing athlete and I’m privileged enough to be able to train with him and learn from him, day in, day out. I’m blessed in that circumstance. The other guy is Conor Ferguson who is another unbelievable backstroker who trains up north at the moment. We’re three perfectly capable athletes and capable of providing a seriously entertaining race. I’m hopeful I’ll get my hands on the wall, first or second.”
“I think its exciting and I am really excited to see what happens. I definitely feel I’m in the melting pot anyway. My event is one of the more competitive in the country and in my opinion, it is one of the most exciting. I love it and I am really excited to see what happens”.
That excitement is further fired by the size of the prize. Representing your country at the Olympics is a rare achievement; to do so during one of the most extraordinary periods in recent history would be even more special.
“It would be even more sweeter than I could ever imagine. Just with the setbacks and uncertainty, which was the real killer, whether or not the games would go ahead. Every single athlete has made tough decisions with the Olympics being the reason we made those decisions. If they weren’t going ahead it would feel like we were wasting a portion of our lives. It would really, really mean the world if we could celebrate by making the Olympic games and just enjoy the fact we are among the best in the world and compete.”
For McEvoy those tough decisions meant putting his studies on hold so he could put all his focus on Tokyo. He is studying exercise and health fitness at the University of Limerick (UL) but the books have been put away for now.
“Last year I decided to take a year out and give a full year to swimming and try to give the Olympics a really good crack; completely uninterrupted and focused for a year,” McEvoy explains. “Then obviously Covid-19 happened, but I decided to carry on and thought I couldn’t really fall at the last hurdle. Studying is tough enough but studying and training for the Olympics is a different ball game!”
Sport was big part of McEvoy’s childhood. He played all team games but settled on swimming at an early age. He credits the influence of his older brother Adam for setting him on the path to being one of Ireland’s top swimmers. As for the competitive edge required of elite level athletes, that has its origins away from the pool.
“There’s definitely been a history of competitiveness in the family – I can tell you that much – from playing board games at home!” he says, “There’s no history of swimming, specifically in the family. My father (Tom), was a seriously competitive footballer back in the day when he used to play football in Dublin. I’ve been extremely sporty since I was a young lad. I played hurling, football, soccer, rugby but I kept on getting injured.
“The reason I got into swimming was because of my brother Adam. I used to always follow him and what he used to do. It was through him, I found my love for it. He would have been the driving force for me. If he was getting up early, I would get up early. That made things a lot easier when you had you’re big brother bringing you along. We were always competitive and sporty but swimming was the one that caught my eye.
“I was 14 when I started taking swimming seriously and I was 16 when I moved into Limerick to train as part of the second national centre. I moved house, I moved schools. I trained in there on my own for four years. I did two years of college as part of UL. Three years ago I moved to Dublin to train at the national centre under Ben Higson and Steve Bekerleg
“I’ve been in the sport a long time now. I have a good background in it, I think. I love it and I never really lost any love for it. I count that as a blessing .”
It’s a blessing that may yet reap the ultimate reward, but having given himself to a sport that demands everything, McEvoy knows he will have to give much more in the weeks ahead if his dream is to become reality.