To Swim, or not To Swim
"Let Erin remember the days of old
A hundred years from now her name will still stand out in Olympic records. Michelle Smith,
the little girl from Ireland who set the American swimming world on its ear at the Olympic
Games in Atlanta in 1996, will always retain her place in the affection and pride of her
people. In addition to her athletic ability, what made her the darling of Ireland was the
composure with which she faced the hostile American media that could not come to grips with
the fact that their own much touted favourite failed to equal, let alone surpass, the Irish
When Michelle wore the medals of gold."
So virulent was their reaction as, in event after event, Smith won Olympic gold, three
round medals of the precious metal, and one bronze, that they widely disseminated a
malicious whispering campaign against her that claimed: "She must be on performance
enhancing drugs! How else can you explain it?"
Years of preparation, early morning treks to a cold, deserted indoor pool, development of
technique through long and arduous days of practice, sacrifice of leisure time, these and
much more were ignored.
As medal after medal was won, the innuendo harshened, the gibes grew glibber, until at
last, faced with the reality that Michelle was what she claimed to be, an athlete
determined only to do her best for herself and her country, the President of the United
States, Bill Clinton, when he flew to Atlanta was televised world-wide, shaking Michelle's
hand, a symbolic gesture, attempting to erase the pettiness and poor sportsmanship
exhibited to her by commentators from the host country.
Michelle was graciousness personified.
The level of ignorance displayed by a particular American commentator is forever
remembered in one cameo. After responding to a flurry of reporters' questions, Michelle
turned to reply to a questioner from Radio Telefis Éireann, the Irish TV network. And she
spoke in Irish, something she had been doing throughout her public career.
Dutiful to the last, the poor gorm from America, not realizing she was speaking the Irish
language, couldn't help telling his audience, "I can't make out what she's saying, her
accent is so thick!"
As my uncle John used to say: "Sure there's no use being ignorant unless you show it. It
may be your only talent!"
Based on that criterion, the American commentator was highly talented.
But what has all this got to do with Ballyshannon?
It just so happens that, forty years ago and more before Michelle first took part in
competitive swimming, a contest, now forgotten, was taking place at Creevy Pier, situated
between Ballyshannon and Rossnowlagh.
"Was it a time-measured race?"
It was not.
"Did it carry official recognition?"
It did not.
There were just two competitors, and they didn't even have to be in the water at the same
Depending on the time available to him, Maurice Foley, former customs officer and later
insurance agent, swam in the morning or afternoon.
Bernard Sweeny, hotelier, publican, and bookmaker, also had to fit in his swim time to meet
the many demands on his occupations. So, if they both swam together at the same time, it
was just coincidental.
"Then what sort of competition was it?"
A long one. A very long one. And it evolved by accident.
Swimming or bathing in the Atlantic off the Donegal coast can be a most refreshing and
invigorating exercise in the summer months. June, July, and August are best.
Come September the water turns cold, colder still in October, and colder again in November
and onwards. Only very hardy swimmers made it through all of September, and only really
diehard swimmers pursued the exercise into October.
"I was the only one to swim off Creevy Pier today," said Maurice to Bernard one day. Or it
could have been Bernard said it to Maurice.
"No, you weren't," said Bernard to Maurice, or vice versa, "I was swimming there this
The race was on.
Who could swim off Creevy Pier the longest into winter?
I remember Maurice, a smallish man, somewhat gap-toothed and red of face, dropping into
the "Vindicator" office on an especially cold day to tell me that he had just got back
from his daily swim at Creevy, and when he got there he met Bernard climbing out of the
I thought he was mad. Bernard too. My only acquaintanceship with Creevy was the summer swim
meet when Hugh Daly and I reported the results for our respective papers. Going for a swim
there in early November was unimaginable.
There were no wet suits in those days, just swimming trunks. What they must have endured
put them in a class by themselves, the hardiest of the hardy. Endurance was stretched to
its limits. In this, Maurice had an edge. As the old ditty goes:
"Sure there's no one with endurance
Like the man who collects insurance!"
But Bernard matched him day by day, week by week. It was a good natured rivalry, and they
had a mutual respect for each other.
Michelle Smith's famous victories will remain in the Olympic record books for all time. But
on this one occasion let the great swimming contest between Bernard Sweeny and Maurice
Foley take its own deserved prominence in these tales of "the friendly town".
That is a silly question. In the context of what they achieved that autumn and winter, they
both won. Their accomplishment was olympian in itself and didn't need a crowning with
Michelle's medals forty years later brought back a golden memory of their story.
POSTSCRIPT: The advent of surfboarding and wet suits in the modern era has turned Ireland's
west coast into a veritable year-round Mecca for European and other surfers. In September,
1997, the European surfing championships were held at Bundoran, Co. Donegal.
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