Ó Lionáird shows mettle to forge bronze
Ciarán Ó Lionáird celebrates after taking bronze in the men's 3,000m at the European Indoor Championships, in Gothenburg, yesterday
Seven months ago, all wired up, strung out like a guitar, Ciarán Ó Lionáird marched into the mixed zone under the London Olympic Stadium. What followed was a strangely bitter rage against the sport he loved, the young Cork athlete irreparably broken, it seemed, not just by an Achilles’ tendon injury, but by his own negative vibes.
On Saturday evening Ó Lionáird marched into the mixed zone under Gothenburg’s Scandinavium Arena, utterly transformed, physically and emotionally, on his way to the medal ceremony for the men’s 3,000 metres. What followed was a mature, honest reflection of where he’d gone wrong, and a positively upbeat tribute to the people who helped get himself right.
It’s an important backdrop to what he’s achieved, his bronze medal coming off a near perfectly executed race, his time of 7:50.40 a full three seconds quicker than his previous best: because there’s no way Ó Lionáird could have won that medal if his head wasn’t perfectly in tune with his body (which is in superb physical condition).
“I think anybody is changed by their experiences,” he said. “No disrespect to you guys, but you saw me in London, now you see me here. Obviously it’s a seismic shift forward, but there are steps along the way that are really important.
“Some people criticised me for going to the Olympics. But at the same time, if I didn’t go there, you wouldn’t have seen what happened here. I needed to take that hit, let it happen at some stage in my career. It was a shitty place to do it, in the spotlight like that. And I could have carried myself better in my post-race interview but that’s another learning experience, and it didn’t take me long.
“It was a kick in the nuts, forced me to change some things, my mentality, and be a little bit more controlled in my approach to things. You see that now. I’m happy, but I’m not jumping for joy, over the moon. I’ve three more years to Rio, and I’ve a lot more to accomplish on that road.”
What got him back on the right road after London was the careful guidance of his coach Mark Rowland, the former British distance runner now heading up the Nike Oregon project in the US, where Ó Lionáird is based, and also his mother back in Toonsbridge, outside Macroom, who when Ó Lionáird was aged seven, first took him to West Muskerry Athletic Club, hoping his superabundance of energy could be put to some use.
“My mum is a single mother, has had a hard time with the recession, with three kids. I talk to her as a friend, more than just a mother. When I see what she goes through, my work is a piece of cake. I’ve been given gifts, that allow me to go out and compete, but I have to be smart with them.
“Ger Hartmann in Limerick was great, talking me through London. And I’ve a great coach now in Mark Rowland. I remember New Year’s Day, I did a session, that morning. Everyone went back to their own homes for Christmas. It was just me, and coach Rowland. He had me out on that morning, doing 20x400. Those lonely days on the track, people don’t see them, and there were a lot of dark, lonely rainy days in Eugene. I would tick the box and go home. Rowland is great like that. He will never pat me on the back. He will just say ‘great job, now go home’.”
It was certainly a great job here, Ó Lionáird putting himself on the shoulder of gold medal favourite Hayle Ibrahimov of Azerbaijan in the final-lap showdown. As hard as he kicked, Ó Lionáird just couldn’t get past him – then in the last sprint was passed by the experienced Spaniard Juan Carlos Higuero.
“I’d rather have run for gold, and got bronze, like I did, than run for silver and got silver,” he claimed. “So, I’m not elated.”
Ó Lionáird has never been one to disguise his emotions, his singular personality, or indeed his taste for trending a new hairstyle. Eight years ago, he won 1,500 metres bronze medal at the European Youth Olympics, in Lignano, and still believes that’s his best distance – having gone on to finish 10th at the World Championships in Daegu, in 2011.
It’s never been a smooth road, yet he believes he’s slowly eliminating the bumps and that at age 24, the best is unquestionably yet to come. “I’m on the younger side, but it’s my time now, time for me to start winning these medals. And I really believe that Irish middle distance history shows we can compete, at world-class level, and I want to take this to the World Championships this summer, in Moscow, and hopefully make a 1,500m final there.”
No reason whatsoever now why he can’t.