The Team Ireland eventers have made a dream start to the Olympic Games, giving themselves an outstanding chance of making history by bagging at least one medal.
After finishing fifth in London, Horse Sport Ireland appointed Nick Turner as high performance manager. The Englishman was tasked with getting a squad to Rio and the target was to medal.
Central to achieving this was strengthening the traditional weakness of Irish teams in the past, the dressage.
The first discipline of the three, it has invariably ruled Irish teams out of medal contention at the earliest stages. Their sustained excellence at cross-country particularly, but also in show jumping has regularly gotten them back up the ranks, without ever threatening a top three finish at major championships.
To that end, Ian Woodhead was brought in as dressage coach and the incremental improvements have borne fruit in tremendous style in Rio.
After Padraig McCarthy recorded his best ever score of 46.8 penalties on Simon Porloe yesterday and Clare Abbott was just behind on Euro Prince with 47 penalties, it was the turn of the two oldest members of the entire Irish Olympic team to do their dressage tests today.
Jonty Evans is the elder statesman of Team Ireland and the 44-year-old recorded a brilliant score of 41.8 on Cooley Rorkes Drift. That leaves him just 4.8 penalty points behind the leader William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain, and in eighth place overall.
Mark Kyle entered the arena on Jemilla just after 6pm and once more, produced one of his best ever dressage scores of 50.4.
It is a testament to the work Whitehead has done with the Irish elite riders that this was to be the discard score, leaving Ireland in fourth position – the best Olympic dressage effort ever by an Irish team.
With Evans so high up in the individual rankings and in such proximity to the lead, this represents a wonderful day’s work.
These are medal prospects now.
As reports surfaced this morning that former head coach Billy Walsh might be returning to Ireland to succeed the founder of the IABA’s high performance Gary Keegan as director of the Irish Institute of Sport, and after a week in which news of Michael O’Reilly’s failed drugs test surfaced, it was finally time for the Irish boxers to enter the ring today.
Lightweight David Oliver Joyce will fight Andrique Allisop (Seychelles) at around 9.30pm tonight, but it was Steven Donnelly who had the honour of kicking things off.
The Ballymena welterweight outclassed Zohir Kedache with a controlled performance, proving too quick and too accurate for the Algerian.
Kedache persisted in keeping his guard down and he was punished persistently by Donnelly, who was always sure to be well out of range by the time his opponent let fly with one of his many, fruitless haymakers.
“It’s great to get the first one out of the way, get three good rounds under the belt and come away with the win” said Donnelly afterwards.
“(I’m) over the moon with the performance and the sharpness will come in the next fight. (It’s) only the start of the journey and it's the best feeling ever.”
Shane Ryan is through to the semi-finals of the 100m backstroke after finishing 14th thanks to setting a new PB of 53.85 seconds.
The American-born son of a Portarlington father only competed for Ireland for the first time in the European Championships last May and the 22-year-old was delighted to set a new national record into the bargain.
The semi-final will take place in the early hours of tomorrow morning, just after 3am, and while qualification is unlikely, Ryan will be looking to improve his time once more to accentuate a successful campaign.
There was disappointment for Fiona Doyle however in the women’s 100m breaststroke. Like Ryan, the Limerick swimmer was racing out of lane one and she was well in the pace early on.
The 24-year-old was still in contention entering the final 25m but the pace took its toll and she fell four places very quickly to finish in eight.
It was an indication of the pace of the heat that her 1.07.58 time saw her finish in 20th. That left her .26 seconds outside of a semi-final and with a PB of 1.07.15, the Calgary-based swimmer will be desperately disappointed to miss out.
Ellis O’Reilly was the first Irish performer of the day in the women’s artistic gymnastics. The 18-year-old was a surprise qualifier and is the first Irish female gymnast to compete at the Olympics.
The London-born gymnast, who qualifies to represent Ireland by virtue of her Armagh-born grandfather, performed solidly if unspectacularly, with nerves clearly an issue.
The powerfully-built teenager scored 11.666 on the floor exercise, having just stepped outside the floor area, while also lacking slightly on the artistic element.
O’Reilly’s vault was quite impressive, as she held a true line, although she was a little low which necessitated a slight corrective step. That led to a deduction which cost her a PB but 13.266 was a respectable effort.
Her work on the parallel bars was safe and solid although again, she landed a little bit low and needed a balancing step to prevent herself from falling. The judges gave her a score of 12.3.
Unfortunately, the beam ended unfortunately, having looked like being an excellent routine.
Once more, O’Reilly was unable to get sufficient height on her dismount as her right foot missed the beam and she landed nastily on her head, causing a significant deduction but luckily appearing to escape injury.
The 10.7 score was reflective of a major error and she was emotional afterwards but it was notable that the coaching staff had a very positive body language, illustrating how far O’Reilly has travelled in a short period of time.
The hope is that like her male counterpart Kieran Behan, she can use the experience of her Olympic debut as a building block, increasing the difficulty levels of her routine as confidence grows in the years to come.
The expected appearance of two Irish rowing crews failed to materialise as the heavy winds that proved such a problem yesterday forced a postponement.
Women’s lightweight double sculls duo Sinead Lynch and Claire Lambe and their male counterparts, the O’Donovan brothers Gary and Paul, have had their heats rescheduled for tomorrow.
While the wind is a clear problem for the rowers, sailor Annalise Murphy will be rubbing her hands in glee. Fourth in London, the Dubliner relishes testing conditions and would be considered a major player if the winds pick up.
Perfect starts for boxer Donnelly, swimmer Ryan and the eventing team in Rio
Reviewed by Sunday Owowo