Hammer Blows: Before Katie Taylor there was Eileen O'Keefe
JOE spoke to Ireland's greatest female hammer thrower Eileen O'Keefe on her sport, career and some of circumstances she had to overcome to reach the Olympics.
Katie Taylor broke down a lot of gender barriers this week in a sport that has long been male-dominated. Not only that but she has long been one of the few Irish people that can be classed as “world-class” in sport.
When out and about in Bray last week JOE saw young girls and boys alike shadowboxing and dreaming of emulating Ireland’s golden-girl. Taylor achieved all she did training out of a modest, poorly-funded, converted boat-shed that didn’t have a toilet until recently.
It’s a story not uncommon in Irish sport; athletes have had to succeed in spite of policy (or lack of it) devised by politicians and administrators who will gladly pose with those athletes for photos and bask in the reflected glory of their success afterwards.
Taylor is not the first elite Irish Olympian to breakdown gender barriers in male-dominated sport. She was also not the first to put up with less than ideal conditions, Eileen O’Keefe was another.
O’Keefe is now 32 and she retired from her signature event, the hammer throw, in 2011 as the result of a longstanding knee injury.
Over the course of her career she won nine national titles in the hammer, as well as seven in the discus to boot. Not bad.
Your whole life has gone into that one day that you hope you’re going to be at your best...well when someone questions why you should be there, when you know you have genuinely earned your spot to be there, it’s hard to take..
Her career was peaking in 2008, having come off the back of a sixth-place finish in the World Championships in Japan and a second place in the World University Games. She qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and many fancied her to challenge for a medal until her knee succumbed to years of wear and tear, partially due to training on a less-than-adequate surface.
Then again for O’Keefe, a pleasant, softly-spoken theatre nurse from Callan in Kilkenny, her whole career was an example of excellence and triumph in spite of circumstances.
Starting to Swing
O’Keefe was introduced to competitive sport the way many Irish children were – through the Community Games and her local club, Kilkenny City Harriers. She started competing at the discus when she was 13 and continued to until she was 17.
“I was at a Leinster Championship competing at discus and there was a Women’s hammer throw on as well and I was really mad keen to try it,” recalls O’Keefe.
O’Keefe found the sport enthralling and indeed graceful. She was hooked.
“For me when you see the hammer fly out so high and far, it always lifts my heart, it’s like ‘Oh my God did you see how high and far that went out?’″ says O’Keefe, who goes on to extol the technical skill of the sport she finds “inspiring” to watch.
There was one problem though.
“I thought it looked fantastic but there was nobody that could show me the footwork of a turn, somebody could show you the basic stance but nobody could should me the turn and I was really keen to move on straight away and learn that.”
Eileen’s brother heard her talk about these issues over dinner. He kept it in mind and then he spotted a DVD by Hal Connolly in the Pound Shop on Hyde Street in Kilkenny. Connolly was an American hammer thrower who won gold in the 1956 Melbourne games despite a stunted left arm. It was vital to O’Keefe’s development.
“He happened on a box of videos on different sports by different athletes and there was one by Hal Connolly who was an Olympian for America in the hammer years ago. It had a step-by-step guide for beginners on how to throw; it was really a fantastic guide. That was a fantastic instruction.”
Struggling to success
The hammer throw is big in America, Cuba and Eastern Europe but until recently Ireland had forgotten its heritage in a sport that O’Keefe said had become “obscure.”
People had forgotten that Ireland’s last double Olympic gold medallist in 1928 and 1932 was a hammer thrower
“Yeah Dr. Pat O’Callaghan, who went to the College of Surgeons where I went to college as well! He won his titles with throws of 50metres or something like that back in the day, but in that respect that was such a distant time that people don’t think about it that much.”
With O’Keefe’s qualification for the Beijing she was asked to participate in a programme called Ireland’s Olympians, she hopes it brought O’Callaghan and the hammer throw back into the public consciousness.
As O’Keefe progressed and became world-class, largely by fanning the wind of her own sails she decided to move to Dublin to work as a theatre nurse in Beaumount Hospital and train in the National Athletics Stadium in Santry a few short miles away. It was ideal; The training surface was smooth and great for her rotational training and reduced friction on her knees.
Then Morton Stadium started sharing the field with the newly founded Sporting Fingal soccer side - a side now out of existence - and it wasn't long before problems arose.
“When they started using the field there was problems that I was making too many holes in the in-field and I can totally understand where that could be a problem for the soccer players, but I suppose really having the National Stadium being shared with a soccer team wasn’t ideal.”
O’Keefe had to start training out in Navan in Meath, rather than the National Stadium, a few short minutes from where she had moved to work.
“The circle out there wasn’t ideal; it was a bit rough and probably wasn’t the best thing to be turning on for my knee as it turns out.”
