Matthew Cosgrave’s recent ankle injury has been a major part of the problems facing the Irish Men’s Gymnastics Team ahead of their World Championships campaign in Nanning, China. Following his unfortunate luck, compatriot Chris O’Connor fell from the high bars during the Northern European Championships in Denmark a fortnight ago, to end his chances of national representation on the world stage. Two teenage debutants, Daniel Fox and Adam Dalton have been selected in their place and will have to handle the pressure of keeping Irish Olympic qualification for Rio 2016 on track.
80 countries will compete at the event with the top 24 securing safe passage to next year’s World Championships. From there, the first eight will guarantee automatic entry to Brazil. Missing the senior experience of Cosgrave and O’Connor has upset preparations but with former Olympian Kieran Behan heading the team and Andrew Smith expected to excel in the all round individual competition; the target of making the next round of qualification in Glasgow 2015 is attainable.
Cosgrave insists that progress will be defined by how the team perform and less so on the success of one or two men. “We have two guys who are excellent floor competitors and if things go right for them, they could make the floor final,” he says. “There are possibilities for individual success but the big hope for us this time around is to make sure we make that top 24.” Irish representation at Olympic level has been markedly low in the past with only Barry McDonald taking his place at Atlanta before Behan in London 2012.
The intensity of competition for places on the Irish squad has however shown that the current standard within the camp far exceeds previous periods of disappointment. “When I started competing internationally there was really only myself and one other guy but the fact that we can send out a very strong team with two of our strongest members injured is a great credit to how far we have come,” comments Cosgrave. The notion of an Olympic dream for an Irish team is one that owes much to the achievement of Britain’s team bronze in London two years ago. In attempting to learn from the example of Louis Smith and company, Team Ireland have introduced English man Barry Winch to take charge of the senior set up at the Championships. At club level, British coaching is familiar to the bulk of the squad too; with Behan training in Tolworth and Loughborough University home to a handful of students within the group. The Michigan based duo of Rohan Sebastian and Ian Makowskev are transatlantic exceptions to the rule.
The motivation of becoming the first Irish gymnastics team to reach an Olympics is tempered by the challenge of balancing the demands of elite level competition and remaining financially sound. Cosgrave supports himself through his work as a locum, taking shifts across the main Belfast hospitals. While this comes with a certain amount of flexibility, he is well aware of the difficulties that are shared by the squad. “We have guys who have just finished school and are taking time out to train full time. When they are not training, they are coaching. Four or five are doing that. For the likes of me and maybe one or two others, trying to work a job to keep ourselves going is hard. If we were funded it would take so much stress away, not having to think about finances all the time and how many hours you can fit into the gym each week. Obviously that means getting better results too.” The sum total of Irish efforts in China will be seen by a crowd of 9,000, all of whom could yet be witnessing a seminal moment in the country’s sporting history.
An edited version of this story was published in The Irish News on 2nd October 2014