GB Rookie Niall Is Ice Cool

Niall Treacy will be keeping it in the family when he makes his Olympic debut in Beijing. We quizzed the short track speed skater…with a long-term plan.

TASS: Speed skating is such a big part of your family but how did it all start?

Niall Treacy: It’s all down to my older brother Farrell. He had a school friend who did speed skating and always thought it was an unusual sport. Anyway, he missed the bus one day and this friend said that he could get Farrell a lift home if he didn’t mind going to speed skating training first. It wasn’t even on the ice that night but Farrell really liked what he saw. Farrell and my other brother Ethan both went on the ice after that and loved it. I was about seven at the time. I spent a few more months watching them and then I jumped onto the ice too!

TASS: What can you remember about the early days of your speed skating journey?

NT: It was strange being involved in speed skating while I was at primary school and even after I moved to high school. I was still playing football and tennis and, at the same time, trying to explain to the other kids what speed skating was and what I was getting up to at weekends. I’m not sure if anyone really understood! I’d mention speed skating and people thought I was talking about roller blading or skateboarding or something. Not a lot of people had any idea about the sport. But Elise Christie has done so much in the last few years to build speed skating’s profile in this country and more people have come across the sport now. Elise was one of the big names at Sochi and Pyeongchang but there was also the men’s relay team in 2014 that turned a few heads. John Ely was the GB flag bearer that year too. So the sport has become more visible during the last decade and every time the Olympics come around it seems more and more people want to watch the speed skating.

TASS: As a child did you go straight into speed skating or did you graduate into the sport after honing your skills elsewhere?

NT: I started speed skating when I was eight and I think I’d only been on the ice two or three times before I took up the sport. It’s a small sport but there are quite a few clubs dotted around the country. I raced in Nottingham, Guildford, London, Sheffield and a few other places. It seemed like there was no shortage of races at weekends. It wasn’t always back-to-back weekends like it would be with football, for instance, but I was busy. There were plenty of opportunities to go speed skating if you looked for them — I trained twice a week at Solihull and raced as much as I could.

TASS: And where did you go from there?

NT: As I started to improve I’d qualify for the Star Class competitions in Europe and that was hugely important. I was racing against skaters from European countries with a huge grassroots speed skating tradition — I was up against Dutch and Italian kids who’d been doing it a lot longer and more regularly than me. It was always the highlight of the year going to the Star Class events and seeing just how much I’d progressed. I started going over when I was about 12 and loved it.

TASS: What can you remember about your first Star Class competition?

NT: It was in Malmo, in Sweden. I was in with people who were three years older than me that first time and I came dead last. But I absolutely loved it! I said to myself ‘let’s keep doing this’. So I did!

 TASS: As one of four brothers — and three speed skaters in the Treacy family — are you more competitive with your siblings on or off the ice?

NT: I’d say I’m more competitive on the ice. But growing up with three brothers there’s always going to be an element of competition about everything you do. Take Monopoly for instance. One of us would always be buzzing because we’d won and the other three would be devastated. I’m sure it was a constant challenge for mum and dad to keep us apart and stop us from fighting all hours of the day. That’s probably why they were so pleased to take us speed skating! I’d say Ethan and Farrell are the most competitive but me and Josh — who’s not a speed skater — aren’t too far behind!

TASS: When you and Farrell raced in Japan towards the end of last year you clashed and both of you skidded out of contention — how tough was that?

NT: It was a tough situation. It happened in a 1,000m ranking final and I overtook Farrell. As we went around the corner I caught one of the seven markers on the inside of the track. I took myself out and, in a split second, took Farrell out too. We were both quite annoyed but all I could do was say I was sorry. Farrell said it was ok but of course if it had been something malicious that would have been a different conversation! I’d never take him out on purpose. That’s the thing with speed skating — it’s just racing and these things happen. Nobody goes out there to deliberately take themselves and their opponents out of a race!

TASS: How mentally tough can your sport become given the fact that your fate is often in the hands of fellow skaters?

