Rudisha and Mageean triumph over adversity
Both athletes have had to overcome major setbacks before achieving track success
After two years battling against adversity Ciara Mageean showed up in Santry last Sunday, glided around for three laps, then kicked down the backstretch to win the Irish 1,500m title in 4:15.35 – “full of running”, as her coach Jerry Kiernan would say. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Pól Ó Murchú called up from Fiery Lane last week with a copy of The Runner’s Literary Companion, a little gem of a reader, perfect for those mid-afternoon coffee breaks across in Johnnie Fox’s.
Some of the greats are in there. Evelyn Waugh. Alan Sillitoe. Joyce Carol Oates. Some of the great poets too. Walt Whitman. Rudyard Kipling. WH Auden. None of them were great runners, yet they all embrace the subject – in truth and in fiction – with an envious eye and an ear for the runner’s art, and heart.
And behind the tales of courage, pain and elation lies one enduring theme: all runners must at some point rise above adversity, because the road to success is not linear, nor should it be.
This was the theme which ran through the BBC documentary on David Rudisha, which aired on Tuesday (and now available on You Tube). The title alone – 100 Seconds to Beat the World – sounded somehow predestined, a gleeful reference to the 1:40.91 Rudisha clocked to win the 800 metres at the London Olympics, making him the first and still the only man to go under 101 seconds.
What made it so powerful wasn’t Rudisha’s performance in London, but his journey there – especially the early footage, captured with astonishing fortune, of Rudisha’s arrival at St Patrick’s High School in Iten, aged just 16, where he immediately grabbed the attention of our own Br Colm O’Connell.
By now no one in Kenyan or the entire running world needs any introduction to Br Colm, although the documentary added another worthy insight as to why he’s regarded as the most successful distance running coach in athletics history.
Under his wingIn 2006, a year after taking Rudisha under his wing, Brother Colm had transformed him from want-to-be 400m runner to World Junior champion over 800m – and with that all of Kenya believed another star had been born under their own high slice of African skies.
What no one realised was that Rudisha still had a long journey to go.
Olympic year, 2008, dawned with great expectations, although Rudisha never made it to Beijing, forced out, two months before, with a calf muscle injury; he re-emerged in 2009 with a series of brilliant times, and arrived at the World Championships in Berlin as one of the gold medal favourites.
He ran with great tactical naivety, got knocked out in the semi-finals, and by then, many people already considered him a failure.
“The Kenyan affair that never was”, ran the headline in The Standard – and Br Colm himself was wondering was that actually true.
“He had his own deep, deep questions,” says Br Colm. “ ‘Is this going to be the story of my life?’ ‘Is it really worth it?’And it’s easy to be a coach when things are going well. But I think a coach is someone who is there for the athlete when they are very low and find it hard to see a way forward.”
Indeed would Rudisha have run his 1:40.91 in London had he not endured these setbacks? It’s impossible to say to sure. But if rising above adversity is a necessary step on the road to success then there was another reminder of that at the National Track and Field Championships in Santry last weekend.
In the six years since Ciara Mageean burst on to the Irish distance running scene the question had slowly turned from ‘How good can she be?’ to ‘How good could she have been?’
Her talent, as spectacularly exciting as it was, was gradually confronted by all sorts of obstacles, mainly injury. In 2010, Mageean underlined her already enormous potential by winning the World Junior silver medal over 1,500m.
Of the 24 distance running medals won at those championships, 23 went to African nations – Mageean being the only exception. And her time of 4:09.51 not only improved the Irish junior record, but ended up the fastest Irish senior time of 2010.
She was labelled by some – including me – as the next Sonia O’Sullivan, and justifiably so. Why not, when she was breaking so many of Sonia’s records on the way up?
Mageean also had the confidence and hardiness – training in the not ideal surroundings of the Ards Peninsula – to suggest she might even make a mark as early as the London Olympics.
Then things began to unravel, an Achilles injury interrupting training in 2011, before her London ambitions were promptly dashed in summer of 2012, when she fairly bombed out of her qualifying heat at the European Championships in Helsinki.
Later diagnosed with a crippling bone spur on her heel, Mageean eventually went under the surgeon’s knife in London last summer, a process which also involved cutting through tendons to ensure the spur was properly removed. She spent a couple of months on crutches and was told no running until at least March of this year.
She did, fortunately for her, have other distractions, splitting her rehab between her physiotherapy studies at UCD, while her new coach, Jerry Kiernan, also made sure she wasn’t distracted by any pressure to return prematurely to the track.
Then, after two years running against adversity, Mageean showed up in Santry last Sunday, glided around for three laps, then kicked down the backstretch to win the 1,500m in 4:15.35 – “full of running”, as Kiernan would say. The road to further success is still not linear, but Mageean is back on it, and that’s exciting enough for now.