Just a week after reaching a personal milestone as he enters his thirties, Ballinamore’s Colin Griffin will be in a unique position on Saturday next as not only will be lining up at the start line of the 50k walk at the London Olympics but after that race is over, he will turning his attention to Mohill’s Laura Reynolds’ 20k walk who he has been coaching.
By Philip Rooney
Four years ago the Beijing Olympics ended in disappointment when Colin was disqualified and the subsequent years have had more than their fair share of setbacks. However, just when it seemed as though the dream of a second Olympic Games seemed to be slipping away from Colin, he reproduced his best form to finish 15th in the 50km at the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Russia last May.
Colin’s qualification for the 2012 Olympics was in stark contrast to how he secured his ticket to Beijing when he secured qualification in his first ever 50k walk. Qualification for London took six attempts over two seasons and the Olympic A standard was only reached on his last available opportunity when competing in the 50km in Russia on May 13.
Shortly before departing to complete his final preparations, Colin took time out of his busy schedule to talk to the Leitrim Observer to discuss, his relief at qualification, race walking technique, altitude training and his hopes for the Irish in London.
Leitrim Observer: Congratulations on securing your place for London. Having had so many setbacks over the past few years with injury and disqualifications what were your over-riding emotions when your realised you had secured the A standard time?
Colin Griffin: Satisfaction and relief because it was a long hard journey with several failed attempts, disqualification in three of the races and another race where I had to pull out with an injury. Compared to the previous Olympics where I qualified at my first attempt at 50k, my first ever race, this one was hard earned. It was a long hard journey and it was beginning to look like I wasn’t going to make it.
LO: Did the fact that it was your last chance to secure qualification make it a more difficult race?
CG: It makes you more focused, more careful and I handled it quite well, I approached it in the right way. When I had the two red cards early that made it even more tricky so I would say I rose to the challenge, embraced the challenge and stepped up to the mark when it really mattered and it’s good to know that you can do that.
LO: Race walking is a demanding endurance sport, does the solitary aspect of the sport make it even more difficult?
CG: That’s something I’m used to over a good many years. Especially in a 50k race, you have to become your own man anyway and be prepared to do things others aren’t prepared to do so that reflects on my training. I do a lot of long hours on the road and in the gym. I’m used to it, it’s great to have company for training when you can but I do a lot of stuff on my own.
LO: On the subject of training, you parted company with your coach and are now training yourself. How are you finding that challenge?
CG: I was working with an Italian coach for the technical side to try and work on the technique issue I had. It worked out well the first year or two but then the last couple of years his hands were tied because he was on a big contract to look after his own Italian athletes and then a squad of Chinese athletes who began working with him and were supposed to be paying big money and I was kind of down the pecking order. I wasn’t getting his time and attention and I couldn’t justify, after last year, staying there.
LO: Do you think you are a better athlete now than you were when you qualified for Beijing?
CG: I think so and psychologically I’m probably more mature. I’ve learned to deal with the most difficult challenges better and, I’ve been in the last Olympics and competing at an another major championships, I’ll be able to deal with pressure and other external factors.
LO: For most people, race walking is something they may not be overly familiar with. What would you say are the keys to a good walking technique?
CG: I would be the first to admit the technique didn’t come naturally to me. I wouldn’t regard myself as the most naturally talented athlete. If we had the group of kids to show them race walking, out of 10 or 15 of them, I guarantee you one or two of them would have a natural technique and I wouldn’t have been in category. I had to acquire it and develop it at a young age and as I got older try to work hard to hold on to it and maintain it. That’s been my challenge, it went quite well as a junior, I never had any problems with judges as a junior and up until my early 20s when I was a senior and increasing the training volume and poor bio-mechanics and imbalances and postures and habits that I would have had at a young age, I didn’t do enough to address, began to make an impact and small things started to creep in and that’s when I started to have a problem with judges on and off throughout the last few years.
To develop good race walking technique you need a combination of strength, stability, mobility and flexibility and then hold that together during long endurance sessions and especially when fatigue sets in late on in a race or in training sessions.
LO: The complex technical side of the sport sounds similar to golf. Have you ever had to deconstruct your walk and then reconstruct it in a way that golfers like Padraig Harrington have done with their swing?
CG: I’ve had to do that a few times. When I went to Italy first in 2007 when I had a technique problem and got disqualified at the world championship we pretty much tried to strip everything done and put it back together again but at the same time you can’t afford to take all that time out. You still need to maintain your fitness and speed and everything else and perform in races to stay funded. It’s bit by bit trying to put everything together and if you make some progress and have a good season, then a season later try to develop something else because another problem might creep in.
LO: As an athlete is it easier to accept being disqualified early in a race and then working on your mistakes rather than late in the race when the end may be in sight?
CG: There is never a good way (to get disqualified). In Beijing I got disqualified before 20k and the race hadn’t even started and you spend the whole year, years, preparing for this and then you get disqualified before the race even starts and you’re still fresh.
