HOW busy she would be in Athens, Niamh Fitzpatrick had no idea. She would not go "ambulance chasing" for work but she would be there, ready to facilitate any athlete who might need a guiding hand. It could have meant sitting around twiddling her thumbs, it could have been like the training camp in Seville with the rowers before Christmas when they kept coming through the door from half-eight in the morning to half-ten at night;
she did not know. Niall Griffin's father did. Eight years before Niall qualified for the Olympic equestrian team, Liam Griffin coached Wexford to the All Ireland hurling title. They would not have won it, he swears, only for Fitzpatrick's enthusiasm and ability to relate to people. In Athens those athletes would keep her to her promise of working as hard as they wanted her to work.
He recalls a team meeting in the Stillorgan Park Hotel the morning of the Leinster final. After Griffin had his players picture what the following day's headlines would look like if Wexford won, Fitzpatrick told the story of a small Oriental village that was heavily outnumbered by an invading power. The chieftain had a coin and declared whichever side it landed on would dictate whether they would be victorious or vanquished. When the coin was tossed he declared they would win. After they did, a soldier came across the coin.
Both sides of it were the same. For Griffin, that was the moment it registered with the players the power that ambition had in shaping any script.
Ciaran Power now raves about Fitzpatrick the way the Wexford hurlers of '96 do.
Last Saturday he finished 13th in the best Olympic performance ever by an Irish cyclist. Before Athens he had targeted a top 30 spot. Fitzpatrick innocently asked him why was he limiting himself to that. It was a turning point for Power. He had been pushed out of his comfort zone. Then they went through his hydration strategies and all the 'what if ' scenarios, just as she has with every athlete.
Not everyone needs a sports psychologist but everyone needs some mental training.
The Wednesday before the 1996 All Ireland final, she asked Griffin what if Wexford had a man sent off?
When Eamonn Scallan was put off the following Sunday, the players carried out what they agreed ? they'd all up their effort by three per cent.
Same for an Olympic athlete.
What response strategy have you when you've been ahead for most of the race but then an opponent goes past?
"If I'm an athlete, be it in an Olympic final or a race down the road, I need to know I can cope, " says Fitzpatrick. "I need to feel, 'Yes, I'm a bit nervous but let me at it.' And one way to feel that is to go through nearly every scenario that can come up." She knows what it's like not to; that's how she got into this lark. As a teenager, Fitzpatrick was a useful showjumper with the Bray pony club; at heat level, she'd think nothing of going a clean round. Then championship time would arrive. Her beloved coach Johnny Kyle, father of current Olympian Mark, would say to her, "Now, Niamh, I need a clear round" and she'd freeze. A few years later when she had to do a thesis for her psychology degree in UCD, lecturer Aidan Moran asked what intrigued her. Fitzpatrick instantly thought of the trail of destruction she'd leave behind.
"I could have given Johnny as many clear rounds as he needed, " she can say with a smile now. "But we weren't taught how to perform under pressure. I would build the consequences of not getting a clear round into this huge thing. I should have been thinking, 'Johnny wants a clear round because he knows I can do it.' Instead I'd knock a fence and go, 'You bloody idiot, Niamh'. I should have been thinking, 'Next fence.'" Once she researched that paper, fittingly entitled 'I'm not afraid ? am I?', she was hooked. She tracked down a masters course in sports psychology that included some semesters in the tiny town of Daphne, Alabama, as well as some more in west London.
Soon she was lecturing in London to students like rugby international Richard Hill when she wasn't following chief lecturer Peter Terry around. Once when they went to Bisham Abbey to work with the national underage tennis squad, Terry had each player serve while their colleagues were detailed to make that player laugh and lose his concentration. As time went on, the kids were serving as if their friends weren't there.
These days she shows athletes a full glass of water.
Then she starts tipping some water out. That glass is the athletes' energy. Every time they think of something not related to the task in hand, they're draining out more water, more energy. There are so many potential distractions in Athens.
"If you see Maurice Greene sitting down opposite to you in the Olympic cafeteria, you might think, 'Oh my God, it's Maurice Greene and he's eating Frosties. Maybe I should be eating Frosties'. Doubt your doubts. You need to remember you've the right diet and have done the right work." She's found the Irish athletes have adopted a similar outlook in spite of the Lombard controversy and the mishaps of the walkers. "You have people from home phoning to say the team is jinxed and morale must be low and I'm looking around, thinking, 'What team are they on about?' On a human level the athletes would all feel for Jamie [Costin] and Gillian [O'Sullivan], but they're all here to do their own job." Sometimes she finds herself pinching herself. Even though she's now 36, even though the rowers recommended her, even though the Olympic Council of Ireland appointed her because she spoke the athletes' language.
She thought she'd never experience a high anything like Wexford. Yes, that had been intense ? it took so much out of her, by the following spring, she had developed ME which took five years to fully recover from ? but it was through Wexford that she met her husband, Ciaran Hickey, a Limerickman who told her sister that he wanted to see this woman who had helped deny his county an All Ireland. It was also through Wexford that she met buddies for life like Griffin. But this, the Olympics; it's just as exhilarating. In two weeks she'll be back in Glasnevin working as a project manager for the elections returning officer, but right now she's working all day with athletes, with their dreams and their fears. For it's okay to have both.
"An athlete should be like a painter going into a house.
They should want a clean canvas to work on. The first layer should be, 'What am I doing this for?' It's important athletes say, 'I'm here by choice.
There's no gun to my head.
I'm here because I love this, because I'm good at this.'" She's reminded a few sportspeople of that. After the 1996 All Ireland, Griffin didn't want to go on The Late Late Show, fearing some folk would feel he was getting above his station. Fitzpatrick sent him a poem Nelson Mandela quoted in his inauguration speech. "We ask ourselves 'Who am I to be brilliant?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. You playing small does not serve the world." Since then, as Griffin quips, he's hardly been off the air.
Fitzpatrick brought another presidential quote with her to Athens. Theodore Roosevelt once proclaimed that the credit belongs "to the man who is actually in the arena", not "those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat". In Athens athletes like Power and the rowers have found her soul to be warm and brave.
Griffin was right. She's been busy.