Irish women in Gothenburg make sense of Kiernan's rant

Sat, Mar 9, 2013, 00:00

Athletics: Thursday morning, and I can see Jerry Kiernan sitting down for his regular double espresso, his regular broadsheet spread out before him, reading in spiteful anger through the GAA’s central financial accounts for 2012.

With annual income up 13 per cent, to just under €53 million, no wonder Kiernan feels so disturbed about Gaelic players taking even their shrunken, negligible grant from the Irish Sports Council’s coffers, when so many Irish athletes still don’t get a single cent. Sure doesn’t that work out at about €1 million a week, far more than all Irish athletes combined would get – in grants, or otherwise – over the entire year?

Fear not the obvious: this is not some slow response to Kiernan’s self-confessed bias. “Difficult to ignore, but worth the effort,” as Con Houlihan liked to say, when some people got under his skin, and unfortunately so much of what Kiernan said at the time made no sense at all.

That’s not saying there weren’t moments during last weekend’s European Indoor championships in Gothenburg when everything Kiernan said about the fitness of elite Irish athletes made perfect sense – that they do train exceptionally hard, make enormous sacrifices for very little reward, and yes, probably would make a lot of Gaelic players think twice about the meaning of the pain barrier.

And it’s actually the Irish women running in Gothenburg who come to mind here, more so than the Irish men.

Not many people gave Derval O’Rourke a chance of medalling in the 60 metres hurdles (especially if they were listening to me). Just a couple of months shy of 32, which for a sprint hurdler usually equates to a rapid decline, O’Rourke put herself through three races in the one day, and saved the best until last, just edged out of the medal positions by the slightest of permissible margins.

Her time of 7.95 seconds was O’Rourke’s fastest in seven years, when she ran 7.84 to win the World Indoor title. She was the proverbial width of the vest from women several years younger, with 27 year-old Nevin Yanit – the reigning two-time outdoor champion – striking gold, her 7.89 seconds a Turkish record, with Alina Talay (23) of Belarus and the Italian Veronica Borsi (25) both credited with 7.94, separated only by the photo finish.

When O’Rourke explained she’d had a sinus infection in October, losing 4kg and missing three weeks’ training, then required an injection in her Achilles’ tendon, missing another two weeks, her powers of pure athleticism and competitive spirit seemed even greater. O’Rourke has always been well funded, yet that hasn’t diluted the essence of what made her so good in the first place – this unquenchable thirst to be the best in her game.

Superbly conditioned

Indeed O’Rourke still looks superbly physically conditioned, which any man or women will tell you, doesn’t get any easier with the passage of time. Athletics, by its very nature, leaves no room to disguise any physical loose ends, not just because of the skin-tight garments and otherwise naked flesh – because if you’re not “cut”, as we say in the business, then you simply better not show.

Close observers of Fionnuala Britton would have realised long before last weekend that she contained, within her impossibly light frame, indefatigable reserves of strength: yet her bronze medal over 3,000m was won by her speed, not strength, something Britton has worked tirelessly on over the last two seasons with her coach Chris Jones.

He put increased emphasis on the work of Britton’s strength and conditioning coach, Martina McCarthy, a former sprinter, who fully understands the mechanics necessary to increase the frequency of stride length, turnover, and other skills of running fast. Britton, in other words, has become a stronger runner again by addressing her weaknesses, one of the most important lessons in sport, no matter what level.

So to Ciara Everard, who came to Gothenburg as a relative unknown, and left as the most encouraging prospect over 800m since, well, Sonia O’Sullivan – who still holds the Irish record with her 2:00.69, from 1994. Still only 22, Everard confirmed her recent form by winning her heat, as indeed did Rose-Anne Galligan (and neither of whom, by the way, get a single cent in grant aid).

Everard then went on to make the final, where she effectively equalled her lifetime best, running 2:02.55, suggesting it may only be a matter of time before she eclipses that elusive two-minute barrier.

What makes her breakthrough all the more exciting is that less than a year ago, last April, Everard crashed over the handlebars of her bike, while cycling to UCD, where she’s studying physiotherapy. She broke an arm, chipped a kneecap, sprained an ankle, and damaged the labyrinth of an inner ear, which caused a delayed onset of vertigo which continuously interrupted training for several long months.

It doesn’t matter what sport one compares that too, because there’s no arguing with Everard’s total commitment, and even given his self-confessed bias towards the far longer distances, no doubt even Jerry Kiernan would agree.

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