Welcome to the fourth edition of the Potential Squared podcast, where I chat with successful Irish people about their leadership secrets. This week I am chatting with Olympic sailing silver medallist Annalise Murphy. We met in Broadlake, my office in Rathmines, after Annalise cycled there from her home in a suburb of south Dublin on her trusty Brompton bicycle. We’ve met before out in Dun Laoghaire where she trains out of the National Yacht Club.

I’ve sailed for over 30 years, but at nothing like her level. The experience, however, has given me an appreciation of just how good she is. She is not only physically tough enough to manage any conditions, but she has the mental strength to rapidly adjust her course to the ever-changing conditions of competing at sea. 

Annalise is entirely focused on achieving gold. She has that special tunnel vision required of leaders performing at the highest level. I am intrigued by her talent and drive, and want to explore what we all can learn from her. I am impressed too, by her family background. 

Her mother, Cathy McAleavy, was an Olympian in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. She has a sister who is a doctor, and a brother who is a rising star in venture capital, investing in one of my previous interviewees, Shane Curran. What did Annalise’s parents do that supported their children in pursuing such different routes to success? That is one of many things in her story that resonated with me as a father. 

How Annelise uses failure to motivate herself to go after ever greater achievement is another theme that comes through strongly listening to her. By any measure, Annelise is an incredibly successful person, yet her hunger to do better, to win gold, is incredible. To give you a flavour of the podcast, I’ve picked out some key moments for members of The Currency to enjoy. I’ve made some minor edits to questions and quotes to make it a smoother read. Thank you to everyone who has listened to-date to my podcast. I am looking forward to sharing more leadership stories in 2020.  

Annelise started by telling me about her decision to move from a 49er, a two-handed skiff-type performance sailing dinghy, back to a Laser (a single-person sailing boat, in which she won silver in the Rio Olympics) in her race to win gold in the next Olympics in Tokyo, 2020.  

Annalise Murphy (AM): I’ve spent most of my life sailing a Laser and since 2009 I’d been full-time in it.  I suffered a big disappointment in the London Olympics, you could say I narrowly missed out on a bronze medal, but I narrowly missed out on the gold medal there. I had such an easy opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal, they’re very hard to come by and I messed it up and then I did another four years to try and get the elusive Olympic medal. I did, I managed to get the silver medal in Rio and it was like this huge relief that everything I’d put into it was worth it. Because in sport, you know, you can give up your entire life for this one goal and it doesn’t always happen.  

For the vast majority of people, it doesn’t happen, so I knew I was pretty fortunate that it did happen for me.  But it also was brutal. Hard work, really lonely by yourself and I just wasn’t too sure if I was going to be able to keep on sailing the Laser for another four years when I’d managed to achieve that goal of getting the Olympic medal.  

So I did the Volvo Ocean Race in 2017 and 2018, racing around the world, which gave me a whole new perspective on sailing. While I was doing the Volvo, the more I started to think about getting back into the Laser afterwards, I was getting worried about the pressure I was going to be under to have to go back to try to win an Olympic gold medal. I wasn’t really sure if I was ready to deal with that pressure. 

Also, I’m not the right size for the Laser. I need to be lighter than what is easy for me.  I have to be pretty much hungry the entire time to be the right weight for the Laser, it’s really hard work. Just the thought of it in my mind, I was like I don’t think I can do that. I’ll just end up being disappointed and the opportunity to sail the 49er FX, which is the women’s double-handed skiff was there, so I thought this was a perfect opportunity to give myself a whole new challenge and, you know, potentially go to another Olympics and be a medal contender in a different class. I just threw myself into it.

Pete Smyth (PS): So, you’re sailing with your friend and there’s someone there to help you, et cetera.  But it is the 49er, and again it’s not as simple as this is a boat with two people versus a boat with one person. The 49er is really high-speed, it’s easy for things to go wrong, you’re with someone else, it’s almost – dare I say – like a different sport. 

AM: I don’t know if I was naïve or cocky in my abilities that I thought I’d pick it up faster than I would. I don’t have any problem working hard, I was like I just need to work hard, and I’ll get better at it. I sat down at the end of the year and I was like I could not have worked any harder for the last year. I sailed this boat probably more than anyone else in the entire fleet and I’m still not at a level that I feel comfortable in the boat. 

I felt uncomfortable in the boat quite often. Scared, a little bit out of control, which I think a lot of people do feel a lot of the time. The boat is fast, it’s out of control quite a lot, but I also realised I’m not going to be able to win an Olympic medal in this boat when I haven’t mastered it yet. It’s going to take me, I’d say, four years to master this boat and not the year I have left.

I did the Olympic test event out in Japan. It went pretty well as far as everyone else we’re sailing against has been sailing the boat since it basically came in as an Olympic class in 2012, 2013.  And we’ve been in it less than a year and we finished 13th in the Olympic test event, which I was pretty happy with because, you know, our decision-making and general racing the boat was quite good. I went to the end of the week and I thought, if I’d been in the Laser this week, I probably would have won the event, because I was just making the right decisions about where to go on the racecourse, all the time.  

