Skeleton king Doyle counting blessings with one year to Winter Olympics

by Stephen Findlater

** Skeleton racer Brendan Doyle has been indebted to the support of the OFI Beijing Scholarship and FBD’s Make A Difference programme which has helped support his Olympic pursuit. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

“Find a way, not an excuse.” 

From deploying wheelie bins for squat racks to pushing improvised trollies around Rockfield Park under the bewildered gaze of his neighbours to rolling left and right on his living room floor in a VR headest. 

Brendan Doyle’s Covid summer was “like no other” but, ultimately, the Artane man says – a year out from the 2022 Winter Olympic Games – it was “a blessing” in his life less ordinary in pursuit of his calling. 

Following a trio of medals at the North American Cup in Park City, Utah last week  he believes the gains this winter will put him in prime shape to qualify for the skeleton line-up in Beijing later this year. 

The competition does not count directly for the qualification process which will kick off in earnest next October but Doyle says the markers are hugely positive.  

His speed on one of the key tracks – where he has been based since before Christmas, partly funded thanks to the support of FBD Insurance as one of their Make A Difference programme recipients – would put him inside the world’s top 10 while having a season to focus solely on his skills was a massive boost with no ranking points on the line for the time being. 

Full focus on Beijing 2022

“Ironically enough, Covid was a bit of a blessing,” he told the Dublin Gazette. “We got a unique opportunity to stay at one track and develop fundamental skills as opposed to normally having to spend a week in one place, do an event, travel on again and chase competitions.  

“Myself and coaching team have made the Olympics our priority. We felt it was a better investment in time and money to develop skills instead of trying to compete. 

“The results were fantastic but what was the bigger for myself was the coaching team I had here. We have set a lot of really strong foundations for next season.” 

It also justified the graft he put in when locked down last summer. For Doyle, throwing himself into a sport with no formal facilities or track available, improvising is always the name of the game, hence the repurposed wheelie bins. 

“It’s a necessity! I adopted a mindset of ‘this is all I have so there’s no point saying what I can’t do, this is what I can do’. 

“Covid hasn’t made me take a step back; it’s just one step to the side and then keep going forward. It’s just a different path that I didn’t see myself on. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. 

“And my neighbours definitely know what I am at now! A few did come up to me and say ‘you are making me feel lazy!’ and I was inspiring them to get out and walk. It was great to hear. We had some new neighbours move in who just wondered what is this lad doing?” 

Brendan Doyle outside his house with his improvised gym

“The VR headset paid massive dividends. When you race, you don’t have time to think. It’s an intuition-based thing so if you teach your mind about what should happen, it becomes second nature, and you have time to make changes on the fly.  

“There is a massive physical component, but it is predominantly mental. We use visualisation tools – for Park City there are 15 corners, I close my eyes and go through corner 1, right-hand corner, corner 2, left. 

“It’s like Cool Runnings when they were sitting in the bath. You mentally visualise what you have to do going down the track. It’s a skill you work on. I lay on my sled and mimicked what I saw on the video as if I was sliding.  

“That was a huge part of my training; I trained outside physically then came inside for 20 to 30 minutes of ‘mind-runs’. It taxed my brain while the body is tired, getting as close as possible to a real life situation.” 

Taking the side-step and the different path is a key factor in Doyle’s story. Now 35, he had been dabbled in skeleton as a teenager back in 2003 with his sprint-power over 30 metres marking him out as a raw natural talent that could be developed. 

It came when the sport was enjoying a rare crest of a wave in the Irish public conscience with Clifton Wrottesley’s fourth place finish at the Salt Lake City Games fresh in the mind. 

“I remember Clifton Wrottesley vividly. When they approached me, I thought this was insane. I had literally just watched him. 

“It was Clifton who coached me during that week in 2003. He was a big role model for me, as was Terry McHugh being the animal that he is. He threw javelin in the Olympics, pushed a big heavy bobsled himself and was just a tank. As a young guy, you look at him in awe.”  

