THE 1970s were certainly a very successful decade for swimming in Cork, a period which produced two Olympians.
Deirdre Sheehan, aged 18, became the second Cork person to qualify for the Games and competed in three events, 100m and 200m freestyle and 100m backstroke in Montreal 1976.
She became the first Cork and Munster woman to compete at the Olympics, in swimming. She retained the honour of the only female Olympian until 2016, when Fiona Doyle, Limerick, joined the elite group. She remains the only Cork female to compete at the Olympic Games.
Deirdre was a latecomer to swimming. She joined the club at Eglinton Baths when she was 12 years of age.
Martin Hayes, Head Coach, was quick to spot her potential and moved her to the early morning sessions, along with her two sisters.
They trained five mornings a week before school and additional evening sessions were introduced when she was 15.
Deirdre was keen to acknowledge the commitment of her late father, Dr John Sheehan who crossed the city every morning to bring her and her sisters to training.
She said that parents have to make a huge commitment to facilitate their children’s sporting aspirations.
The majority of Deirdre’s training took place in a 25 yard pool and she says they got the “shock of their lives” when they had to compete in a 50m pool!
At the time, there were no performance centres and all training was undertaken with your club.
Deirdre competed at the Irish Championships in 1976 where she secured the opportunity to travel to England for the British Championships.
As there were no Irish Olympic qualification standards, swimmers had to achieve the Olympic qualification at the British event.
Deirdre swam 1:01.10 LC in a salt water pool in Blackpool, which was a new Irish Senior Record and she achieved the Olympic qualification.
On her return from Blackpool, Deirdre moved to Dublin to train at St Paul’s Raheny, with Head Coach, Davy Page.
There, she trained in a 25m pool for seven months prior to the Montreal Games.
She describes this as a “difficult time” separated from her family, but says her family were extremely supportive.
She is also very grateful to the Page family who were like “adoptive parents” during that period.
There was no opportunity for any national squad training prior to the Games.
The team, led by the late Liam Williamson, National Head Coach assembled at Dublin airport on 5th July 1976 to depart for Montreal.
Liam’s son Kevin was also a member of the team, along with Miriam Hopkins and Robert Howard.
The small team, of just four athletes had a few days in Montreal to acclimatise and train in the 50m Olympic Pool prior to the competition. It certainly was a major challenge for these four young athletes to perform in such an alien environment, but they adapted well.
Deirdre was outside her best times, but swam a credible 1:02.11 to place 6th in Heat 2 of the 100m freestyle.
The event was subsequently won by Kornelia Ender, East Germany in a World Record time 55.65.
Deirdre had another 6th place finish, in Heat 3 of 200m freestyle 2:15.69. Ender made it double gold, in another World Record time, 1:59.26.
Deirdre placed seventh in Heat 4 in her final event, 100m backstroke 1:11.53. Ulrike Thumer, East Germany won the 100m backstroke in an Olympic Record 1:01.83.
After her return from Montreal, Deirdre continued to swim and moved to Cork Masters in 1980 when set up by her long time Coach, Martin Hayes. Deirdre had a glittering career with the Masters.
Deirdre along with her Masters teammates, Jane Jolly, Mary Brickley and Eileen Hemple set a World Record in the 4x100m freestyle relay at the inaugural World Masters Games in Toronto in 1985.
That same combination won silver in the 4x100m medley relay. Deirdre was also a member of the mixed medley relay, with Jane Jolly, Donncha O’Dea and Tom Browne which won gold in a new European Record time.
Deirdre was a regular gold medallist at International Masters events including British, Italian, European and Australian Championships.
While in Rome in 1986 for the Italian Championships, the competition had to move from an outdoor pool to indoor, due to fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear explosion.
Deirdre continued to swim regularly with the Cork Masters until she moved to live in West Cork.
She did endeavour to continue once a week, on a Saturday with the Cork Masters at the Gus Healy Pool in Douglas.
Now living in a picturesque village in West Cork, Deirdre says she has not been “bitten” by the draw to Open Water swimming, even though she is looking out at the wonderful blue ocean on a daily basis.
She likes to “know what’s underneath” and says “by the time you get the wetsuit and all the gear on, you’re exhausted, and then you have to take it all off again”!
She does swim in the beautiful Lough Hyne, where she completes 3k/4k on average, but that is the extent of her Open Water life.
In recent years, she has returned to pool swimming at Dunmanway pool.
She regularly swims four times a week in Dunmanway and was instrumental in setting up a Masters Club there with Grainne Caulfield, Coach with West Cork Orcas.
She is really enjoying the camaraderie of being part of a club again and was a member of an inaugural team to participate at the recent Irish Masters Championships at University of Limerick, just prior to the current lockdown.
She described the “buzz of competition, being poolside and meeting old swim colleagues” as wonderful.
When speaking with Deirdre she is full of admiration for the current performance set up with Swim Ireland saying that it offers the current crop of athletes with so much support.
She says she really enjoys watching the current pool of top Irish swimmers and says that they “are amazing” and “great ambassadors for the sport”.
She said that swimming can be a very lonely sport.
“You do not have the teammates, like other sports, clapping you on the back etc. But relays offer that element of team sport and you make great friends through swimming, friends, life-long friends.”
Deirdre also said that swimming can be incredibly tough and demanding on young children and on their parents who have to commit to early morning training etc.
She also said that the current lockdown must be incredibly tough on everyone. But her parting words of wisdom were “Focus on yourself, Stick with it, What you put in to it, you will get back out, the rewards are worth it all.
“Swimming is a sport for life and so beneficial for heath, fitness and your well-being.”