But then the problem in the 49er was, I was making the right decisions but then I was losing places around the racecourse because I didn’t have the skills to sail the boat well, and people were just overtaking me from my boat-handling errors or me falling over.

PS: Frustrating.

I was scared of failure but actually it’s better to be scared of failure than run away from it.

AM: I realised that not that many people have the opportunity to go and challenge for an Olympic gold medal. I’m just really lucky that, I’ve managed to challenge for an Olympic gold medal twice and I actually have the potential to do it a third time. 

It’s quite rare and it’s not something I’m going to have for the rest of my life. This may be my last chance I’ll be able to do it. I thought: I could actually go and win an Olympic gold medal, you know, do something that I never thought would be possible for myself.

Annalise Murphy
Annalise Murphy has decided to return to the Laser class in which she competed in the Rio Olympics.

PS: Was the move when you look back, the move away from the Laser into the 49er, did that help clarify things for you when you came back into the Laser?  

AM: I think I was able to see what I had in the Laser.

PS: Got you.

AM: And also see that there is going to be pressure on me and maybe I am going to fail miserably be really sad. It’s scary and it’s risky, but it’s better being able to go do something where is risk and there is something on the line, rather than staying in the 49er where I would have just kind of gone along being middle of the pack, got to the Olympics next year, finished okay and thought well that’s the end of my Olympic career sailing. 

That’s what a lot of it probably came down to – I was scared of failure but actually it’s better to be scared of failure than run away from it.

PS: That’s a great point. Now you’ve made the decision to go back into the Laser, two things I want to talk about briefly. You were in a boat with somebody else, and that’s a decision that had an impact on that person and their dreams and their aspirations.  And that person was your crew who is also a close friend of yours. How difficult was that for you?

AM: It was the hardest situation for me, because I hate letting people down, but also in high-performance sport, you have to be single-minded. You have to look at the big picture of what’s going to get you the best possible result. So, it was really hard. 

Katie – my crew – I’d brought her along on this year-long journey where her end goal was to get to the Olympics. She didn’t really have any say in the decision-making when I decided, I don’t want to go to the Olympics in the 49er anymore, I want to go back to the Laser. That was the hardest decision for me

Yet even though it was a really hard decision and something I felt really bad about, it was like I know why I’m doing this in the Laser now. It’s because I’m going to try and win an Olympic gold medal. That’s my reason behind it and I’m going to put everything into it, not do anything half-arsedly. Just give it everything and know that whatever happens next August that I’ve done this for the right reason. But yeah, it was really hard to let someone else down who’s a good friend.


As I think about what Annalise says, it makes me realise the importance of pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, whether it is in sport or business. It is easy to get lazy or to take the easiest route. Annalise showed huge maturity to take the hard decision to go back to the sailing class where she believed she had the best chance of achieving gold. 

I decided to ask her next about her decision to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race around the world. This is an incredibly dangerous and difficult race for anyone to endure let alone compete in. I asked her what was going through her mind when she signed up.

AM: If it isn’t your lifelong dream, it’s going to be really hard to get through the hard times. Like all the times but particularly the hard times.  I was always fascinated by the race. I loved following it, but I used to think those people are nuts.

PS: What did you learn from it? 

AM: I found it incredibly tough, but when you’re nearly just trying to survive and everyone’s just kind of like looking out for themselves, you just can’t be upset by that.  You have to be in your own little kind of protective bubble. That was something that I had to learn – that people are going to be awful to you when they’re tired, they haven’t slept properly in four days and they’ve been sick from their food. It’s just this bizarre situation that you’re in, and you have to be able to just take it and not let it affect you. 

That was something I got better at as the race went on, being able to take what in normal life would be considered horrendous, and just let it go by you and not let it upset you.  

Lucas Chapman on the helm with Annalise Murphy on the handles during the Turn the Tide on Plastic event in February 2018.

PS: So, your mum had been an Olympian, your dad’s a keen sailor, you were born into a life of sailing. Was it something from the outset that was, that was, that was on your radar?  What was your childhood like from a sporting perspective?

AM: From when I was very young I knew the Olympics were something very important. I wasn’t really too sure exactly what it was. But I knew mum had gone and that they were on TV every four years. I remember watching the Atlanta Olympics, where probably my other six-year-old friends had no idea what was going on.  But I remember watching it, being woken up to watch. And I sailed quite a bit with my parents, but they didn’t really like push me into sailing.  

PS: Wonderful.

AM: I wasn’t pushed from a really young age and then my older sister, she decided when she was about 15 or 16 that she wanted to go to the Olympics in the Laser. The Laser actually hadn’t been selected at this stage. And I was just like, ah cool, I’ll just do whatever Claudine’s doing. So, if Claudine went to an event, I went along with her.