It was the knee injury that she carried into the 2008 Olympics and ultimately forced her to retire. O’Keefe stops short of blaming the situation with Morton Stadium for the injury.
“I’m not saying it is directly that, I had been training for the best part of 10 years at that stage and over time, athletes that are training that hard with your gym work sprint work, your rotational training and practicing technique again and again, it’s always going to have an impact,” she says in a considered tone.
“But obviously if the facilities and surface you’re training on is top class the chances of you doing harm is a lot less, but I’m not saying the situation would have been any different, but it wasn’t ideal,” says O’Keefe with regret in her voice.
“The future looks better for anyone else coming along now,” says O’Keefe. The facilities have since been improved and for the four or five elite juniors that are coming up, including the promising Killian Barry who O’Keefe has trained with, but she also says they were finished “too late” to be of benefit to her career.
Another issue is coverage of the sport she says. “There’s definitely talent coming up but they’re not really getting exposure which is a pity. When I reached the Olympics it was a case of ‘Where did she come from.’ Its years and years of work until you get noticed.”
Breaking the barrier
You ask Eileen how did she know how good she was, when she didn’t have the adequate facilities or a devoted coach to tell her?
O’Keefe says she kept surprising herself by reaching the Olympic standard with her throws, meet after meet.
“I asked myself ‘Oh God I wonder if I take time off how good could I get?’ There was always a craving.”
She decided to give it a go full-time after she finished her Higher Diploma in Theatre Nursing. A job was secured in Beaumount if it didn’t work out.
The final throw that convinced her it had to be done was when she finished sixth in the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, having qualified for the final with her first throw.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be walking off with Yipsi Moreno after my first throw with qualification for the final secured, it felt like a dream. I couldn’t believe it, I felt like I was finally there, it was such a haze at the time.
“It all kicked on from there and I finally realised I could move on from where I was and maybe when I went full-time, maybe I pushed myself and body too much and that’s when things went a little wrong as well, but sure we’re all wise after the event.”
A hammer blow
The injury caught up with O’Keefe and she was disappointed by her performance in the Olympics. You put it to her that despite her injury she was only a metre off the length to qualify for the Olympic final.
“When you look at it on paper it’s not that bad, I was making 70m in practically all my competitions before the injury [so] I knew I would be in the Olympic final,” says O’Keefe and she adds some her training throws were medal-worthy.
What hurt more than her own disappointment was that her achievement in getting to the Olympics was disregarded to an extent.
“I remember after the qualifications and I hadn’t got through or whatever and there was an RTÉ reporter who made the remark ‘Oh I see you underperformed, why did you do this?’ and I was trying to explain my process with the injury and they then said ‘Do you think you should have come with the injury?’ I was still performing even with the injury and achieving Olympic standard throws – I was still up there, obviously you need to be 100 per cent to be talking of medals,” she says despondently.
“Your heart kind of sinks because you know that your whole life has gone into that one day that you hope you’re going to be at your best...well when someone questions why you should be there, when you know you have genuinely earned your spot to be there, it’s hard to take.
“I suppose in your heart you know you’re not 100 per cent and it’s not going to work out, but at the time you’re just hoping and wishing that it all miraculously comes together and you’ll be what you were before you hurt yourself, I suppose that’s just human nature.
“I know they have a job to do and ask these questions but I was always so thorough in what I do,” she finishes.
You suggest to O’Keefe that she might be being harsh on herself and that she had brought the hammer back into the public consciousness more than it had been.
“Oh I can’t complain, my only regret is that I didn’t go the Olympics Games 100 per cent fit. If I did I’d be able to it and say ‘fair enough it wasn’t for me on the day.’ I would have liked to see what would happen.”
O’Keefe says she “hated” the limelight but was delighted by the support she received in her hometown, fellow staff in Beaumount and patients when she was competing. The reaction when people found out she was an Olympic hammer thrower was one of curiosity and encouragement.
Some patients even recognised her on the back of the AIB adverts she appeared in.
“Yeah they’d go ‘Oh that’s the girl with the hammer’ and I’d go “Can you really recognise me with the theatre hat and scrubs on?’” she laughs.
Now O’Keefe is retired she is enjoying time to herself. Down the line though she would like to help be the person that she didn’t have – the person that could support younger athletes technically and mentally before and during tournaments.
“Oh definitely down the line that’s something I’d like to do. At the moment... the last nearly 10 years with training, college and working – I’d kinda’ like to do stuff for myself ...or go on a holiday without bring my hammer gloves or throwing shoes!
“I’d love to do it down the line and hopefully I’d be able to offer people something. I suppose there is this perception that it is just for boys or physically strong people but especially in the women’s event it’s a lot more technical. It’s a great event to watch with the rotation and if it got a bit more exposure hopefully people will realise that.”
And hopefully with Taylor’s exploits this summer, the suits that will squeeze into pictures with Irish female and male athletes will finally give them the support they deserve.