Doyle getting a feel for the tracks worldwide at home via his VR headset

The sport also appealed to his mental outlook, balancing a healthy element of fear with a commitment to mechanical and technical detail. 

“It is inherently scary. You train enough, do the mental prep. You don’t have time to think about the fear. You are just reacting, flowing with the sled. Fear can come into it when you are thinking too much, thinking about ‘I always get stuck on this corner, that’s gonna suck’.  

“I do use that bit of fear, the butterflies in the stomach as a stimulant almost to say ‘let’s get after it’. I channel it. That takes time. How you learn in skeleton is you hit walls until you figure out how not to! And when you hit walls, you are going it at 140kph – it sucks and you quickly learn how to stop! 

“I wouldn’t say I chase adrenaline but the adrenaline-rush you get in skeleton is absolutely amazing. I am not going to say its not. For me, it’s the progression, finding something you can’t do and applying yourself until you can not only do it but you can achieve way past what you thought.  

“That is the biggest thrill. Even with the results here in Park City, I came here with what I thought I could achieve and I absolutely smashed that. That’s the thrill. Finding where you struggle, finding a way to improve and smashing it… but the adrenaline is definitely awesome.” 

First time around, he found the cost and time commitments incompatible with his work as a Garda. And so it remained on the backburner for the guts of a decade.  

But a domestic abuse call at work soon changed everything. It ended with his thumb and baby finger being slashed, leaving them without function. 

“Despite the damage done to my hand, it wasn’t the physical damage that took its toll. It was the mental trauma that hit me hard. This started with night terrors.  

“I would relive what happened that night, waking up and grabbing my hand thinking it had been wounded all over again. I would wake up thinking my bed was covered in my own blood, or that the suspect was in my room and he was going to attack me. 

It led to anxiety, panic attacks and severe depression. 

“I found myself standing at the edge of a platform waiting for a train to come rushing through. I was ready to take that step in front of it, that step which would give me peace from the hell I was living.  

“I remember looking down at the bright light of the oncoming train, thinking this is going to be the end of the pain and struggle. Just before the train gets to the station, I heard a voice of a young child talking to her mother about how she was looking forward to her day out with mummy.  

“I crumbled, I couldn’t do it in front of such a young person so I stood back and went back to my car and broke down.  

“It was after my deepest, darkest moment, just before I was about to take that step into doing something permanent that I made a deal with myself. I would make one last and real effort to break this cycle that I was living in.” 

Doyle sets off for another run at Utah’s Park City. Picture: Doug Park

That outlet came through sport, getting back into training first two days a week, up to four then six.  

He tried for a number of years to combine it with his work but, ultimately and reluctantly, his best move was to resign from policework and pursue “a new journey”. 

“My happiness and mental wellbeing meant more than any job. Being as close as I was to losing it all, I knew I needed to take the step to ensure a happy future. So I resigned. 

“Leaving wasn’t something I wanted to do. I left because it was the best thing for my mental health. I tried for a number of years to find what I could do to balance the two but it was just a consistent block.  

“I would find myself hiding in a station. I was afraid to expose myself, to deal with a prisoner or go out on a call.  

“To stand at the top of a track, knowing there is a lot on the line and I have to push to be as fast as I can! “There is an amazing amount of progression from that person who used to hide in the bathroom. Mentally, I feel so much more mature, confident, ready to take on what is put in front of me.  

“My goal, apart from qualifying, is for those people still hiding in the bathroom, to say ‘that’s not what it is going to be like forever’. You can find a way. Look at this person who is taking chances, pushing themselves to be better and seeing what is possible for them.  

“That’s what I want to push. It doesn’t matter how bad it feels right now, there will be a stage where you progress. I used what used to cripple me as a strength now. It has given me an edge in a high performance setting, mentally a massive edge on my competitors.” 

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