New York native Deirdre Murphy is the first woman cyclist ever to qualify Ireland for the Olympics. She talks to Sarah Curran about Ireland, her Olympic dream, and her strategy for Sydney.
Deirdre Murphy arrives at the café where we had arranged to hold an interview in the most appropriate way – on a bicycle. She hops off her bike and proceeds to pull from her bag various newspaper clippings from the Irish paper, the Clare Champion. The articles declare Murphy “Corofin’s Second Olympian” (the first was Michael “Sonny” Murphy in 1932, no relation to Deirdre). Her smile shines throughout the interview as she relates her excitement over being an Irish Olympic athlete, and the path she rode to get there.
Murphy’s story does not follow the standard route to athletic success. The Olympic games are the culmination of a lifetime goal for most athletes, but she snagged a place in Sydney after cycling for only eight years. Not only that, but Murphy was not an athlete before she became a professional cyclist – she worked on Wall Street. Her unconventional route to the top is made even more remarkable when one learns that Murphy, age 41, is the first woman to qualify Ireland for cycling at the Olympics.
A New York City native, Murphy is a second-generation Irish American and enjoys dual citizenship. Her father, Daniel Murphy, traces his lineage to Hospital, County Limerick. When Deirdre was young he bought a house in Corofin, County Clare, where they spent family holidays and where he now spends half the year. The Clare influence on Murphy is clear – her favorite spot in the world is Clare’s Cliffs of Moher, and to train she cycles through the Burren. She speaks fondly of her time in Ireland, remembering late nights in Mary Cahir’s pub where she would listen to stories. “I found storytelling enchanting from a very early time,” she recalls, her mind lost in another time and place.
Even though Murphy enjoyed cycling as a child, she never considered sports as anything more than a hobby. “It didn’t seem to be an appropriate career path for a young lady when I was growing up, so I never really thought about following a sports career.” After graduating from Ithaca College, she went straight to Wall Street, where she worked in finance for 17 years. The transition from Wall Street to cycling sounds unbelievable, but Murphy’s appetite for intensity makes it seem like the natural choice. “When I found cycling, I instantly became so passionate about it; it became clear that I had to do something different with my life.”
At Sydney Murphy will represent Ireland in an 80-mile road race. Most women in the race will be there in teams of three, but Murphy will be the lone cyclist riding for Ireland. This three-and-a-half-to-four-hour race is one for which, Murphy says, “I’ve been preparing my whole cycling career.” She spends 20 to 25 hours a week on her bike, cycling out beyond New York City to New Jersey and back again. She also races regularly all across the country.
To maximize the intensity, Murphy works with visualization. “Lately, I’ve been playing ‘A Soldier’s Song,’ the Irish national anthem on my cassette tape while I’ve been training,” she says. “I visualize myself on the [Olympic] podium.”
Murphy’s trim muscular build, chestnut hair, and brown eyes mask her 41 years. She is 10 to 15 years older than most of her competitors, but she remains undaunted. “When I win, it’s fifty percent mental,” she points out.
She admits that critical fast twitch muscles deteriorate with age, so she compensates by strategizing ahead of time, and her strength lies in her mental ability to deconstruct the game even before she begins. “I’m clever and I know how to conserve my energy. One of my early mentors told me to consider that in a bicycle race everybody at the start line has a book of matches. You bum matches with attacks and efforts. The person who has the most matches at the end of the race will win.”
This doesn’t mean that Murphy is out of the race because of her age. After all, she boasts, “even though I’m 41, I’m still a good sprinter. At the end of a race, I can still outsprint a lot of gals.”
Murphy’s road to Sydney began in 1995 when she contacted the Federation of Irish Cyclists to compete in the Sean Kelly Retirement Race, named for Ireland’s most famous cyclist. She placed first among women cyclists, and her success there allowed her to qualify for the Irish National Team in 1996.
Murphy loves Ireland, and feels competing for them in the Olympics is “a big responsibility, since I’m the first woman ever to qualify Ireland for cycling.” Murphy qualified Ireland for the Olympics with her fourth-place finish at the World Championships B in November 1999, but still needed the approval of the Federation of Irish Cyclists to compete for Ireland at the games in Sydney. Her accomplishments eventually earned Murphy the Olympic nod from the Federation over some Irish women cyclists. Since there was only one spot for Ireland, choosing an Irish-American caused some controversy, but Murphy is not flustered. She feels her training in America has given her an advantage over Irish cyclists; Murphy races nearly every weekend, while in Ireland they have maybe two races a year for women only. How can the situation improve for Irish cyclists? “It’s a chicken and egg thing for women’s cycling in Ireland,” says Murphy. “They say that there aren’t many great women cyclists there, so they haven’t applied that much money in terms of funding them. But if they don’t apply the money, it might never happen, either.”
Murphy looks forward to her adventure in Sydney, where her biggest fans, her father and half-sister, will cheer her on. Her father’s fondness for his Irish roots was deeply ingrained in Murphy. “He’s very pleased that I’m representing Ireland and not the United States,” she laughs. “He goes into the local pub and boasts most gleefully every time he’s there. Which is often.”
She credits her father for the path her life has taken, noting, “I’m thankful that my father both tortured me with watching sports on TV as a child – when I’d rather be watching cartoons – and instilled a love of Ireland in me. Both of those have manifested themselves in realizing my childhood dream, which was to go to the Olympics.”
What will happen for Murphy after the Olympics could depend on whether or not she garners a medal. For now, Murphy says, “I’m just trying to live the dream.” Retirement from professional cycling seems likely, but she has been saying she’ll retire every year since she started. This success at qualifying for the Olympics after her failed attempt to get to Atlanta in 1996 reminds Murphy to “never say never.” If she does retire from professional cycling, she foresees rebuilding her interior design business, becoming a sports commentator for cycling, or perhaps a sports agent, applying some of her Wall Street business acumen.
No matter what happens at the Olympics, Murphy wouldn’t change a thing. Murphy understands the need for practicality and passion, but firmly believes, “You gotta go with the passion. You just don’t want to have any regrets… If you really love something, you’ re going to make it happen.” ♦