WHILE doubts are emerging as to whether the rescheduled Olympic Games will go ahead in Tokyo in July or not, we must remain hopeful.
Especially for the athletes, across all sports, who have worked so hard to achieve their qualification for the Games.
In the case of Irish swimming, we have two athletes pre-qualified. Darragh Greene will see his first Olympics while Shane Ryan will make a return, having competed at Rio 2016.
Ireland has a strong tradition of breaststrokers qualifying for Olympic Games with Liam Ball in ’68 and ’72, Gary O’Toole in ’88 and’92, Andrew Bree in 2000 and 2008, Michael Williamson in 2004, Barry Murphy in 2012 and most recently Nicholas Quinn in 2016. Greene will be hoping for a lifetime best swim in Tokyo, aiming to qualify out of the preliminaries to the semi-final.
Ryan having qualified for the semi-final at 100m backstroke in Rio will be hoping to go one step further and qualify for the Olympic final.
Ireland also came very close to qualifying a Men’s 400m Medley relay at the World Championships in Gwangju in 2018. The criteria for relay qualification stipulate that the top 12 teams from the prelims at the preceding World Championships secure automatic qualification. The finish order from the prelims is the deciding factor.
The Irish team, Shane Ryan (backstroke), Darragh Greene (breaststroke), Brendan Hyland (butterfly) and Jordan Sloan (freestyle) finished in 14th place overall in a new Irish Senior Record time 3:35.86, but were just .75 away from automatic qualification.
The Italian team placed 13th overall 3:35.23 and missed the automatic qualification by just .12.
Four additional team places remain to be filled during the qualification period March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2021, achieved at FINA approved meets. The Italians subsequently swam 3:32.66 and would appear to be a certainty for one of the remaining places, as that time places them eighth in the current world rankings.
The Irish team, currently sitting in the 14th berth, will hope to better that time at Irish Olympic Trials and at European Championships in Budapest, May 2021 (the final window of opportunity), and secure a place at the games.
There are a number of individual swimmers extremely close to the elusive FINA A time and will be hoping for best performances at the Irish Open/Olympic Trials in April 2021.
Leading that list is Tallaght’s Brendan Hyland. The butterfly specialist is making his third attempt to qualify having narrowly missed out on both the London amd Rio games in 2012 and 2016 respectively. Hyland placed sixth in his semi-final at the World Championships in Gwangju posting a time of 1:56.55.
That time was his second Irish Senior Record on the day having swam 1:57.21 that morning in the heats, however, it was agonisingly .07 outside the qualifying mark for Tokyo.
Speaking after his semi-final swim, Hyland said: “I’m disappointed obviously, it would have been unbelievable just to wrap it up, it’s encouraging, it’s a big swim, it’s the best swim of my life, but it’s .07 I could have done with. It’s hard."
The entire aquatic family will be willing Hyland on at the NAC in April, as many have followed his journey over the past decade.
Another within touching distance of the FINA A time is Bangor’s Jack McMillan. McMillan was in record-breaking form at the recent Winter Championships and is now just .08 seconds shy of the 200m freestyle Olympic qualification.
Training and competitive opportunities have been severely hampered for these athletes and in an effort to relieve some of the pressure on them, Swim Ireland recently announced a relaxation of the Olympic Nomination Policy, in a once-off four-stage criteria.
Stage 1 allows for those who have already pre-qualified, Darragh Greene and Shane Ryan, to now be nominated to the OFI.
Stage 2- those athletes who achieve the FINA A time at the Irish Open/Olympic Trials will be nominated to the OFI.
Stage 3 – Every effort will be made to secure Relay places at the European Championships in Budapest, May 2021 and if successful there, those relay members will be nominated to the OFI.
Stage 4 – Swim Ireland will select one further FINA approved meet in June, from which athletes have one final attempt to achieve the FINA A time.
Speaking at the announcement, National Performance Director Jon Rudd said: “This revised Policy is a COVID-specific move away from that which has become our regular and recognised selection process for a summer senior international benchmark meet because of these exceptional times and aims to provide athletes with the fairest possible opportunity to be nominated to the OFI for the Tokyo Olympic Games.
"We spent a great deal of time looking at that which we truly believe in for international success (individual event selection via a sole trials) to that which has become necessary because of the unprecedented circumstances that we have faced over the last 10 months – circumstances that are still with us and will remain so for some months to come.
National Senior Team Head Coach Ben Higson said: “With the uncertainty that has surrounded and continues to surround us regarding Covid-19, it has been imperative that we respond and not react to the situation we find ourselves in.
"The new four-stage approach provides fairness in opportunity and will hopefully ensure as many of our athletes as possible can be on the plane to Tokyo. Athletes and coaches have worked tirelessly throughout the past four years and deserve to have the best possible opportunity to qualify."