The only way to be at the top is to commit 100%

The only way to be at the top is to commit 100%

Tuesday 5 January 2021

The only way to be at the top is to commit 100% - Bill O’Hara awarded an OBE.

Bill O’Hara was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) on the New Year’s Honours List for his services to sailing. While we won’t be calling him “Sir” anytime soon, he is entitled to have his grandson christened in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. We spoke to Bill about what the OBE means to him, his mum’s MBE, and advice he gives to young sailors.

Bill has worked with Irish Sailing since the late 1980s – he’s on the Olympic Steering Group, and set up the Academy Team; he represented Ireland at LA and Seoul Olympics and is now an international judge, umpire and race officer. You can read more on his sailing career here:

A lot of people make a lot of sacrifices for you

As the rain pelts down outside on a gloomy January day, and both ends of the island are under severe Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, this award is bringing a ray of light to Bill. “Perhaps because of the year we’ve had, I was quite emotional when I heard the news” he says. “I’ve given up a lot of family times to say yes to things in my career, but this made it worthwhile”.

“It doesn’t matter what you’re doing but when you’re at the top level, you have to give a lot of things up. You have to say yes to a lot of things to put the groundwork in for the next step. A lot of people make a lot of sacrifices for you”. When Bill explains that his daughter’s wedding was planned around the one weekend he had free in 2018, and that his one year old son didn’t recognise him when he came back from the 1988 Olympics, we start to get the picture. This is a man who has been single-minded in what he does and is now mulling over the bigger meaning of this OBE.

I’m just someone from Northern Ireland

Bill was surprised to receive an OBE. Although there’s been no detail, Bill believes it’s simply because “I’m someone from Northern Ireland who’s been at the top level of race officials [for some time]”.  His career has been a mix of working with organisations in the Republic of Ireland, the UK, as well as internationally. He’s interested in this tension of having dual-nationality and thinks it will be difficult that no-one else in Ireland will receive this kind of recognition. On the other hand he hopes that the OBE will encourage other race officials coming up through the system – he mentions Chris Lindsay as one such rising star (read our article on Chris Lindsay here:

Not the first in the family

Bill credits three people for his career: Dubliner Ken Ryan, VP at World Sailing who started Bill and other young people on the judging programme; Ron Hutchieson his Racing Rules mentor; and Mick Wallace, team manager for the Irish Olympic Team. He also mentions that awards run in the family – Bill’s mother received an MBE for her services to housing, so he knows what to expect at the ceremony, which he thinks will take place at Buckingham Palace in the autumn. The honours process is opaque – anyone can be nominated for an OBE, but there is a long screening and investigation process that goes on behind the scenes. Bill was given a hint that something was afoot when he was asked at the start of 2020 for details of his career, but then heard nothing until early December when he was told of the award. He then had to keep it a secret until 31 December. He laughs and tells me that an OBE encourages good behaviour – it can be taken away if you end up in jail. 

And he leaves us with this thought: he tells the young sailors on the Irish Sailing Academy that “you can’t do three things well – you have to focus if you want to achieve something”. For most people, that’s focusing on sailing and education – and sacrificing your social life. As Bill says – “The only way to be at the top is to commit 100%.”

Bill is our first “Sailing Hero” for 2021.
You can read more in the series here - Irish Sailing Heroes


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Picture: David Branigan OceanSport

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