Setting the standard in Irish sailing

Aisling Keller and Aoife Hopkins discuss their journey towards Olympic qualification

The Tokyo Olympics 2020 is nearly here. Japan will barely have had time to recover from the Rugby World Cup before they are yet again in the spotlight on the global stage, this time to a much wider audience. With the Olympics around the corner, countries are coming to the end of their qualifying campaigns. Nations are taking part in competitions all over the globe in order to secure their place at the world’s biggest international sporting event. 

The process applies to all events in a different way. In most sports, the method is to take the combined ranking of a team or individual as they take part in these competitions, with the best either qualifying themselves or their team. In the case of sailing, the qualification process is effectively for the boat. The individual sailors then compete further to try and secure their spot as the competitor for their country. And this was the process that Aisling Keller and Aoife Hopkins went through as they secured Ireland’s position at the Women’s Laser Radial event next summer. The pair spoke to Trinity News about their experiences and their ambitions for the future.

Not necessarily your traditional starter sport, Hopkins and Keller were both drawn to sailing at a young age. For Hopkins, her childhood home held the key to her passion for the sport. “I grew up in Howth which is surrounded by the sea, so it was very local to me. All of the kids went to the sailing club during the summer and I guess it stuck with me and I’ve loved it more and more ever since.” But not everything was aquatic based. Hopkins found time in her life for other sports as well when she was growing up: “I loved them all! I played hockey, volleyball, swimming, basketball and tennis when I was younger. I had to give them up eventually to focus on the sailing and fitness program that comes with it.” 

Keller’s pathway into sailing was very different. “My parents didn’t sail so my brother started sailing through school sailing in our primary school. Sailing wasn’t a popular sport in Tipperary, as you can imagine, so we were lucky that we got the opportunity.” Keller’s sporting achievements were certainly not limited to sailing either. She attempted to balance horse riding, camogie and sailing, even reaching an All Ireland final for camogie. But in time, her true calling became apparent, she said, “Eventually I found more time for boats than horses and hurleys.”

For a small nation, Ireland has had some incredible Olympians over the years.”

Sailing for the national team is a great honour and a privilege but, for these two, it must feel like second nature. “I don’t remember feeling differently,” said Keller, about representing Ireland. “I was still just out sailing with my friends and having fun.” But even though it was fun, it was certainly not an easy journey to reach that standard. “I’ve been on the national squad in various boats since I was 12 years old,” recounts Hopkins. “I’ve only been on the senior Olympic team for two years though. It took me five years of sailing the Laser [her current boat] to get to senior team standard and ten years of sailing in total.”

When it came to securing the coveted Olympic spot, were there any complications that the pair were worried about? “We had to keep an eye out for the other unqualified countries in the last couple of days,” explained Hopkins. “There was a chance they would try use rules situations to get us disqualified.” For Keller, she was more concerned with internal struggles. “The most challenging part was dealing with the pressure in the last few days,” she said, detailing the issues she found out on the water. “It’s more important to focus your mind on what will make you go fast in the moment rather than think about the other boats that you had to beat in the race to qualify the nation.” 

Qualification for Tokyo 2020 would be determined by both Keller and Hopkins sailing well at the Laser Radial World Championships in Japan. “We were within qualification criteria for the entire event,” said Hopkins. The event took place over several days, which meant both competitors had to work really hard to maintain consistency. “I was super excited to begin racing and sailed really well for the first three days,” detailed Keller. “But nerves got to me in the second half where I had two ropey days. Thankfully, I managed to refocus myself on the last day.” Hopkins was unlucky in her performance on the last day. “I didn’t sail well,” she recalled. “I dropped down results but luckily we’d both still done well enough to qualify.” In the end, Keller finished 46th and Hopkins finished 48th, which was enough to ensure Ireland’s participation in the Laser Radial event next summer.

Now that Ireland have qualified for the Olympics, the next issue is to determine who will actually be sailing in the event. Both Keller and Hopkins hope to be that sailor when Tokyo 2020 rolls around. “The plan going forward is to focus on my training and working on the process towards the ultimate goal of qualifying myself for the Olympics,” remarks Keller. “No doubt it’s going to be extremely tough but if it was easy everyone would be doing it.” Hopkins will also be hoping to procure that qualifying spot and noted that the path to glory won’t be quick: “We’ll train at home for the next few months and then go to Australia for the 2020 World Championships in January,” she said. “The Olympic Trials will be a series of three international events next Spring. I’ll be working really hard over the next while to hopefully get the spot!”

“No doubt it’s going to be extremely tough but if it was easy everyone would be doing it.”

Both aspiring Olympians are in college courses and managing the coursework and the rigorous sailing training is certainly an effort. Keller is studying Physiotherapy in Trinity but is taking this year out to focus on qualification trials. As for Hopkins, she has recently moved course in order to keep sailing as her top priority. “I did first year of pure maths in Trinity (split over two years so I could sail) but have now transferred into second year Financial Maths and Statistics in UCD.” she remarked. Trinity’s loss is certainly UCD’s gain as Hopkins’ future plans still revolve around Olympic qualification. “I’m doing a half year again this year to ensure I can focus on sailing and give it my absolute best shot!”

For a small nation, Ireland has had some incredible Olympians over the years. From Eamonn Coghlan and Sonia O’Sullivan to the ever charismatic O’Donovan brothers, Ireland has always shone on the world stage. And with young talent, like Aisling Keller and Aoife Hopkins coming up through the ranks, the people of Ireland can rest easy knowing that reputation is sure to continue going forward.

Conor Doyle

Conor Doyle is the current Sport Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister Law student.