Brendan Doyle's incredible journey from near-suicide to Olympic hopeful

A traumatic assault in 2009 led Brendan Doyle down a dark path that almost ended with him taking his own life. 12 years on from the incident, the Irish skeleton athlete is fighting to qualify for his first Olympic Games.

By William Imbo

In 2013, Brendan Doyle was standing on the edge of a platform in Malahide Dart station in Dublin, waiting to step in front of a passing train.

The voice of a young girl saved his life.

"There was a girl standing behind me with her mum," Doyle remembers. "I heard the girl say, I'm looking forward to my day out.

"I thought to myself, 'I can't do it in front of her; she's just a kid.' So I stood there, and let the train go by."

More than eight years have passed since Doyle, 36, stepped back from the edge of that platform. Now, he is working towards qualifying for the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games in skeleton having missed out on competing at the PyeongChang 2018 Games by a single point.

His journey from near-suicide to aspiring Olympian is nothing short of inspirational, and it's one Doyle believes can show people that no matter how bad a situation can get, there is always hope.

Brendan Doyle
Picture by Brendan Doyle, Irish Bobsled & Skeleton Association

An athletic childhood and discovering skeleton

Doyle grew up in the Dublin suburb of Beaumont and began his sporting career by playing Gaelic football in primary school before transitioning into football (soccer). Doyle's pace on the pitch was noticed by a history teacher, who suggested he give athletics a try.

"I fell in love with athletics because you're held to account," Doyle, whose favourite event was the 60 meters, says. "If you want to get that tenth of a second, you have to eat well, sleep well, lift well; you have to be a weightlifter. You have to be flexible. And all that work that goes into it really appealed to me."

It was during Doyle's training at Morton Stadium that he was introduced to the sport of skeleton by the Irish bobsleigh team.

"This was in 2003, just after Clifton Wrottesley (IRL) had finished fourth in the skeleton competition at the 2002 Winter Olympics. I was in the gym doing tricep dips, and they (the Irish bobsleigh team, who were also training at the stadium) knocked on the window, pointed at me, and said, 'You, come out here.'

"So I went out, and they pointed to this sled and asked me, 'Do you want to push that thing?', and I said, 'heck yeah!'

"So I pushed it, and they told me, 'This is skeleton; you only have to push it 30 metres.' That's all I needed to hear!"

Boyle began training with the Irish team, and even travelled to a skeleton school in Innsbruck, Austria.

"I remember the first time I went down the track on the sled, I hit every wall," Doyle recalls. "It was terrifying, but I got to the bottom and I thought to myself, 'That was the best experience ever; let's do that again."

Doyle had discovered a natural affinity for the sport, but when he learned that any potential journey in skeleton would have to be self-funded, Doyle - who was fresh out of secondary school - decided to pursue a full-time career as a Garda (a member of the state police force of the Republic of Ireland).

Brendan Doyle
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

Becoming a Garda and surviving an assault

Doyle joined the Garda in 2008, and had only been on the force for one year when he received a call to respond to a case of domestic violence.

"When we got to the address, and before I had a chance to step out of the patrol car, the front door swung open and a man stepped out with a wooden bat in his hands.

"I knew that this situation was going to be a tricky one, but I was never a "hands on" officer; that was not the style of policing I went for. I always tried to appeal to the person and talk on their level and bring it back to a point where we can find a solution, which works.

"But sometimes it doesn't."

Unfortuntely, the man could not be calmed down and he ran back into the house. Doyle and his partner followed, where they passed a woman on the stairs, visibly injured, screaming at the officers to get the man out of her home.

But as Doyle opened the door to the kitchen, the man launched at him with a chef's knife.

"He pointed the knife at my neck, and is saying all this stuff like, 'You're going to die tonight.' So we went hands-on to make an arrest, and it was during the arrest attempt that I got cut."

Doyle suffered severe injuries to his thumb and little finger on his right hand; the latter of which is still bent to this day.

"I just remember looking at [my hand] and thinking, 'Wow; that's a lot of blood.' I didn't try to stop it; I was in shock."

Doyle was taken to the local hospital by a colleague for treatment. He returned home to his parents' house at 4am.

"I went to bed and slept like a baby. But this is where everything changed. That was going to be my last night of sleep for five, six years."

Brendan Doyle
Picture by Brendan Doyle, Irish Bobsled & Skeleton Association

Pushed to the brink

Not long after that fateful night in Dublin, Doyle started to develop night terrors.

Night terrors, also commonly known as sleep terrors, are episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep.

"Night terrors are nothing like nightmares, where you'll wake up and you can eventually go back to sleep feeling fine" Doyle says. "These night terrors were so, so vivid. I could see the man with a knife standing over me; I would wake up grabbing my hands, trying to stop the bleeding.

"My whole duvet was covered in what I thought was blood, but it was my sweat.

"So what happened is I started associating sleep with these dreams, and I developed pretty nasty insomnia, which I would say was the catalyst to my downfall."

Having been an athlete his whole life, Doyle initially tried to treat the issue as if he was dealing with a physical injury. Once he was cleared to return to active duty, Doyle "got straight back into the job".

But after suffering a panic attack while at work, things started to get worse.