I would have been I’d say 16 or 17 and we were just fighting all the time when we were out sailing because she’s three years older than me. But I got to do everything that she was doing so I started catching up with her. It was just kind of competitive, I want to try and beat my sister. We had done this British qualifier in Whitstable over in the UK and we just got into a fight in a race. We started fighting, shouting at each other and she turned around to me and said, ‘If you pass me on this downwind, I’m never going to talk to you again.’

PS: Sibling rivalry, great.

AM: We came in and my mum was just like, ‘I can’t deal with this anymore.’ Cathy Foster whom she’d sailed against in the 470, came over for a weekend and basically did team-building with us.

We didn’t even go sailing that weekend, we were meant to sail but we didn’t. We just stayed downstairs in the National Yacht Club in the JB Room with big A1 pieces of paper writing out all our planning and our goals and everything. And this lady, Cathy Foster, she said that we should look at being sisters as a huge opportunity, like we’ve got the ideal training partner in each other. We should call ourselves Sister Pro. I think we just took it on purely because we were kind of ripping the piss out of it a bit. We’d just go, ‘Sister Pro’ in an English accent. 

I don’t really remember this part, but my sister says that at the end of the weekend she got us to draw out what we wanted in our life on a piece of paper. My sister drew that she wanted to be a doctor and she wanted to have a family and be an Olympic gold medallist. She had about ten different things on her page and apparently, I just had a picture of me standing on an Olympic podium. I don’t actually remember this but she was like, ‘Oh dear, I’m dealing with some very single-minded individual.’ 

PS: Talk me through your mind as probably the most important muscle or potentially the most important muscle in your campaign.

AM: Looking back on the London Olympics, I think if I was to go and do them again, maybe I’d get the same result, but I think I probably wouldn’t. I had messed up my last race of the world championships the year before and I remember being so upset about it because, in my mind, I didn’t think I could be an Olympic medallist if I hadn’t first of all been a world championship medallist. I thought I needed that experience to be able to help me through the Olympics. 

Maybe that was the case, I needed to get that major championship medal to know that I could do it on the day. In the London Olympics, I probably did have better boat speed than the majority of the fleet. I was fast.  And when you’re fast, you become a bit of a tactical genius because you get in front of everyone else. And then you get to the new wind first and you can see what’s going on.

Annalise recalls once having a meltdown in training. She knew this could spiral and that a small mistake could become another mistake, and then another. She started to fall behind, and take greater risks to make back lost ground. Nine times out of ten, she acknowledges this does not work. 

AM: I had a meltdown and Rory, my coach, just drives over to me, he ties me on with the towline and he starts just driving in. I said, ‘What are you doing, Rory, we’ve only been out,’ it was an hour and a half tow out to this racecourse, we’d been out for about half an hour and he started driving in. He was like, ‘We’re done for the day.’

So, we got in and sat down for our debrief after sailing and Rory and Sarah had been obviously chatting away, scheming.  They sat me down, they were like, ‘Annalise, you’re an egg at the moment.’ I was like, ‘Ah, lads, like you’ve lost it now.’ And they were like, ‘No, you’re an egg and at the moment you’re a raw egg. When anything happens, you just crack and there’s just raw egg everywhere and it’s a disaster.’ 

So, they were like, ‘We’re going to turn you into a hard-boiled egg over the next three weeks.’ It was then our analogy, that we are this egg and the egg was the team, it wasn’t just me, we were going to get to the Olympics and get through the Olympics being this hard-boiled egg where people are going to try to crack you but you can’t be cracked. 

I can probably say that is the day that was the difference between me finishing second at the Olympics and 20th at the Olympics. I actually got a little rubber egg that I had in my life jacket that I brought out and I had in the Olympics to remind me every day that when something small goes wrong, it’s okay just to get back to my race plan and try and catch back a few places. Through the Olympics, that was basically what I did in every single race. I made loads of mistakes in the Olympics that probably two months earlier would have meant that I would have just messed up the whole race. Well, I’d make a mistake and then I’d be able to recover from it. 

I had one hard day on the fourth day of racing where I was in gold medal position, so I was a bit nervous. I didn’t have that great a first race and I went through the finish line, it nearly felt like it’s all coming apart now.  And then I just thought it can’t, I just need to go and just…

PS: Be the egg.

AM: Be the egg and plug away for this next race.  And I went on the next race, it wasn’t an amazing next race, I finished twelfth in it, but I held it together for the day.  I managed to get through what I knew was going to be the hardest day for me. And I got through it with two okay results where I could have gone out and had two 40ths, but I didn’t. I had an 18th and a 12th which wasn’t great, but it kept me in medal contention going into the last day.

PS: It’s amazing, if you work on things and then simplify them. You knew you had the little hard-boiled egg, you knew that in your head. When things went off track or not to plan, that was your little thing that kind of reset you mentally. That’s a wonderful insight to finish off on, because it’s something that is relevant to all of us.

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