The Dragon Quest by Dan Kennedy
This is the story of a young boy who set out to fight the dragon. It is about ambition, pride, determination, achievement, disappointment, defeat and hidden success. It is about a journey to a magical arena and a call to future champions to follow the path and slay the dragon. It is not about a computer driven fantasy where failure, while disappointing, means just restarting the game but about a real quest of pain and effort and of failure not being an option.
It is difficult to describe the committed efforts of over 20 years in a short article but yet it must be done. The quest, which we had set him, is over and I must tell you the story. He was our champion. After years of preparation he fought the dragon in his magical lair, the arena that cannot be prepared for. Twice he was repulsed, yet injured in both knees he set out again to attain the magic number. He had finished thirteenth in Atlanta and needed to finish in the top twelve in Sydney to get to an Olympic final.
We saw him grow-up. We encouraged him and helped in educating him. We saw him at Waterford in the Bishop Foy competition, at the Leinster Schools, Tailteann Games, All-Ireland Schools, the European Juniors at Bermingham and countless Irish Senior Championships. Some of us were with him in Barcelona, Stuttgart, Helsinki and Atlanta. Sydney was the finish and the newspapers told of his failure and of his retirement. So what happened?
I phoned Nick. It was 8.30 p.m. the night before. He answered his mobile.
It was going to be a long night. Everyone else was away in Sydney. I sat in front of two televisions --one showing RTE 2 and the other BBC 1. Nick was in the second pool. It took hours. Time flew past and no information was forthcoming - did RTE not know that I was waiting? Sleep caught up with me in the chair and I was woken at 5.00a.m. by the telephone ringing.
'At last, it must be Nick!'
How could he say -'that's how it goes'. It was twenty years out of our lives. Were all those years misspent on a quest? No, you cannot brood on a setback in Sydney. We must all walk away with heads held high. It was a thrill and we now know that we are good and we now have the knowledge. The original target set when Nick was in 6th. form at school was - to be able to compete as an equal against the Europeans such as the East Germans and Russians. This was achieved and achieved sooner than expected. Nick was placed 9th. in the Birmingham Juniors and failed by one place to make the final but years afterwards we found out that he was really 6th. or 7th. as athletes ahead of him were disqualified for drug abuse. After a medal in the World Student Games, a seventh in the Stuttgart World Championships, a fourth place in the Europeans Games in Helsinki and a massive national record of over sixty-seven meters we the camp followers got greedy and raised the goals. Higher targets were set and a major result dreamed about. This was not to be.
It was Jack Sweeney in Belfield who seeing the over exuberant child and his brother sent them over to the German coach, Friedhelm Endemann to learn the discus. Both boys took to Friedhelm and the dream began. Phil Conway was the next coach to play a part in the champion's career but when Nick was in form three, he told him to look to Ballinteer for help because it was there that he went to school. He failed to throw as far as Dan's discus thrower as an u15 (i.e. Mark) but then breaking his arm a few times (needlessly) didn't help. The change came when he was a first year intermediate. He was beaten and wondered why? He wondered what must he do to beat the other throwers. The answer was to organize himself better prior to the start of competition, to be better organized during the competition and to focus well at the right time. The emphasis on organization and focus let the real Nick out. Until injury took its toll this led to him being a very competitive international athlete.
Nick's stature changed from a stumpy thirteen-year-old to an enormous giant at eighteen. Besides athletics Nick loved rugby and has always wondered what if….? Yep, that's true - himself and Barry often talked about… what if? He played for the Wesley JCT and SCT, the Leinster Schools' and for the Irish Schools' Rugby team. He stayed an extra year at Wesley and while too old for the rugby team trained seriously for the discus. Day after day he trained after school working on balance, a wider right leg and a block on the left and in the gym he worked on athleticism. The weights he did in Phil's garage. He told me later that I had let him down by not teaching him the techniques of lifting, when he was twelve years of age, as his competitors on the world stage lifted heavier that he did and so were much stronger. Afterwards a whole group of us retired for a Sweeney salad and the banter. The company was great but how I hated the salad. With the encouragement of his father and Phil he applied to Harvard University and was accepted.
Nick loved Harvard. He loved to come back and tell about all the intelligent friends he had and the courses he took. Yeah? He also made friends in athletics. He made friends in Iceland, Scandinavia, Belarus, United States and just everywhere. At Harvard he changed his discus technique to a jump release, which later when combined with an injury got playing for a New England side against Australians students, led to a bad discus delivery position. It seemed right at the time, as they couldn't have known about real technique in Dublin, as his teacher at school never had a previous international standard discus thrower. But surprisingly they had done a good job and neither he nor they had realized how good.
Terry was also competing at Sydney and I stayed up to see him but RTE didn't show him throw. While I sat there wondering the telephone rang. It was Nick.
'Terry is about to walk out for his second throw. Can you hear the shouts and support? He has got the crowd really going. He is going for it. Ah! Kennedy, it has fallen short. Will you ring me back for his third throw?' I phoned him back. It was great - it was old times again - as I was in the stadium listening to the shouts and sensing the atmosphere. Terry too didn't make it but could have. He was on form but perhaps the fiasco of officiating blunders affected his focus or more likely a throws coach was needed at the games.
Nick deserved to get to the final in Sydney if only for what happened in Atlanta four years previously. The Irish team should have protested about the measurement of an American throw, which put Nick back into thirteenth place. But worst of all, a month after the Games when reviewing video copied from the television of his performance he saw that the officials had miss-measured his longest throw. If there had been a vigilant Irish team in Atlanta Nick would have had his rightful place in an Olympic final. But that is how it goes.
Still we have had twenty years of memories and over a dozen years of international athletics. All of us involved have lived the thrill of Nick's campaigns, the determination needed, the search for the skill and the attack on the dragon in the arena, which cannot be prepared for. It is so special to be allowed to join in the dragon fight and that is what Nick's presence did for us.
Is there anyone out there, to seek the lair of the magic dragon in a quest, where failure is not an option? Will anyone follow Nick? If you do, it will be very hard and you will need the support of your family and friends. No success or even the opportunity to fight in the arena is guaranteed, only pain……
But if you can slay the dragon….?
Originally written for Nick's old school's magazine after Sydney by D. Kennedy.