From couch potato to an Olympian
Published 19/04/2012 | 08:00
Martyne Irvine admits that as a teenager he used to hand sick notes to teachers at Movilla High School in Newtownards to avoid PE. Now he is just a few months away from competing in the Olympics.
It's a truly remarkable story. Fitting really because 26-year-old cyclist Irvine is a remarkable character.
Most of those competing in the London Games later this year will have grown up playing their chosen sport and numerous others besides.
Not Ards native Irvine. His interest in any sort of physical activity as a kid was nil and he didn't take up cycling until he was 18, describing himself as a 'couch potato' before that.
Even now he says that other sports have little appeal, revealing that he doesn't know the rules of football.
There's an honesty about Irvine. Inner steel too about the man, who lives in Dublin with fiancee Grace.
Earlier this month, competing for Ireland, he qualified for the Olympics finishing seventh in the Omnium event at the World Track Championships in Melbourne.
I say to him he must be on 'cloud nine'.
The reply: “I'm happy and relieved but there is work to be done.”
You know he will do it, starting this week when he travels to Korea to take part in a pre-Olympic competition.
“I was a total couch potato until I was about 18,” admits Irvine, an accomplished road racer as well as a soon-to-be Olympic track rider.
“I even got sick notes for PE. I wouldn't have done anything at school. It is a bit of an extreme to what I do now.
“When I'm in full training I'm training three times a day. That would include gym work and two cycle sessions per day.
“When I'm training for the track I base myself in Majorca and I would do a track session, road spin and gym in the morning. There's a lot to do.”
So, how did the transformation begin?
“I was working in Bangor as a car mechanic and some of the lads there were really into their cycling and eventually it rubbed off on me,” he explains.
“I'd been there since I was 16 but had no interest until I was 18 when they convinced me to get a bike. I went out riding after work and it snowballed from there. I started racing and at 19 I did my first Open race. By the time I was 21 I was racing in Belgium. I guess I had got bitten by the bug.
“I remember coming sixth in my first club race. To be honest I didn't really know what I was doing. I was just riding with my head down. I loved the racing side of things and saw training as a necessary evil.
“Ards isn't a big cycling town. If you say to anyone in Ards that you are a cyclist you get laughed at so I got out and about and doors started to open for me and I began to race as much as I could. There was a lot of suffering in the training but the racing made it fun.”
Gradually Irvine became the best in the country — he's been the Irish National Track and Road champion multiple times – and found that he could mix it with the best in the world.
Even so a place in the Olympics was not on the horizon until recently.
“Three years ago the thought of going to the Olympics would have been a joke. I would have said 'Are you kidding?'
“It was only really two years ago that I saw an avenue that I could take that might get me there and I focused on it. When you live in that bubble for a while and then it becomes a reality it is great.”
So, how does he think he will do in London?
“I'm really aiming for a podium. That's not a joke — I believe it's achievable. I have these last few months to focus and refine my training and if I can keep improving as I have been doing I believe I can do something special,” he says.
Irvine (pictured) is very much his own man. I ask him if he is inspired by the likes of legendary Olympic hero Sir Chris Hoy to be told: “You rub shoulders with those guys and you admire what they do but inspiration is a strong word. I want to cut my own path in cycling.”
Comparing the financial backing that Hoy receives to Irvine is akin to contrasting the bank balances of Manchester City and Linfield.
“It is tough financially,” admits Martyn, who on his return from Korea will compete in road races including the National championships in June, before going to Majorca to begin his Olympic countdown in earnest.
“Effectively I'm living on a shoestring budget. The driving force behind what I do is the dream to become an Olympian. I'm not in it for the money at this level.
“I'm living with my fiancee Grace McNally and I wouldn't be doing it without her. She is really good at focusing me and even living on a shoestring she is happy to support me and encourage me every day. Grace is great — she's pure gold.”
Another source of support to Irvine is the respected Sports Institute Northern Ireland (SINI) in Jordanstown,where he trains when back home.
“They have really helped me at the Sports Institute,” he says.
“They have dug me out of holes at times and I owe a lot to them. The physio Chris McNicholl works with me. I had a bad knee two summers ago and I couldn't even cycle but he helped me and got me going again.
“There's a great group of people there involved in different sports. They want to see you do well. That support really helps more than people realise.”