Down all the days – how three friends’ paths led to Tokyo

Ireland cyclist Mark Downey (Image: ©INPHO/Bryan Keane)

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Mark Downey puts his finger on why three friends from county Down all have Tokyo as their destination this week.

Cyclist Downey, rower Philip Doyle and triathlete Russell White hail from the Banbridge area.

Former underage hockey international colleagues Doyle and White come from the town, while Downey is from Dromore, just a 10 minute spin away.

"It’s really cool that we're all chasing the same goals," said Downey. "And I think that success breeds success within the group.”

White met Downey through the rider's father, Seamus, who cycled for Ireland in the 1984 Olympics in LA.

Downey senior introduced the teenagers to each other after White came to his shop to get his bike serviced.

"Russell really integrated into our wee cycling group and it’s been a friendship since then," explained Downey.

"Me and Russell have been on the same path and chasing the same thing so it's been nice the last few years to bounce opinions off each other."

Although White was a year ahead of Doyle in Banbridge Academy, they became underage hockey internationals together.

"We used to kick lumps out of each other in the cross country at school and the fitness testing in the hockey," smiled Doyle, the first of the trio in action in Tokyo, in the double sculls heats on Friday.

"He played an international series with me for Ireland – against England maybe, down in UCD. I've grown up with Russell.

"To find we’re both going to the Olympics, that’s pretty special, that we’ve managed to find ourselves on two different paths, but then meet up again at the Olympics.

Philip Doyle
(Image: ©INPHO/Bryan Keane)

"I've a lot of time for Russell and was delighted that he made the Games because the week before he had put up on social media that he hadn’t got it, and I was a bit gutted for him.”

Despite both being friends with White, Downey and Doyle only fell in together last year, after Doyle messaged the cyclist on Instagram and called down to the bike shop.

"He bought a bike off my dad," said Downey.

"Dad gave him a bit of a discount and said that if he ever felt like going out with the lads…then we integrated Philip into the group chat and he’s one of the boys and we go for coffee spins.

"I got chatting to him after he medalled in the World Cup and we gave him a bit of abuse, which was just slagging. But he’s obviously strong as an ox."

Doyle said: “It’s amazing and for such a wee town that Banbridge is – well, I suppose Mark is from Dromore – but there are three of us knocking about in training.

"You get 120k done in three-and-a-bit hours on a Saturday morning and you don’t notice it. It’s social, it’s great."

During lockdown, the trio put their competitive nature to good use.

"We were all in the same boat, all stuck at home and there wasn’t much competition going on," said Downey.

"So we were all out on the road doing our training and that sort of spurred everyone to stay motivated and keep pushing forward.

Triathlete Russell White
(Image: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy)

"We just threw up a message every few days to see who wanted to go for a ride but all the lads have different personalities.

"Russell is more the quiet guy, Philip is more of the outgoing guy, bit of craic, but it's a really nice group and it helps keep you focused.

"It’s not like a group of mates going to the pub all the time. We all have to be up early in the mornings to do what we want to do. It's a good atmosphere and nice to have that group of friends."

White agrees. "When we left school most friends were either getting jobs or going to university," he remarked.

"We were sort of full-time so it’s crazy to have full-time athletes as your social group, hanging around outside of sport."

And it isn't just Olympic ambition that's on the line for the three friends – there's also bragging rights in the local end of year awards!

"It’ll be some craic when we all go back with our results to see who does the best because the sports awards up our way are always (competitive)," Doyle laughed.

"There’s the local council awards and myself Mark and Russell always joke who is going to get it this year. I got it last time so I wonder will one of them pip me next time!"

Ireland's Mark Downey (R) celebrates winning the bronze medal after the Men's Points Race at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Pruszkow on March 1, 2019
(Image: ALIK KEPLICZ/AFP via Getty Images)

The best performance in Tokyo will tip the scales in favour of one of them – but there must be something in the water in Down, with Ciara Mageean and medal prospect Rhys McClenaghan also among this year's Olympians hailing from the Mourne county.

"The first time I really took notice was when I got nominated for the Belfast Telegraph sports awards," said Downey.

"It had Rhys, the likes of Ciara Mageean. I didn’t get to attend but dad was there and read out the list of nominees. Johnny Evans was there, the Ulster Rugby players.

"It’s a privilege to be there with those sort of guys.”

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