READY AND WAITING Ireland swimmer Nicholas Quinn from Castlebar is pictured prior to departure for the European Swimming Championships in London which take place this week. Pic: Sportsfile
WHEN Nicholas Quinn qualified to become only Mayo’s sixth Olympian ever, there was no fuss or fanfare, just the way the laidback Castlebar swimmer likes it.
He booked his historic spot for Rio by smashing his personal best last month when he won 200m breaststroke gold at the legendary Eindhoven meet in Holland.
Quinn’s new PB of 2:11.24 was almost two seconds quicker than he’d ever swum before, and a half-second inside the 2:11.66 Olympic qualifying time. Yet, initially, he thought he’d missed it.
“For some reason when I first looked up I saw the Dutch guy’s (runner-up) time,” he recalls. “I was like ‘ah no!’ because I was sure I’d beaten him. Then I looked again and saw my own name. It was a combination of everything really, a bit of shock, relief and delight.
“It was a big jump to make time-wise, but something I felt was coming. I got to the semi-finals of the World Student Games last summer but was disappointed with my time then.”
Eindhoven was run to deliberately mimic Rio’s late-night schedule, so there were no mad celebrations afterwards.
Quinn raced around 10pm so, by the time he’d met his parents Mary and John (currently based in Strasbourg, where his dad works with the European Council) and left the pool, it was midnight.
“I just got some food and went back to my room and there were so many messages. By the time I’d stopped looking at them, it was three in the morning!” he reveals.
Quinn may have spent the past five years training and studying psychology at the University of Edinburgh, but you can’t take the Mayo out of the boy.
He played Gaelic games, especially hurling, with the Mitchels in his youth before concentrating his energies with Castlebar Swimming Club, yet still follows Mayo football.
He was in St Gerald’s at the same time as Cillian O’Connor and Aidan O’Shea and says it has been ‘amazing to watch guys you went to school with at that level now’.
This summer it will be their turn to gaze in awe as Quinn makes sporting history in the most demanding of sports.
Castlebar coach Marian English has described the 22-year-old as the ‘ideal athlete’ but he insists, laughing: “I think she was being a bit kind to me!”
He’s up at 5:30am every day, in the water from 6am to 8.30, in the gym from 8.30 to 10am, and returns for another two-hour session in the afternoon.
Surely he’s pulled the odd sickie or two when the alarm goes off at stupid-o’clock?
“No!” he grins. “My motto always is ‘If you’re gonna do it, do it properly.’ There’s no point in half-assing something.
“If you’re not going to do it that’s fine, just make that call. If I’m missing out on sleep then I reckon I might as well make the most of it.”
Having secured 590 points in his Leaving Cert, the world was Quinn’s oyster. He looked at Swim Ireland’s elite programme in UCD, but their 50m pool wasn’t yet finished, which would initially have meant crossing Dublin for training.
With his two siblings already studying in Scotland, he was prompted to look at British colleges and his brother Darragh, who also lives in Edinburgh, suggested the possibility of the city’s newly emerging swim programme.
“When I went to visit it, just after my Leaving Cert, I was pretty lucky,” Quinn says.
“It was this lovely sunny day, I got the airport bus into town, looking at these lovely streets. We passed Murrayfield where Kings of Leon were playing and I was thinking ‘This city’s pretty cool, I think I might come here!’”
Meeting and clicking with new coach Chris Jones and seeing the facilities – he lives just 15 minutes walk from the city-centre college’s 50m and 25m pools – clinched it.
Splitting his studies to complete the remainder of his degree in 2017 has allowed him train full-time this year.
The university’s squad contains just two other foreign swimmers (from Hong Kong and the Cayman Islands) but the return, in the past year, of Michael Jamieson means that Quinn has benefitted significantly from training with the London Olympics silver medallist in his own best event.
But those thousands of laps weekly, aren’t they mind-bogglingly boring?
“No! Ever since I started, I’m always subconsciously counting strokes in my head, I can’t stop!” Quinn admits. “There’s always specific things to work on and it’s always good fun with the squad.
“I never wanted for anything in Castlebar,” he enthuses, outlining the club’s imminent pool upgrade.
“Marian gave me absolutely everything I needed and the staff at the pool there were always brilliant to me.”
His first international success was reaching the 2011 European junior semi-finals, but Eindhoven marks a massive leap.
“What I’ve learned most, particularly in the past year, is how to race 200m breaststroke, that’s where I’ve made the breakthrough,” he explains.
“You’ve got four lengths. You can’t win the race in the first 50 metres, but you can sure as hell lose it in it. It’s taken me a while to understand what is the best way for me to swim it.”
He is competing in the European Championships in London this week, but does not expect to do well as his training is designed to peak in Rio.
Summers usually allow him home to indulge his love of jumping off Lecanvey pier or surfing in Louisburgh but, this August, Quinn will be in another continent, living his sporting dream.
It is just reward for the young Sarnaught star’s dedication and sacrifice, and his very systematic approach.
“The Olympics was always that; a dream! As a guy in school I was never like ‘This is what I’m going to do to get to Rio,’” he admits.
“But every year I had something specific I wanted to achieve, like wanting to make European juniors. When you map it back, all those little steps were the stepping stones to Rio.”