A sportsperson’s life comes with few guarantees. Toil and taxing tests are inevitable so now as Beijing edges closer all the diligent preparation will finally be afforded a thrilling reward. Regardless of how the Irish heavyweight crew fare for the rest of Cormac Folan’s days the sense of achievement that participating at the Olympics brings will provide a chunk of comfort.
Still a competitor’s spirit burns within every rower. That is why they pound the roads, rise at ungodly hours, and forfeit weekends when others are partying through the night. Rowers are doughty, disciplined, and determined. Folan exemplifies those characteristics.
Life as an oarsman can be grim, but when an event looms into view the mind becomes positive again, making all the labour worthwhile. In the season when the Olympics roll around crews must be primed. Ireland have endured an awkward build up, but coach Harald Jahrling is a decorated figure and next month will conclude a four year cycle of severe sweat.
Folan concurs that ultimately the Olympics are what it is all about. “The way I’ve always seen it is that in 2005 we were just starting out. It was my first international year as a senior and I always thought that we had so much more to improve. It was proved by the fact that in 2005 we finished 10th in the world, the next year we came seventh. Last year was a setback because we thought we would do better, but we went back to 10th again. This year we have put in a big winter.
“The Olympics is the mecca for rowers. The speed of the boats increases. Like in 2005 the speed was lower as a lot of other guys were taking a year out, the Brits were reshuffling, and a lot of the top guys take a break after the Olympics. The next year it starts building again because people have an eye on qualifying and guys decide to come back. This year has been a different level altogether. Everyone builds for this.”
Quiet expectation has attached itself to the Irish challenge and making a positive start is necessary. So what can this particular four of Folan, Sean Casey, Johnno Devlin, and Sean O’Neill achieve? “There is a definite chance that we can get to the final. That has always been our goal. We have always been there or thereabouts. At Eton in 2006 we came seventh and that showed that we are good enough. There are no bad crews there, but we have never been in a C final . Tenth is the lowest we have ever come.
“Obviously you have to aim high. You have to go there to try to win. Sometimes it is a kind of Irish thing to just accept something, but we want to do well and get the best out of ourselves.”
Possessing hope and ambition is what sport is about, but setbacks are unavoidable. So when news filtered through that fellow Galwegian Alan Martin, such an integral contributor to the development of this unit, was omitted from the first four Folan was completely aware of how disappointment can occur too. “Alan and I are the only two that have been in the boat since the last Olympics. Others have been coming and going so it will be weird not having Alan there.
“It was heartbreaking for him, he was there the whole way. All the guys have proven themselves over the past few years. We are assessed all the time in cycling, skiing, rowing, but it is really tough for Alan. He will be travelling to Beijing in case anything happens. There is a clean slate for everyone once this is over and Alan can bounce back.”
In these hectic days the last brush strokes are being applied to Ireland’s project. Nothing has been left to chance. “We know exactly what we are doing travelwise and we have our own little routines when we get there. We usually work in one and a half day cycles. Four or five days before our first race we will do a longer practice race, probably not the full distance, but somewhere close to it.
“Last week two of the lads got sick so we are kind of undercooked, but in a way it might help us because we have lots of work to do when we get there rather than just going through the motions. We will be really focused because of it.”
Remaining calm and composed can be strenous when dealing with expectation. “There is definetely pressure. I didn’t enjoy the World Championships last year. Different things go through your head. I try to shut off things from my mind. If you don’t have nerves it is not good.
“If you go off too hard in a rowing race you are in trouble because nobody can sustain maximum effort for too long. Once you get tired your technique goes. We’ve had so much experience now which should help us. We have all been to a few World Championships and we are the first heavyweight crew in many years from Ireland.
“We have been building it up, the first year was loads and loads of mileage of training and rowing. Now we aren’t doing as much, but it is really intense and there is a lot of racing.
“From the start I made a point of putting my head down to fight for everything. Harald loves if you fight for it. Not just in rowing, but if he sees you going up a hill on the bike and you are dying, but still trying he likes that.” That fibre was one of the crucial reasons why Folan departed for China yesterday.
The prospect of meeting and greeting the world’s most fabled athletes hints at a respect that exists for the contenders on the verge of combat. “The Olympic village looks cool. We are in Beijing 12 days before our event starts. Apparently it is like a five star hotel. It will be weird to see some of the best tennis players and sprinters, but I am really looking forward to it now.” Occasionally sporting trips provide a grain of glamour. Folan has earned the honour to sample such extravagance.