Sporting talent is nothing without hard work

Be it running, cycling or hurling, talent and dedication are crucial to rising above the rest

Waterford’s young star Austin Gleeson has, according to Dan Shanahan, the winning formula that sets him apart from the masses: he is both talented and works hard. Photograph: Inpho

Waterford’s young star Austin Gleeson has, according to Dan Shanahan, the winning formula that sets him apart from the masses: he is both talented and works hard. Photograph: Inpho

 

The quickest route from St Anne’s in Cappoquin back to Villierstown is to turn right at the school gate, head down along the Blackwater and on through Dromona, a straight run of exactly 4½ miles.

When John Treacy was 16 years old and starting back for his Leaving Cert, he would turn left at the school gate, head towards Drumroe, through Kilclogher, down by Aglish and then back into Villierstown that way, a twisting hilly run of exactly 11 miles.

Treacy ran that loop home five days a week, without fail. Rain or shine, mist or snow. No one asked him, or told him. He figured it out for himself and the advantages were obvious: his twin sister Liz, one of the 20 girls and five boys in his class, would take his schoolbag home on the bus, which took just as long anyway; and every one of those 11 miles was money in the bank.

 “I’m going to be a world-class runner,” he thought to himself one day, never once counting those miles but simply feeling and feeding off them.

 Within four years Treacy was World Champion, his impossibly thin 20-year-old frame lording Bellahouston Park in Glasgow in what is still considered one of the toughest of cross country races. And the rest is Waterford sporting history.

 Now imagine what Treacy could have done on the hurling field had he not been lost to athletics. That’s not a moot point. Growing up in Waterford in the 1970s, it’s what every youngster played, and Treacy was no different. There was a match in Lismore one Saturday morning and they threw him in at corner back, knowing full well what his opposite number would think: he wasn’t long changing his mind.

Relevant today

Not long after that his older brother Ray took him aside and said he’s probably better suited to distance running. That Treacy then decided to run home from school is as relevant today as it was then because for all the research and advancement in that broad spectrum known as sports science, one thing remains certain: talent is nothing without hard work.

The same could be said about another Waterford sporting talent, born exactly one year earlier, in Curraghduff, about 3½ miles outside Carrick-on-Suir. Sean Kelly finished school at 13, was preparing for a life of hard work on the family farm, when his brother Joe introduced him to cycling. Within three years Kelly was Junior Champion of Ireland, still young enough to defend that title for a further two years.

 Soon he began training with senior rider Tony Ryan in Carrick-on-Suir, who’d punish his young protégé on long and severe spins around the Comeragh Mountains, after which an exhausted Kelly would tell him he had to milk the cows as soon as he got home. Ryan would often wonder to himself how far Kelly could be pushed before he would cry “no more”. But each day he returned for more training.

 Still talent and hard work only took both men so far. One of the last tests of greatness is rising above adversity. In 1983, half-crippled with a back injury and trailed off in his heat of the 10,000m at the World Championships in Helsinki, Treacy faced adversity eye-to-eye. He needed out of his comfort zone, so moved his wife and young daughter back to America and started over. Within a year he was an Olympic marathon silver medallist, talent and hard work rarely combining as sweetly as on that warm Los Angeles evening.

 This is not some gentle nostalgia fest but a neat reflection of what this Waterford hurling team have done in reaching Sunday’s All-Ireland final. There is nothing more common in sport than wasted talent, and while Waterford hurling teams of the past had no fear of hard work, something else happened this year to bring them back within hand’s reach of a first All-Ireland title in 58 years.

Set them apart

 Dan Shanahan, their 2007 hurler of the year, spoke about this in the build-up: now a selector alongside manager Derek McGrath, he was asked about players like Austin Gleeson and Michael “Brick” Walsh, what set them apart – especially given they’re a near generation apart, Gleeson just turned 22, Walsh now 34.

 And with that Shanahan pointed directly at talent and hard work: that Gleeson has everything, left and right, unbelievable skills, the perfect attitude on and off the field; Walsh too, the first fella on the field, the last fella off it, as mentally strong as he is physically, helped in no small part by his younger years working on the family farm in Stradbally.

 The hard work stood out though. How every night at training, Gleeson and Walsh, along with Mikey Kearney, are the last three to finish, lining up a shot from where the sideline meets the endline, and not stopping until all three have curved the sliotar over the bar. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes but they always get it done and finish up on a high.

The success of the Dublin footballers continues to reflect this, how for all their spread of talent and resources, perhaps they just work harder than everyone else. John Leonard started his book on the premise he could never make training ahead of Stephen Cluxton, and Jack McCaffrey, once that dashing winger on the Belvedere Junior Cup rugby team, looks to me as if he’s still the hardest working footballer in the country.

 And that moot point about athletes being lost to football and hurling, or that the talent just isn’t there anymore, would be completely lost on any 16-year-old still willing to run 11 miles home from school every day.

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