Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Aileen Morrison: Three could be the magic number

With the best ever performance by an Irish triathlete at a world event under her belt, Aileen Morrison is ready for London, writes IAN O'RIORDAN in Irish Times on May 30th 2012

SHE STILL describes it as a ridiculous, crazy sport. She often questions the sacrifices involved. Now she can’t seem to get her head around the idea she’s going to the London Olympics as a possible medal contender.

So why exactly is Aileen Morrison so good at swimming, cycling and running around in quick succession? In the four years since taking up triathlon in the strictly competitive sense Morrison is at least sure of one thing: she loves this sport, as mad as it is.
 And while clearly blessed with natural reserves of strength and endurance, and carefully nurtured by the elite team at Triathlon Ireland, her rise up through the world rankings has been in perfect sync with Olympic qualification – still the absolute pinnacle in world triathlon.

This time last year, when Morrison first sensed London wasn’t just a dream anymore but a reality, her focus changed from just getting there to getting there in the best possible shape to contend for a medal. Last Saturday in Madrid she suggested exactly that, her silver medal in the World Series event the best ever performance by an Irish triathlete on the world stage, and better still against many of her chief rivals come August 4th, when Hyde Park plays host to the women’s Olympic triathlon.

Tomorrow the International Triathlon Union will confirm their top 55-ranked triathletes, men and women, to be nominated for London, and Morrison looks set to be ranked number seven.
 Based on the 14 best results over the last two years, Morrison was effectively safe at the end of the last year – and the opening races of 2012 were more about improving her strengths, mentally and physically, while eliminating the last of her weaknesses.  
“At the start of last year, I had no idea I would be going into the Olympics in this position,” she says. “It’s totally beyond what I thought I was capable of. I love making the podium at world events and coming home with some prize-money in the pocket, but making London really was the big goal.
 “And I know I can compete at that level. If you’re in the best shape of your life, and have the bit of luck, well I know I can compete with the best. And I just have to keep reminding myself of that. But I more or less knew from the end of last year.
 “With 55 places, there was no way I could be overtaken by 40-odd people. If anything it was up to me to move up the ladder, with a few better results.”
 It’s easily forgotten that the triathlon is not just a battle against yourself and your opponents, but also the conditions and the terrain. It was typically warm in Madrid last Saturday, and the 1,500-metre swim a typical scramble. Morrison exited the water in 36th place, tore into the very hilly 40km cycle, and promptly closed the 30-second gap on the leaders. She then lost around 12 seconds as the group of 30 split through the transition zone for the second time, and set off on the 10km run.
 Once again she promptly closed the gap, then eased in front as they approached the second of two loops.  
“I tried to push it on a wee bit,” she says, “and thought we might lose a couple of people, and it’ll make it easier when I get to the last lap.”

Entering the last kilometre, Morrison had a world-leading trio for company in Nicola Sprig of Switzerland, Barbara Riveros Diaz of Chile and Anne Haug of Germany. Undaunted, she actually offered them a drink, knowing they had missed the last water station.
 Shortly after that Sprig made the first kick for home, with Morrison chasing hard.

“In that last 800 metres I honestly thought I was going to finish fourth. My legs were like jelly, so I really couldn’t believe I managed to hold on for silver.”  
While this result possibly surprised Morrison, and she had the fastest run split of the lot, it merely confirmed what Chris Jones has been saying about her for the past four years – that she has the talent to mix it with the very best.
And Jones should know: as high performance director with Triathlon Ireland, he first identified her potential back in 2007, when Morrison won the National Championships in Lough Neagh, while still a part-timer. Jones invited her into his high performance group, and a year later she was competing as a full-time professional.  
She is, in other words, a product of the triathlon “system” in Ireland, rather than the other way around – although that’s not saying she wasn’t always good at swimming, cycling and running: she just never figured she’d be so good at doing three of them in quick succession.

Like many triathletes, swimming was Morrison’s first sport. Growing up in Derry, the family would spend most summers at Malin Head and the surrounding beaches, and thus were inevitably drawn to the water. Her dad was keen to ensure they were strong swimmers too, although Morrison was more inspired by her older sister, Ruth, who went on to swim for Ireland.

Morrison was then drawn to cross country running, at secondary school, and it was there she first tried the triathlon, “purely for fun”, in a very minor schools race, and on a borrowed bike. That was her casual approach too during college at Liverpool Hope – where she gained an honours degree in Health and Physical Recreation – and also at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown – where she gained a teaching cert in Physical Education.

In many ways then Morrison was always cut out for a life in professional sport. She spent seven summers on Donegal beaches working as a lifeguard, which she describes as the “best job ever” and, before going full-time into triathlon, also worked for two years as a development officer with Athletics Northern Ireland.

These days she has her own development team designed to maximise her talents in swimming, cycling and running. She admits that four years ago she just about knew how to sit on a bike and move her legs: now as part of her preparations for London she’s working with Triathlon Ireland cycling coach Tommy Evans, who regularly oversees the repeat sessions up Scarva Hill, just outside Banbridge. The best part about that session, says Morrison, is when it’s done.  
Now living in Lisburn, she also utilises the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland for all her sports science back-up, including regular Vo2 Max and lactate threshold testing. She swims with Lisburn City club, and cycles with Maryland Wheelers, as often as possible, but triathlon, by its very nature, still demands long hours of lonely training, especially given she typically puts in four training sessions a day.  
She turns 30 next month, the age when most elite triathletes are approaching their peak: Morrison believes she still has plenty more improving to do, especially on the bike, where fearlessness is as important a tactic as ruthlessness.  
For now, with Olympic qualification safely secured, the next eight weeks are all about fine-tuning her swimming, cycling and running, with a couple more test races, and finally a block of high altitude training in Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Indeed every single day is ticked off between now and Saturday, August 4th. When you’re effectively training for three different sports at the Olympics there really is no time to lose.

  • 1,500 hours training per year
  • 6,200 km running per year
  • 15,600 km cycling per year
  • 2,080 km swimming per year
  • 83,200 lengths of a 25m pool per year
  • 1.6 millions swim strokes per year
  • 260 hours in the gym
  • 1 million calories burnt training per year
  • 23,200 calories burnt training per week
  • 29 litres of sweat lost per training week
  • 20 pairs of runners worn out per year

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