"I felt like I was completely regressing; like there was no hope. I stopped doing things that made me feel good; I stopped training; I stopped eating right; I stopped seeing friends; the long-term relationship I was in fell apart. All of these things just added fuel to my depression."

To fill the night and avoid the recurring night terrors, Doyle would start driving around Dublin, and then to Cork - a three-hour trip both ways.

"For years I was battling with constant depression, insomnia, and panic attacks. And I felt like I was letting my unit down by not being in work. And when I was in work, I couldn't handle it, so I would go back out. I essentially just lost touch with everybody, so I felt like I was always going to be alone.

"I was trying to do everything I could to get back on my feet, and nothing worked. So, in 2013, I thought to myself, "Ok the only option I have left is to take my life."

Fast forward to the Malahide Dart station, where Doyle made the decision to let the train pass him by.

After stepping away from the platform, Doyle returned to his car and broke down. He then called a friend to let them know what had nearly happened.

"I said, 'Hey man...I just tried to end my life. I'm telling you this not because I want you to do something; I just want to be held accountable.' I just want someone else to know that this is where I am and this is how bad it is.' It wasn't a big dramatic moment, but for me, it was a moment where I handed accountability to someone else; so I had to do it for them."

Returning to the gym...and skeleton

During the call, Doyle's friend told him that he had to get back into the gym. That suggestion, Doyle says, was the best piece of advice he could have received.

"Getting back into sport and training was that aspect of my life that gave me strength. And it was the first sign of recovery for me, because I remember one day waking up and being excited to go to the gym, and that was first time since 2013 that I was looking forward as opposed to living in a dark storm."

After leaving the Garda in 2015, Doyle, on the encouragement of the athletes he was training with, decided to take part in the National Senior Track and Field Championships. Whilst he was there, he had a chance encounter with the President of the Irish Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association, who remembered Doyle from his earlier training period with the team in 2003. The president told him that the door was still open should Doyle want to give skeleton another go.

The following season, Doyle was training with the Irish team in Calgary, Canada.

Training for the Olympic Games

Doyle, having discovered a natural affinity for the sport, progressed quickly in his skeleton training, and was soon looking to qualify to compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. However, after suffering two uncharacteristic crashes in back-to-back races, Doyle missed out on going to the Games by a single point.

"I watched [the skeleton competition at the Games] in February (2018), and I remember thinking, 'My goal is to finish so high up the rankings that there is no doubt that I'm going to get there [the Olympics].'

"I would hold parallels to how I felt in February to some of my struggles in the police. It was really, really difficult. But it motivated me to be better because I knew I could do better."

Doyle is now training and competing to qualify and compete at Beijing 2022. But with a lack of funding and sponsorships, the Irish athlete faces additional struggles that many of his competitors don't.

"Skeleton is nicknamed Formula 1 on ice, and it's not just because it's fast; the price tag is there too. We're going abroad for six months, touring the world and going to different tracks. The upfront cost of airlines, car rentals, health insurance, accommodation - literally turning up to the location of the track you're looking at least 20, 30 grand a season.

"And then you've got your sled, which costs 10 grand; the rollers in the sled cost 700 euros a pair - and you need five or six pairs; the speed suits we wear can cost a grand each; the helmet: 500 euros; the spikes: 500 euros.

"To think of the money I invested in the sport...I try not to. I remember when I was back home and I made the decision to do this, and it was either get a deposit on a house or do this [skeleton]. I'm here because I remember thinking, 'I could be in my home, with my car or whatever, living a happy life, but still feeling like I should have done this. And I didn't want to have that hanging over me.

"The costs are so hard and it's one of the biggest stresses of an athlete's career. I always think, 'I'll never find the money, I might as well quit,' but here I am. I don't know how I find the money, but I do.

"Training is easy; learning tracks is easy; hitting walls at 144kmph...you get over it. The finances are the scariest part."

25 sleds, broken up into nations with three sleds, nations with two sleds and nations with one sled, will qualify to compete in the skeleton competition at Beijing 2022.

Nations with higher-ranked athletes can send up to three athletes to compete, though Doyle knows he will be competing with the single-sled nations to earn a spot at the Games.

"My goals are simple: within a race, I need to finish ahead of the single-sled nations. The first criteria is to be ranked within the top 60 sliders in the world (Doyle currently sits 33rd after two races). Seven sleds will be allotted to single-sled nations, so I need to be within that separate top seven ranking.

"Right now, I'm currently fourth. My last competition will be in Altenberg in Germany in January. I've had four or five good results, and I need two more to keep me where I am."

As Doyle continues his remarkable journey from near-suicide to Olympic hopeful, he is cognizant of the role he can play in helping to show others that no matter what someone may be going through, it's important to continue to fight.

"I'm a better person for going through what I went through. It's made me so much stronger, and I'm more capable of handling life. It's why I'm doing what I'm doing; it's not just me wanting to get to the Games. I really want to be an example of someone who genuinely thought that he was hopeless; that he was a failure and that the only option he had was to take his life, to then become an Olympian in a sport where I'm not funded and I don't have any experience. You can be stronger for struggles. You can be stronger for getting through tough times. "

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