NT: In some respects it’s like many other sports where luck can play a big part. But I guess even more so with speed skating. When you’re trying to qualify for the Olympics and a lot of what’s going on around you is out of your control, of course it can be frustrating. Accidents happen. You could sit there sulking or you just say to yourself and your opponents ‘that’s short track!’. We say it all the time to each other. There’s a common understanding of the situation we’re all in and a sense of camaraderie. It’s not a surprise that stuff happens when skaters are speeding around the ice and you have to block that out of your mind. It’s about doing everything that you can do to maximise your own performance. And let’s face it — a lot of times it doesn’t go your way but a lot of times the luck’s on your side. The things that happen to you on the ice — good and bad — have invariably happened to the people you’re racing against at some point in their careers. It’s about taking your luck when it comes and not getting disheartened by the things that you can’t control. I suppose in a sport like football there are fewer things that can go wrong and even if something does go wrong it’s not always a game changer. In short track speed skating everything has to go right!

TASS: TASS has a strong tradition of supporting winter sports and how important is that support?

NT: The TASS backing that so many of us have received is absolutely crucial. Quite a few of the people in the speed skating squad have been — or still are — TASS athletes. I was in the sixth form when I joined the scheme and straight away I found the financial support a huge boost. Speed skating isn’t cheap to do and especially when you’re often travelling abroad for competitions. I also found the emotional support invaluable and I spent a lot of time with my lifestyle advisor. My advisor was Anna Turney, the para alpine skier, and she was able to help me plan my future and deal with the present. She put me in touch with the right people who could help me at that stage of my career and she was hugely supportive. At that time I also did a lot of strength and conditioning through TASS based at the University of Birmingham. I was able to learn the art of lifting and understand how to strengthen my body in order to prevent injuries. By the time I left school and started training with the national team their strength and conditioning coach could see I already had a good grounding in S&C. That’s where TASS is so important: it lays solid foundations for your future career.

TASS: In the four years since you were a TASS athlete how difficult has it been to achieve your Olympic dream?

NT: Competing in Beijing has always been the aim. When I saw Farrell go away with the rest of the GB team to Pyeongchang in 2018 I said to myself ‘four years from now that could be me’. I really wanted to make this Olympics and use it as a learning experience to further my career. I’m still quite young and to get a Games under my belt at this stage will be invaluable. I’ve worked hard to get there and of course the pandemic made things so much more difficult. It’s been really challenging for everyone and I’m no different. But things were tough before then. We lost our funding cycle just before I joined the national team in Nottingham and so the immediate impact was that I attended four World Cup events instead of six. The following year we were trying to get to as many World Cups as we could to get more qualifying points. Building up to the Olympic qualifiers the ideal preparation would have been 18 World Cup events under my belt…and I’d only done five! I wanted to do more competitions but Covid kept affecting things. We missed a whole season and a half due to the pandemic — so more than a quarter of the Olympic cycle. I got selected to compete in my first World Championship in Seoul and that got cancelled. I was selected for the next World Championship in Dordrecht and then, a week before it was due to start,  Holland was put on the Covid red list! I was forced to watch from home as the rest of the world’s speed skaters competed at the top level. But I know there’s a bigger picture here. We never felt that it was the end for British speed skating but it sometimes felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel! There was a period where everything that could go wrong did go wrong but there was no point sulking. It makes Beijing all the more special.

TASS: So what’s the target at your first Olympic Games?

NT: I’ve only qualified for one distance (1,000m) and the event’s at the very start of the Games. So I need to ensure that as soon as I arrive in China I get settled and become familiar with the environment. There are 32 guys all going for the same thing and, given the nature of short track, it’s so difficult to set a target. As a newcomer I just want to go there and perform the best that I can. I don’t think there’ll be a situation where I’m either devastated or I’m over the moon. Mentally I expect to end up somewhere in the middle. I want to use this as a springboard to compete in more distances in the future and as an opportunity to make the people who support me proud. The World Championships in Montreal are coming up fast so there’ll be little time to reflect on my first Olympics and I just want to enjoy the experience while I’m there.