Amidst ticket controversy and boxing scandals in this summer’s Rio Olympics, it was a number of UCD students who really shone through for team Ireland and lifted the country. Eight athletes hailing from Belfield in total competed at the games, salvaging a cause for Irish celebration throughout a somewhat turbulent tournament.
In the Water
It would never be an Irish or UCD review of Rio 2016 without beginning with the O’Donovan brothers. Now internationally renowned for their seemingly never-ending banter, as well as incredible skills on water, they led the way by securing Team Ireland’s first medal at the games. Ireland’s first ever silver medal at the lightweight double sculls Olympic rowing event.
Preparations did not quite go to plan as their heat was postponed due to choppy waters but in typical Irish fashion the brothers laughed it off, with UCD physiotherapy student Paul O’Donovan saying: “We were almost disappointed we couldn’t race yesterday, it would have been a bit of craic!” On the resumption however it was clear that Paul and Gary were in blistering form. Despite a slow start the duo pulled away in the final 500 metres to beat the Italian crew with a time of 6 minutes and 23.72 seconds.
After holding off Britain and the USA to reach the final there was that RTÉ interview that went viral on Twitter and made the world fall in love with the Irish once again. Asked how they would prepare for the Olympic final, Gary O’Donovan made no secret of his appreciation of the food services available in advance of the final, joking that they could eat steak for “breakfast, lunch and dinner” if they wanted.
Clearly the food did its job as the O’Donovan brothers blasted their way to Olympic silver in 6 minutes and 30.7 seconds, just over half a second behind the French. Like in previous races the Cork men kept in touch with the leaders’ group consisting of Norway and France, before making a charge to be in pole position for gold heading into the final stages. However, despite an incredible effort they were beaten to the gold by a burst of energy from France when the line approached.
The emotional reaction at home from Ireland both on the internet and in the lads home town of Skibbereen, showed that the O’Donovan brothers had easily captured a spot in the nation’s collective memory of Rio. Their tenacity, hard work and a down-to-earth attitude will be hard to forget.
This followed on from an excellent rowing performance from UCD’s Claire Lambe and her teammate Sinead Jennings who qualified for their semi-final with 7:10.91, and then on again to reach the final. But despite the brave effort from Sinéad and Claire in reaching the women’s doubles final and staying well in contention up to the halfway point, they finished in sixth place.
Annalise Murphy, an alumni of UCD science was another hero of Rio, winning a silver medal in the women’s sailing laser radial race. The Rathfarnham Olympian finished fourth in the London games, so to be on the podium in Rio was a moment made all the more special for Murphy.
On the Track
There were also excellent performances on the track for UCD and Ireland. Mark English, a fourth year UCD medicine student and Ad Astra scholar from County Donegal, conjured a superb finish in the 800 meters races to reach the top three of his heat and qualify for the semi-final, clocking a time of 1:46.40. English showed good tactical awareness, staying at the back of the heat for the initial stages of the race before picking up the gears in the final laps. In the semi-final however things did not go quite the way Irish viewers might have hoped, with Mark English finishing in fifth place at a time of 1:45.09. Considering the competition around him it was another fine performance from the Belfield student worthy of the big stage.
Ciara Mageen was also on the track for Ireland in the 1,500 meters race. The European Bronze medallist comfortably took second place in her heat, outpacing the rest of the field and finishing just behind world champion Genzebe Dibaba in a scintillating run. Things started off well for Mageen, a 4th year physiotherapy student in the semi-final, and she led the race inside the first 300 metres. But the sports scholarship student from Portaferry, County Down began to slip back on the 800m mark, her opponents had turned on the gas and Mageen found herself in fifth place. To her credit she stayed in contention until the final bend, but missed out on the final in ending up in second last place.
UCD graduate Ciara Everard was competing in the women’s 800 meters, but was to have a disappointing tournament by her standards. The Kilkenny athlete, who completed a masters in sports physiotherapy in UCD was hamstrung with fitness problems heading into the summer games. The Irish in-door 800m champion finished last in her heat with a time of 2.07.91. She will have to regroup now and look towards the next major European tournament to rebuild her form.
On the Hockey Field
Shane O’Donaghue and Kirk Shimmins were two UCD students competing as part of the Irish hockey team. O’Donaghue was at the heart of good Irish attacking play at various times during the tournament, particularly against the Canadians when he scored a brace. He also showed excellent leadership in trying to initiate pressure inside opposition territory. The team demonstrated good character against Germany, the defending Olympic gold medallists.
However, the story of Ireland’s Olympic hockey campaign was one of a team with endeavour in abundance, but not enough accuracy or discipline. It was far too easy for the opposition to get into the Irish circle and create opportunities, and many of the goals Ireland conceded came from penalty corners. They also looked sloppy in possession when entering the final third, lacking the required clinical edge. The exit for the men’s hockey team came against Argentina, where needing a win to progress from their pool the Irish side were beaten 3-2.
Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe was competing for Ireland in the modern pentathlon, which comprises of five sports; swimming, fencing, shooting and cross-country running. Lanigan-O’Keefe studies sport and exercise management in UCD and is ranked top 16th in the world men’s pentathlon rankings. The Belfield competitor was well back on the scoreboard after the first bout of games, but climbed his way upwards with impressive fencing and horse-riding displays. He followed his strong form there with great shows in both the shooting and the cross-country running to leap from 15th into 8th, for a remarkable top-ten finish from the Irishman.
Professor Colin Boreham, Director of the UCD Ad Astra Sports Programme said he, and the college community are immensely “proud of these superb young athletes”. Boreham said it was “an incredible success for a university to have eight athletes competing” in Rio, and that each one of them proved to be “excellent ambassadors for UCD on the world stage.”
Overall, then, many of the UCD Olympians acquitted themselves very well. This is even more so when it is taken into account that for some like Ciara Mageen, it was their debut Olympics. Others such as Mark English, had to demonstrate immense tenacity in coming back after missing out on London four years ago. Notwithstanding that all of the students undertake such rigorous training and sporting commitments alongside their academic studies. These spectacular stories will continue to inspire us here in Belfield for years to come. They also provide examples of just what can be accomplished when time management and commitment are taken seriously.
More of the same for Tokyo 2020 please.
Conor Lynott | Sports Editor