Anna O’Flanagan, Roisin Upton, Nicci Daly, Shirley McCay, Emma Buckley and Shane O’Donoghue are among 25 athlete ambassadors for Sport Ireland’s Dare to Believe which aims to bring Olympic stars into the classroom.
The brainchild of 2008 Olympian Roisin McGettigan, the campaign is now in its second year with O’Donoghue playing a part in the first edition, bringing the Olympics into the classroom for over 5,000 children nationwide.
The school activation programme, championed and supported by the Olympic Federation of Ireland Athletes’ Commission, will expand significantly in 2021 with 16 new ambassadors.
Run in association with FBD, will teach primary school students about Olympic Values and Olympism through a curriculum that includes over 40 of the approved education methodologies with each ambassador delivering their personal stories.
For O’Flanagan, speaking at the launch of the programme’s expansion, she cannot wait to share her story: “I never had that opportunity as a kid sitting in a classroom and getting to meet someone. I thought of how it would have made my school year to have someone come in and tell me about their Olympic journey.
“I want to get every girl in a classroom to see us and aspire to achieve something, whether it is in sport or in other ways of life. As a young girl growing up, my role models for team sport were all male. That’s not because they didn’t exist; I just didn’t have access to them.”
The Muckross player-assistant coach is hopeful her Olympic journey is revving up once again after a tough summer, not knowing whether her dream was going to be fulfilled.
But the mood music continues to be positive that Tokyo 2021 will happen and she will do everything she guarantee her spot on that flight.
“I’ve trained on the Irish team for 10 years and every day, my goal has been to get to an Olympics. In April, I thought that goal was going to be ripped from my hands and just be gone.
“Now, it’s back on the table, yes, it could be a different setup but I feel extra motivated now to get there, compete and do the best we can.
“If the Olympic Games was down in Muckross Park tomorrow, I wouldn’t care. I’m told the frills are great and I am sure people will tell us what we miss out on but, as athletes, we don’t care!”
To that extent, it has meant an extended career-break. Since returning from the Netherlands with Bloemendaal and Pinoké, she has taken time out to fully focus on her hockey. With the Olympics moving back a year, it did put her in a tricky position.
“You are looking for a job facilitating around your training. For me, it’s hard to get right now because the job market isn’t what it used to be, particularly finding someone who is flexible around your commitments.
“It’s something we are struggling with. Before Covid, companies were able to support athletes a bit better and bring them on part-time contracts. Now, it’s more difficult.”
However, while a couple of her Irish team mates have indicated plans to finish up with the Green Army after Olympic year, O’Flanagan says being able to pursue both simultaneously is possible and something she has done before with McCann Fitzgerald and is keen to combine again.
“Lockdown did give us all more time to reflect on what we are doing and what we want to achieve. The Olympic has always been a goal of mine, to get there and then to compete. I am also ambitious in my career.
“I think they can go side by side if you find the right combination as I have done before, both in Ireland and Holland.
“For me, I don’t want to set a deadline on my career and say this is when I will finish X and start Y. I want to try and stay in it as long as I can; if my body or mind gives up, then a decision will need to be made or if the coach decides it is not for me anymore!
“At the minute, I have no set plan. I love playing hockey for Ireland, I would love to combine it with a career and I hope things will break for me over the next few months.”
For now, though, training forms her singular focus – a different kind of setup but one which O’Flanagan feels is making the best of the current situation.
The squad re-formed early in the summer on a regional basis and have been given the chance to train all together since July on Mondays and Tuesdays with some players staying in hotels near Abbotstown. Their famous social activities have been significantly curtailed, however.
“It’s the little things around the pitch from the dugouts to the changing room access – there’s no meetings, there’s no lunch or coffees together. All the frills have been taken away.
“We arrive at training, put our stuff on at the car, get our temperature checked and then go to pitch and then leave at the end. Everything else we can do, we do online.
“For anyone who know us, the fun side is a big part of us. It’s definitely been a struggle because there isn’t that interaction between trainings; we’re not all in a hotel together, we don’t have a cup of tea or our meals together.
“We have made an effort to do fun things at the start of training, small games to get the energy up and people excited to be there!”
“[In that environment], at the beginning, it was really hard with the uncertainty about the Olympics and the state of the world in general.
“But with the communication from the IOC that the Olympics is set to happen, that has given the squad the motivation again and that’s picked people up. Hopefully, the thought of a slightly different 2021 is keeping us all going.”