Eileen O'Keeffe is a Theatre Nurse at Kilcreene Orthopaedic Hospital, Co. Kilkenny. She is also a former Olympian hammer thrower and national record-holder. As a nursing student at RCSI, Eileen represented the College and Ireland while winning the World University Silver Medal in Bangkok (2007) and qualified for the Beijing Olympic Games (2008), the first Irish female hammer thrower to do so.
She holds the most Irish national university medals of any athlete.
"My dad built me a cement circle on the family farm and my mum was always my best fan, encouraging me and supporting me every step of the way."
At school I enjoyed playing volleyball competitively and I competed in the local Community Games in cycling, taking gold in the national Community Games. My local athletics club was the Kilkenny City Harriers, and I had been competing in discus since I was 13.
I was 17, a relatively late starter, when I first saw female hammer throwing at a Leinster competition. It really appealed to me. When done well, it is extraordinary to watch – an incredible mix of strength and grace. Quite by chance, my brother then found a Hal Connolly DVD in a local pound shop. He brought it home and I studied it. Connolly was an American hammer thrower who won Gold in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. I was mad keen to try it. My dad built me a cement circle on the family farm and my mum was always my best fan, encouraging me and supporting me every step of the way.
In the Irish Schools Athletics Championships in 2000, I set a new senior girls discus record of 46.10m, breaking the record set by Marita Walton which had stood for 23 years.
Competing on the world stage
I took an honours degree in general nursing at Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) (2000-2004). During that time, I was training hard as an athlete and working out how to take time out to compete and travel. In 2006, I took a Postgraduate Diploma in Operating Theatre at RCSI in conjunction with Beaumont Hospital, where I worked for seven years. I deferred my studies until after the Olympics and returned to RCSI to take a Masters of Operating Theatre in 2009.
While a student at AIT and RCSI, I won 24 gold, five silver and one Bronze across various throwing events, indoor and outdoor. I broke 16 Irish university records.
I won nine consecutive hammer titles at the National Senior Athletics Championships, as well as seven discus titles. I smashed my own national record four times and was awarded the National Athlete of the Year Award in 2007. I still hold the Irish Senior national record for hammer with 73.21m.
Internationally, I competed in nine major Athletics Championships – four World Student Games, taking fourth place in Korea (2003), sixth in Turkey (2005), Silver in Bangkok (2007) and ninth in Serbia (2009); three World Senior Championships in Helsinki, Osaka and Berlin; two European Championships in Germany and Sweden; and the Olympic Games in Beijing (2008). I also competed in two European under-23s in the Netherlands and Poland and one World Junior Championship in Chile. I also won numerous European Cup titles representing Ireland, setting some stadium records along the way.
It is an exceptionally technical sport. Multiple types of training are required to cover all the aspects: strength and conditioning, circuit training, weight training, as well as plyometrics training for explosive strength.
Coping with injury
The timing of my knee injury was very unfortunate. It happened prior to the Olympics and although I competed, I was not on top of my game. I had a number of operations but it couldn’t be resolved. I decided to focus on my nursing career and on achieving a better work-life balance.
Training as a professional athlete and maintaining my career in nursing was stressful. There was no time for a social life. Since the injury forced me to retire from hammer throwing in 2011, I have prioritised my work and doing things I enjoy that I couldn’t do before: I love going to concerts, music, spending time with my nephews and niece. I still enjoy exercise, but, due to my injury, and absence of cartilage, it can’t involve shock absorption. Now, it’s all about low-impact exercises like swimming and cycling.
It is amazing to me that Dr Pat O’Callaghan, Gold medal winner in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics was a graduate of RCSI, the place where I completed postgraduate studies. My time at RCSI definitely benefited my career.