LO: Losing the sports funding grant must have been another body blow. Did you ever think how much more of this can I take?
CG: Yeah, basically to get your grant and stay on it you have to meet certain criteria every year and one of the things for me was to continue to meet the Olympic or World Championship A standard for 50k and have performance of top 16 in the World Championship or top 12 in the European Championship. I had a meeting with our performance director back in November and he reflected on the year and I submitted my plans for racing and training for the following year. He said look, ‘I’ll give you a 90% assurance that you’ll still have your grant next year and be supported’.
In February when the grants were announced I got the call that my grant was going to get limited support until the end of March. At the time I didn’t want to be too distracted because I was preparing for the race in March so I said I’ll leave it be. ‘If I do my job in March I’ll be back on my grant system’. That didn’t work and I was disqualified and I was left in limbo and I had to deal with a very difficult situation. I felt a bit let down with it being Olympic year, having been funded all those years. It was a bit disappointing that way and maybe not the best judgement in the world. All it would have taken was a good performance manager to sit down and look at my situation and see how I train. Anybody who knows me well enough and who has good judgement knew I had all the raw ingredients to do that kind of performance and be well inside the A standard and be competitive at a major championships.
LO: It puts in perspective for the wider public just what athletes in Ireland have to contend with. You think of an Olympian as an elite athlete but these are the day to day challenges.
CG: Exactly, It’s not exactly a rich man’s sport, your not going to make a huge income out of it. You survive one year to the next trying to fund your programme as much as possible. I’m sitting on a University degree, I could be doing something else career wise, working in a job, making money. I’m making a big career sacrifice and a financial sacrifice as well to fulfil my sporting goals and ambitions. That’s something the general public might not always appreciate.
LO: One of the things you’re doing to fulfil your sporting goals involves the ‘Altittude House’ in Limerick, can you tell me about that?
CG: I’ve been, for the last 10/12 years, training at altitude and then in the last five years I started using an altitude tent which stimulates high altitude. You put the tent over your bed, you can sleep in it at night to get the benefits of high altitude and be able to train in your own environment at sea level. About two and a half years ago I came up with an idea of building an altitude house, having the whole house sealed off and simulating an altitude environment. You have more flexibility than you would have in a ten, you can move around the house and do your normal thing, watch tv and get extra altitude exposure. I put that idea to the University of Limerick Sports Science Department and they immediately saw the benefit in it. We worked on it for a while to see how we could fund it and eventually the company that operate the student accommodation in UL agreed to invest in it and make a house available and convert it. That was completed earlier this year and is open for business and stemming from that a company in the UK who I would have hired my altitude tent off through the years got the contract to do the work in the house. They decided to set up their company in Ireland and gave me a lead role managing the company so that’s another career tangent that I’ve taken in the last 6/8 months.
The altitude training has made a big impact for me, pretty much all my best performances have been as a result of training at altitude or a simulated altitude environment like the tent or the altitude house. The benefits for an endurance athlete are that you’re in an oxygen deprived environment and your body has to adapt to that by producing extra blood cells, be more efficient and utilise the limited oxygen supply that is available. When you do go back and compete at sea level or train at sea level you have an extra supply of oxygen because you have extra red blood cells. Your breathing is more efficient and you’re able to work harder while stressing the body less and ultimately your performance improves.
LO: After Beijing, there was a backlash against the lack of medals. Do you feel getting to the Olympics should be regarded as the achievement?
CG: It’s very hard for a small country like ours with a population of four million people to be expecting to be coming back with a handful of medals against countries with bigger populations and better demographics and probably more money invested in the sports, so people’s expectations can be a little bit high going to the Olympics.
I know the Sports Council and the Olympic Council set a modest target of maybe one medal and a couple of top eights. If they came out with that it would be their targets met. Honestly, the boxers are probably our best medal chance. For us (athletes) to come back with a couple of top 8’s, which is the equivalent of making the final and a couple of top 16’s would be a very good achievement.
LO: I suppose that was the initial question, it’s not all about medals.
CG: No, it’s about what we do and the contribution we make to sport and what we put back into the sport and other athletes will benefit because of us.
LO: To finish, are you looking forward to London?
CG: I’m definitely looking forward to it. I want to enjoy the experience, to enjoy the whole build up to it. Perhaps I didn’t allow myself to enjoy Beijing as much as I should have. Because it’s the ‘home’ Olympics, there will be a lot more excitement and local interest and I’ll just feed off that. Obviously I’ll look to stay focused on the race, prepare as well as I can and hopefully go out on the day and perform as well as I can and use the home support to our advantage, I think that will be a big factor. I remember the European Championships in Barcelona two years go, it was a 1k lap and the whole course was literally streamed with Irish athletics fans. You’re talking the Olympics now, you’ll have the usual Irish athletics supporters and the homes supporters and a lot of Irish people who live in London. I think it will be like Barcelona multiplied by 10.