illness serif;”>Ciarán Carey meets up with Irish Table Tennis Paralympian Eimear Breathnach as we begin looking ahead to the Olympic and Paralympic games in London this summer.
Ten minutes until game time: “I’ll listen to a particular song a couple of times, on repeat, to try and get your adrenaline going and try and block out the nervous energy in the room from the other athletes.” The minutes tick down: “The hall in Beijing held nine thousand people but was quite small, with steep sides, a bit of a cauldron.” Game on: “Once you’ve started you block it out you don’t see it or hear it.”
It takes years of preparation for an athlete to reach moments like this. Unfortunately for athletes competing in this Summer’s Olympic and Paralympic games those moments can only come around once every four years and then they are gone. “It took me two years to fully get over the last Paralympics. You only have one opportunity and it is so much bigger than anything else.”
For Eimear Breathnach, Beijing was the culmination of eight years training. With narrowly missing out on a place at Athens in two fields came the decision to concentrate solely on table tennis. “The Beijing Paralympics were my first so it was absolutely a huge experience.” She may have had to only wait four years for a second bite at the Paralympics but the journey was far from smooth.
“I decided to take an eight month break after the Beijing Paralympics and I actually got sick soon after that and my eight month break turned into a two year one. I had to really fight and struggle to get back to fitness. It was great to get back especially thinking I mightn’t. So I had to fight to qualify harder than I did in Beijing. With the increasing standard and coming back from being out it might mean more to me.”
Even without this extended break qualification is no picnic. “You count your best six tournaments and you’re bound to have one or two bad tournaments. I did eight which is the minimum most people would do. Most places its 2 flights minimum and a bus journey. Most tournaments are the guts of a week, getting up at 4 in the morning and getting to your location at 8,9,10 at night and having to be up for 6 to play matches the next morning so it’s demanding on your body, as well as mentally This time last year I was sick of the thoughts of all the tournaments so this year there’s a different focus; I can focus on training.”
“The support for the Irish team will be phenomenal, there’s such a huge Irish contingent in London even without bringing more over. I don’t think there has ever been such demand for tickets before the games.” But with the extra support comes extra pressure: “It being in London does add extra pressure. “The squad will be going to a holding camp in Portugal before we go from there to London. The pressure will have built up here. But 90% of the pressure comes from yourself. The nerves never disappear because you expect more of yourself as you go. When you start out you try not to lose badly rather than win. Now, the nerves are there because you expect so much of yourself.”
“I want to compete better than I did in Beijing because I was disappointed there, I didn’t compete as well as I could compete but looking back I didn’t do as badly as I felt. In the last year I’ve performed better than I have in my whole career. As long as I compete to the best of my ability anything could happen. There are only twelve players and on any given day most of us could beat each other. I am really looking forward to it. There’s nothing to compare to the Paralympic games, the build up, there really is nothing like them.”