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Monday 23 October 2017

'Your body is going to do what it wants to do, when it wants and the baby is going to run the show'

Sportswoman Derval O'Rourke talks to Joanna Kiernan about her greatest challenge yet - pregnancy

A lot has happened in the last couple of years for Derval O'Rourke. The former world champion hurdler married her long-term boyfriend and fellow Olympian Peter O'Leary in 2013, she retired from athletics last year and in four months' time she will become a mum.

"I think I'm adjusting pretty well into retirement. I was ready to retire - it's a tough world to live in the world of professional sport," Derval explains as she places a protective hand on her five-month bump.

"You sacrifice a lot, but it doesn't feel like a sacrifice at the time, it just seems normal to do, but now I look back and I think, God, that was quite a big sacrifice. It's really nice to have weekends, I never really had weekends before because I was always training.

"It's also nice not to be travelling all the time I spent half of my life on a plane - I used to get about 30 return flights a year, I reckon."

There is a sense of conviction to Derval's words. She has moved seamlessly from her former life as a professional athlete to achieving that Holy Grail of an equally successful post-sporting career.

Her cookbook, Food for the Fast Lane, which was released last September, did so well that publishers Gill & Macmillan have had to order two reprints since. She is also working with the rugby players' union IRUPA, lending her expertise - which was garnered on and off the track - for the benefit of Munster players.

Now Derval has also become an ambassador for the First 1,000 Days campaign, which highlights the importance of good nutrition both in pregnancy and in a child's first years.

poisoning

"When I was running I was really into cooking and healthy stuff and now it's really important because I'm thinking that it all has a direct effect on my baby, so food is a big theme in my life," she says. "Every day I'm planning what I'll eat."

Derval became acutely aware of the importance of nutrition when she was hospitalised with food poisoning and appendicitis ahead of the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece.

A couple of years later she attended cookery school to improve her expertise in the area.

"Anything I do now I'm fortunate to do it because it's something that I really like so life is quite good," Derval says, as she describes her travelling between the busy streets of Dublin - her adopted home of 14 years - and her idyllic life in Cork's countryside following her move home last year.

Conscious of how difficult it can be for professional athletes to move on after their careers, Derval considered her post-sporting plans carefully.

"My work in rugby now is all off-pitch," she says. "I think sometimes it's nice for them to sit down and have a cup of tea with someone who doesn't want to talk about how they played, but wants to talk about lifestyle in general. For me it's really interesting to see another high performance sport at work.

"I think lining things up is very important and that's what a lot of the work I do in rugby is about. What's the end game? What happens when you finish? What happens when you don't play any more? What are you going to do with your life?' And sometimes that is not an easy thing to answer for someone who's in the middle of their career.

"But it's very important. I considered it all the way through my career and was very aware that it could end at any point, any injury could mean the end.

"So I did bits and pieces and teed it up and it has definitely been less of a struggle than the way I have seen other people struggle with the change.

regrets

"I think as well that sometimes people have unfinished business, whereas I was 33 and I had three Olympic Games, so bar winning an Olympic medal - which obviously I wish I had done - there was nothing else I really wanted to do. I had a pretty good run at it, whereas other people maybe have more regrets."

Derval has taken to her post-athletics pursuits with the same vigour she had for her sport. Pregnancy, she says with a giggle, is her next and possibly most important challenge to date, and she is training and noting down her progress week by week with the same dedication she did with her running.

"I write it all down - how I felt, what I ate - and each week I look at it and think, 'That was a good week, that's another week banked'," she says.

Derval hasn't stopped training, but she has had to get used to not being able to tell her body what to do over the past five months.

"I'm feeling it now because I'm a good few kilos heavier and I have noticed because I'm still working out and I go jogging as well," she says, "but I feel good for five months. I've had a really easy time so far and hopefully that will continue.

"I took a lot of advice from my doctor and my physio and their advice was basically to keep doing what you have always done and just start to modify it, so I don't get too out of breath, I take a lot of recoveries and in terms of weights I lift way less than I used to.

"I think it's really important to keep a really strong body, to keep my legs strong and even my arms for picking up the baby when it arrives."

However, exercising during pregnancy is not as easy as it was before, even for super-fit Derval.

"One of the things that the consultant said to me really early was that I maybe so used to telling my body what to do, but that is not how pregnancy works," she says.

"She said, 'Your body is going to do whatever it wants to do, whenever it wants and the baby is just going to run the show'. And that was really good to hear because there are some days when if I try and go out for a run I might feel horrendous, so I just don't.

"I have learned to accept that I can't control it but I do know that once I have the baby I will probably want to get back into quite a good fitness routine very soon after."

Derval is looking forward to her maternity leave which will, she says, coincide nicely with the Rugby World Cup.

She laughs about her outlook on motherhood and how her perceptions have been warped into believing that her six months on maternity leave will be a time of relaxation, spas and watching rugby on TV.

"I'm looking forward to taking time off and just being at home with the baby for a little while. I take very little time off," Derval says. "Even when I retired I was busy straight away, so I'm looking forward to that time.

"Hopefully I won't be too sleep-deprived. I know it's a full-time job, but I'm looking forward to embracing that for the six months. I think it will be lovely.

curious

"I have a lot of friends with babies and they all do a really good job and make it look really nice. We have two dogs and we kind of already think of ourselves as a little family, so it will be a really nice addition.

"I'm really curious about how it will all work out, what it will be like."

So will Derval eventually encourage her new little addition, who will be the first grandchild on both sides, to follow its parents' sporting footsteps?

"It's interesting now because I see professional sport in terms of rugby up close and I spent so long in athletics," she says, wincing ever so slightly at the thought.

"It's tough. Professional sport is a tough job. It's the best job in the world if that's what you love, but I have seen the hard sides of it too.

"Before I became pregnant I would have thought I'd love my baby to be good at this or that, but now I just really want it to be happy and surrounded by people who think it's great and to be really content and healthy.

"That's all I want and sure, look, if they're good at something they are good at it.

"My husband's granddad won a medal for England in the Olympics and I have asked him about it, but he said that he never felt any pressure.

"He sailed because he loved it, but his parents never pushed any of them, so I think that's the way you have to do it.

"I don't think pushing them will make them love it because a lot of it is innate - you either want to be good at that level or you don't. You can't force it."

Derval is an ambassador for the First 1000 Days campaign. For more information see: www.first1000days.ie

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