Philip Doyle and Ronan Byrne after taking silver at the 2019 World Rowing Championships
You've worked for months on the frontline in hospitals battling with Covid cases. Now you're in a rowing-camp bubble, with just one focus: prepare non-stop for the Olympic Games. How do you keep your head right?
If you are Irish rower Philip Doyle the answer is: stay in touch with medical friends online – and take coffee and ice cream with your companions on the Ireland team.
In short, if you're going to be in a bubble, site that bubble in northern Italy!
In 2019 Doyle (28) and Ronan Byrne took silver at the World Championships in Linz, Austria, thus qualifying the boat for Tokyo. But once the Games were postponed the Belfast man left the Ireland base in Cork for Daisy Hill hospital in Northern Ireland where he worked for months as a doctor, completing his training there. Then he moved on to the Ulster hospital from August to the end of November before clicking back into full training in Cork.
He re-formed the double with Byrne and they qualified through a trial earlier this year for the European Championships. However, their campaign in Varese was not satisfactory: they faltered in the semi-final, though they went on to win the B Final.
Byrne and Doyle at the line in 2019
Now they are training hard with the Ireland squad in Italy to produce something closer to top form by the Lucerne World Cup in May, and may even take in the final World Cup in Italy before heading for Tokyo.
Doyle remains hopeful that the Ireland double can get back into the mix for medals in big competition. His personal challenge is to keep his head in the boat.
"I can't just switch it off," Doyle admits. "I'm keeping my studies up online, just ready to go back [to medicine].
"I've got a lot of friends who are working in the hospital that I left. I keep up with them a lot."
When he stepped away he would have a day of down time and would wonder: 'What if I could go in?'
"I've always been someone who has balanced multiple things. This is the first time – rowing full time – it the first time you really have to adjust: it's eat-sleep-recover-repeat.
"You need all those tee-shirt slogans. That's exactly how it needs to be if you are to compete at this level.
"I think at this stage I've come to terms with the fact that if I stretch myself more than I am at the moment I would be sacrificing the speed of the boat.
"As much as I do look back over my shoulder and think 'what if I could do both?' I think I've come to terms with the fact that you can't do both. I realised that very quickly in the last four months.
"It was a busy surgical department: the number of times you were two/three hours over your shift time or coming in early – as you do with work; when you get busy, you have to work harder. Unfortunately for me, some days the training was just completely sacrificed or put down to an hour on the (training) bike. I did a 6k erg test at 11 o'clock at night in Belfast Boat Club because the [Ireland team manager] was saying 'you need to get that in to me today'.
"I was (saying): 'I'm working 12 hours today' and he says 'you need to get that done'.
"That is unsustainable. That is not optimal for high performance.
"What I'm doing now is what I need to be doing. And I've come to terms with that. But I always do have an eye on the other side of things. And my friends are keeping me up to date.
"But you have to keep the guilt away – as much as you have to feel it too. I feel a little bit is good; it keeps you hungry, it keeps you ready. But you also need to be kind to yourself, not let yourself spiral into despair, thinking of what else you could be doing."
Ireland has been doing well in international rowing, so the bubble in Italy is fairly big, and the group includes rowers who have known each other a long time.
"You have to come up with ways to put the time in, essentially.
"To be honest, one of the main ways that this is made bearable is, like, the group of athletes.
"The heavyweight women, I would be exceptionally close with. Especially those around my age, Aifric Keogh and the like. They're always great emotional support [through] a natter, a bit of banter, a walk.
"Luckily, here in Italy, the cafés and the ice cream shops are open for takeaways. You have that option.
"At this stage [the squad] has been together for two years or so and we know each other pretty well. There are no secrets between us and there is a great camaraderie within the group.
"It puts the time in - the Netflix and the Disney Plus is getting rattled!"
Doyle and Byrne after winning semifinal in 2019, qualifying the crew for the Olympics
On the water, the aim for Lucerne is an A Final place.
"We want to get back into the top six," Doyle says.
Finishing seventh in Europe left them "ticked off". He thinks they will need to find a second a week in training in order to have sufficient speed.
The battle between the top boats in the double is intense, as shown by the very close final at the European Championships.
"If we can get into that dogfight, you could come sixth, or you could come first. The problem with us is that there are 10 boats which could win the Olympics in our boat class, which is very difficult."
There is a chance that they might compete in the third World Cup (in Sabaudia in Italy in in early June) but the ultimate aim is a performance in Tokyo.
"The medal is still on the mind for the Games. We would like to be in that medal race in Lucerne, because if we can get into that I know, I trust Ronan to switch on the NOS button [nitrous oxide injection from the Need for Speed game] coming into the 1k and I'll follow him all the way!"
Doyle in April 2021