- Lifestyle & Sports
- 03 Aug 16
Two of Ireland's best medal hopes will compete in the Olympics' most intriguing event. We meet our representatives in Modern Pentathlon, Arthur Lanigan-O'Keeffe and Natalya Coyle.
While most of us would like to think we've all sorts in common with Olympians, it's mainly wishful thinking. But a report that Arthur Lanigan-O'Keeffe sleeps for 14 hours a day makes me think we might be separated at birth. "I read that, but it's completely untrue," he scoffs, mercilessly dashing my hopes of a family reunion. "I'm a big believer in a solid nine hours a night, with a few naps. I have a coffee before I nap, and..."
Whoa, hold on. He does what? "The caffeine takes about 35 minutes to hit your system, so I have one right before I sleep. When the alarm beeps about 40 minutes later, the coffee's pumping and you're ready to go. Coffee naps; you really need to try it." Having selflessly tested the hypothesis, I can confirm he's onto a winner; if recent form is anything to go by, he could soon be a winner himself. Four years ago, a competitor testing positive meant he was parachuted into the field at the eleventh hour; this time, he goes in as a bonafide medal hope.
"My mum texted me the other day: 'A once-in-a-lifetime experience - except twice!'" he smiles. "But actually, it's only once, because London was completely different. I was on holidays in Greece, I hadn't been training, I had no conditioning. All indicators are that I'm a completely different athlete now. I'm glad to have the experience, because the Olympics are a different beast, but it's not just about competing this time; I'm going there to win." If he manages, the gold medal will join its European Championship counterpart in his collection - and, given that no competitor from outside of Europe has ever triumphed in Olympic competition, that's a pretty good omen." It must also give a significant boost to his confidence? "It's massive," he replies. "Natalya and I do a lot of relays, and she often passed the baton to me in a high position, contending for a medal. That changed my perspective, in that I wasn't there to come 15th or something, but rather to win. I brought that into the Europeans and the plan worked perfectly - and, again, changed the way I saw things. I thought I'd be tense going into this last month, but I'm feeling really calm because I know I'm in such an incredible position. I have a very good chance of making the dream come true."
Though there's one variable that's out of his hands. "I'm a big believer in preparing completely for every situation, but the only thing that's out of your control is what horse you get on the day. Four years ago, I was about to qualify outright; I could have knocked seven fences and still come second, which would get me to London. Then the horse fell over, I fell over, he refused to jump, we knocked I-don't-know-how-many fences - and it had done the exact same thing to the other rider earlier on! It won't happen in the Olympics, where the standard of the horses is always high, but occasionally, you're going to draw a dud." Horse E316, we hope, was off to the glue factory shortly after; a bit of luck, and Arthur will be riding away with the gold this time.
Around the house, Natalya Coyle is rubbish when it comes to fixing the wifi. For us mere mortals, this feels like an important fact to cling to, since she seems to excel at nearly everything else; grinning, she describes her skills as "akin to Lara Croft". And all going well, the bar - five bars, in fact - will be raised once more in Rio. "In London, I went in with the ambition of getting a personal best in every event, and that's what I did.," she says. "It's the same plan this time - and my times have dropped hugely in the four years already."
Considering her exploits four years ago were good for an unexpected ninth-place finish, a top performance here could result in a spot on the podium - not that, in a sport like this, any result can ever be deemed a complete surprise. "You can always aspire to a medal, because it's quite unpredictable. The person who's winning after the first event can very easily finish last - and sometimes the other way around. It's really vital that you concentrate on one event at a time, so you need to be mentally strong." "We work with a great sports psychologist," she continues. "That's really helped me. I used to go on a massive downer if I lost a few hits in a row in fencing, but that's where having better psychology kicks in. It's something I always have to work on, because there's so many ifs and buts in our sport, and with such a long day it's easy to get swept up in the emotion."
It's not just a long day, but a long wait too. Since the Modern Pentathlon needs to use so many different venues, it's usually one of the last competitions to take place; indeed, it was the very last day when Natalya finally sprang into action. That means the fun and games of the Olympic Village - that mystical place of questionable repute - is still something of a mystery. "All the athletes who compete at the end are in their own little section - just because we're going to bed earlier and what have you. Everyone else is having fun because they're finished, but I wasn't part of that. I got to hit the McDonald's that night, but that was the height of it."
Instead, much of their time will be spent in Uberlandia at the Irish base camp, where Natalya and training partner Sive Brassil will presumably be giving their party piece a regular run-out. "I'm a big Kanye West fan, and myself and Sive have pretty much learned The Life Of Pablo off by heart. It's a great album. Of course, next thing you know he'll probably change it from Track 1, and it'll be for nothing!"
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