AILEEN MORRISON was urged to complete last Saturday’s Olympic Triathlon by Ireland’s Olympic silver medallist, Sonia O’Sullivan, after dramatically crashing her bike on a treacherous corner at London’s Hyde Park.
Therefore, the 30 year-old Culmore triathlete’s hopes of finishing in the top 10 in the women’s event on her Olympic debut suffered a cruel blow in the first lap of the 43 kms bike leg opposite Buckingham Palace.
Morrison lost control when her tyre slipped on the greasy surface and she crashed to the ground sustaining a nasty gash to her upper arm which required several stitches plus a haematoma on her hip as her Olympic dream appeared to be over.
But just as the Irish coach, Chris Jones contemplated her withdrawal from a race she has prepared for over the past four years, O’Sullivan advised her to continue and gain from the invaluable experience of completing her first Olympic Triathlon.
The gutsy City of Derry Spartan and North-West Triathlon Club member displayed outstanding bravery to pick herself up and eventually cross the line amid emotional scenes in 43rd place.
That was almost eight and a half minutes behind the winner, Nicola Spirig from Switzerland who defeated Sweden’s Lisa Norden in a dramatic photo finish.
However, her coach believes she will gain immensely from finishing her first Olympic Triathlon and insists, while she is still not the ‘finished article,’ she will come back stronger as they now aim for the 2014 Games in Rio de Janiero.
“She gave it her all,” said Jones last night. “She had a massive gash on her arm which we became very concerned about and we took her back into the hospital to get X-rayed, cleaned out and stitched back up.
“That’s the type of impact she experienced when she fell. She had blood all over her bike to go with it. She landed on her hip where she has a huge haematoma as well and a big graze.
“Sonia O’Sullivan told us she had to keep going because she had to finish her first Olympics and she will learn from it and that’s what we decided to do,” he added. “If she had been limping in any way I would’ve pulled her out but she wasn’t so she kept going.
“She’s already committed to Rio and she knows that’s the Games where she’ll be the finished article and she’ll go into that stronger because of this experience.
“She knows she’s got a lot to learn. She’s not the finished article by a long way. That’s not me protecting her, it’s actually me being very honest and I’m very hard on her at times.
“I’ve told her that until she gets these things right she’s going to be very exposed. And by doing that she’ll keep learning and things around her will probably have to change.”
Morrison, who started the race ranked seventh in the world, was Ireland’s only entrant in the women’s race, therefore, it proved a major blow to Jones and the Irish team.
“Obviously there’s a huge amount of disappointment when things like this happen,” he continued. “What people don’t realise is that when you have so much expectation on one athlete, when you only have one athlete at an event, it’s always a much bigger blow and a huge disappointment when something like this happens.
“It’s different when you have a team of three and if one goes down, you still have two racing but as soon as Aileen crashed her bike it was instant disappointment.”
Jones, who took Morrison under his wing when spotting her at a Triathlon Ireland ‘Identification Day’ four years ago, was disappointed that she didn’t show more control when faced with the greasy surface on the first corner of the bike leg.
“The preparation we did at altitude and in the holding camp before the Olympic Games is probably the best I’ve ever been involved in,” he went on.
“The environment was great but by the time the athletes step on the pontoon that’s the area you can’t control.
“Aileen took a normal line to the corner and obviously she hit the slippy part where she and another few cyclists went down.
“There was uproar in the men’s briefing the day after, when people were questioning why that corner was so dangerous.
“Again you can’t control that, you’re in London where the oil off busses and traffic is phenomenal and when it’s raining it will just bring you down. You can’t do anything about it.
“The bottom line is the rest of the field stayed up, didn’t they? You can’t prepare for it.
“Aileen has come into the sport over the past three or four years and she’s had two years racing at a very high level. It’s about being able to control every element and she still is an opportune athlete.
“She needs things to go a certain way in order to stay in control. She was put under pressure in the swim and she was playing catch-up and you make wrong decisions when under pressure.
“I’m not saying she did make the wrong decision but she might not just have the right control and that’s what happened.
“I spoke to her yesterday about that and told her it wasn’t uncontrollable but we will review things.”
Jones was delighted Morrison decided to continue and finish the race and having coached British No.1 Helen Jenkins and Olympic silver medallist, Lisa Norden in the past, he believes the Derry girl has the potential to compete at the top when the 2014 Olympic Games come around.
“I’ve worked with Helen Jenkins and Lisa Norden and both those athletes had shockers in Beijing and that’s taken that experience to get it right this time round.
“It’s a sport that asks for a lot of control in different elements from athletes and when they’re under pressure you see mistakes occur.
“One of the top bike riders in the world is Emma Moffett and she ended up on the road so it’s a hard call to say it’s just the athlete’s fault.
“When they’re racing, they’re following the line of the pack in front of them and she hit the grease and went down.
“There’s a difference between racing in the European and World Cup and racing in World Series and Olympic Games. There’s small margins that require a lot more strength and power to stay in control. But the best athletes stay in control.”
“But we have to give credit where credit’s due and the Australian coach said to me on Sunday: ‘at least your girl got back on, she deserves great credit’, and he’s right. He thought his athlete, Emma Moffett should have got back on.
“When she came down the finishing line I was quite emotional, thinking ‘well done.’ She’s becoming an Olympian the hard way.
“I hope this gives her the experience to become a stronger Olympian the next time and get out of it what she has the ability to.”
Meanwhile, Morrison recalled the moment she crashed her bike and claimed she give it everything she could muster up despite her injuries.
“I thought I was doing okay. As I got out of the water I saw that Nicola (Spirig) was in front of me and you don’t want that. You want Nicola to be behind you because Nicola’s the golden ticket.
“I did everything in my power to get going and as I came around Buckingham Palace on the first lap I came down.
“It started happening in slow motion, I could see my bike slipping from under me.”
“I thought, if I can stand up and swing my leg over my bike I’m going to keep going and I swung the leg over, clipped in and kept going. The road was slippy, my bike wheel just came out and I slid along the road.
“A group came around and I caught on to the group and that was a bit of a slow bicycle race. Daniella Ryf from Switzerland didn’t want the American Gwen Jorgensen to catch up with the group and didn’t want me to catch up with the group so I was basically doing everything I could on my own, so basically it was a 40 kms time trial.
“But I didn’t spend four years training to give up on the first lap. I wasn’t here to win a medal, I was here to give it everything.”
Morrison eventually trailed over the line in just over 2.08 hours, 43rd of the 52 finishers.