Philip Doyle: From 'lumbering lad' to Ireland's great Olympic hope

Marginal gains are everything for rower Doyle

Life moves fast when you're an elite rower.

Take Philip Doyle for example. The Banbridge man has gone from rowing as a hobby at university to becoming one of Ireland's leading hopes for medal success at the Olympics.

And not only will he compete, he has a realistic chance of clinching Ireland's first medal in Tokyo alongside his double sculls partner Ronan Byrne.

Tokyo is a far cry from Belfast Boat Club, but the speed with which he and Byrne have risen through the rowing ranks is not lost on Doyle.

"I do think about that from time to time," the 27-year-old tells BBC Sport NI when reminded of how he's gone from watching Northern Irish rowers Peter and Richard Chambers at the 2012 Olympics to preparing for the biggest summer of his life.

"I was down in Belfast boat club a long time ago and had just gotten into the single for the first time and my coach asked me 'where do you want to go with this?'

"I said 'well, Rio sounds good' and he said 'well, hold on, what about Tokyo 2020?'

Ronan Byrne and Philip Doyle secured silver for Ireland at the World Championships in Linz in September
Ronan Byrne and Philip Doyle secured silver for Ireland at the World Championships in Linz in September

"I thought 'no way, I'm not staying in this sport for that long. I was just doing it during university, but the hobby has definitely gotten out of hand at this stage.

"I've gone from being that lumbering lad who couldn't keep the blades from skimming the water to performing in world championship finals."

He certainly has no such problems now. Doyle may have been a latecomer to rowing, but the manner in which he has made up for lost time has been a sight to behold.

His and Byrne's burgeoning reputation was confirmed in thrilling fashion during a memorable 2019 during which they won silver at the World Cup regatta in Rotterdam before replicating that feat at the World Championships in Linz.

With World Championship gold for Gary and Paul O'Donovan, Fintan McCarthy and Sanita Puspure in the last couple of years, Doyle is helping to establish Ireland as one of the pre-eminent forces in rowing.

"We're not there to take part in it anymore, we're there to take over," he says, paraphrasing an Irishman who does his business in a ring, not a boat.

"It's something that we're learning to deal with. We're constantly talking about how it's different going into races as favourites or going into races as a medal hopeful.

"It's a different mindset and complacency can really take the whole thing apart so we're trying to make ourselves accountable for our training and performance."

'There are 10 or 11 boats that could win this gold medal'

Doyle was speaking during a visit to Belfast - a brave jaunt from his training base in Cork - where he was receiving a health check as he ramps up his training programme ahead of World Cup I in Italy.

While it's important to make sure the old ticker is ticking, Doyle is more interested in what physiological insights he can gain from the check-up.

"It shows me where I am in my training," he explains, "and where I can make improvements; respiratory fitness, explosive power, lactate tolerance, where my anaerobic threshold is.

"It gives me a lot of feedback that I can use moving forward and I can adapt my training programme to know how hard I can push before I'm at a certain level.

"It's marginal gains at this level, there are 10 or 11 boats that could win this gold medal.

"If I can make up 0.5 seconds then that might be the difference between a yellow and a grey medal."

Doyle admits "10 or 11 boats" could take the gold medal in the double sculls event
Doyle admits "10 or 11 boats" could take the gold medal in the double sculls event

Doyle has in the past exuded a strikingly laid-back mindset when it comes rowing. Not so long ago, in fact, he admitted the spot has never been "the be all and end all".

But it's the Olympics. There's no hiding from the pressure. He won't be watching the TV this time around.

No, there's probably another wide-eyed student at Queen's waiting to be inspired. We might hear about him come Los Angeles 2028.

Right now, however, is Doyle's time, and he knows it.

"This year is far more intense," he admits. "The pressure is building."

So, too, is the excitement. Thankfully, we won't have to wait too long after months of waiting. The rowing is up first at the Olympics, on the same day as the opening ceremony.

Doyle was initially disappointed at being told that he would have to give the opening festivities a miss. They're usually a grand spectacle, but it'd be nothing compared to capturing Ireland's first medal in Japan.