First steps to top level: Ciara Mageean on the decisions that led her to success

Athlete’s first love was camogie, and battle to choose between it and running was tough one

Portaferry's Ciara Mageean had racked up plenty of accolades as a junior, youth and senior middle-distance athlete but running was not her first love while growing up in Co Down.

Mageean tells us how she got into sport and about the decisions she’s had to make to be the successful sports woman she is today.

How did you get into sport?

“For as long as I can remember I just loved sport and being active. We didn’t really go to play school/nursery, my granny had all of her grandchildren round and it was basically like a big creche. Me, my siblings and my cousins were always out in the garden building dens, climbing trees, looking for tadpoles or playing football – my childhood was just active all the time.

"I grew up playing camogie – Gaelic games is a strong tradition in our family so as soon as I able to hold something in my hand, I had a little small hurley stick. I would help my aunt Edel practice, she was my idol growing up and she wasn't too much older than me because my mummy was the eldest of seven and Edel was one of the younger children. She was in secondary school and was a fantastic camogie player. She used to bring me and my older sister Máire down to the park in Portaferry, which was only a stone's throw from my house. She would practice frees and sidelines and we would stand behind the net and then hit the ball back out to her – that was the start of our training, trying to get the ball the whole way to the 45-metre line for Edel.

"I fell in love with sport really, and camogie really holds a special place in my heart because it's where I learned so much. I had a fantastic camogie coach called Elizabeth Collins. I just learned so much through that sport and you don't realise at the time, but I learned so much about myself, how to push myself and the boundaries. I learned about dealing with the emotions of life not just of sport – how to cope with defeat and be a good sports person. I had to learn how you speak to one another, in a polite way, on a pitch and respect one another, whether somebody has a natural born talent for it or somebody has to work really hard for it.

“I played camogie right up until I was 18/19. It got to the point where I had to make a choice between camogie and athletics ultimately. I had to kind of choose if I’d continue playing camogie at the detriment of my athletics. I’d always swore I’d never give up camogie for athletics because I didn’t like it as much but I knew my future in athletics could take me much further.

“Back in primary school I did two races and we just did a little bit of training for the week leading into it and then we went and ran. I can distinctly remember one of those races – I got a little bit tired going around and I stopped and walked a part of the course where I knew nobody could see me and I came fourth that race. It was a big life lesson for young Ciara because I swore I would never walk in a race again and I haven’t to this day. I’ve had some hard races where I’ve DNF’d (did not finish) but I haven’t stopped to walk.

"In secondary school I was lucky that my PE teacher spotted my super competitiveness and the fact I didn't want to stop. She asked if I wanted to join the cross-country team. My friend Nicola Moreland joined with me, we were just delighted to getting out of class.

"Each year we raced the same race and the first year I was around 38th, the second in the 20s and the third year I won it running in a pair of football boots. I remember I beat a girl called Joanne Mills, who later became a training partner of mine. Whenever I finished, people let me know that she was a real runner, she trains with a coach and she goes to a club and maybe I should think about doing that."

Was there a time you nearly gave up sport and who encouraged you to keep going?

“I’m pretty lucky that my love in life has always been sports and I never really got to a point where I thought that I wouldn’t do it. I’ve had tough times in my sports, I can definitely remember the little battle in my head between camogie and athletics. I didn’t like that athletics was starting to get more of my attention and more of my time and I loved camogie more than athletics so the battle between them was really tough.

“It was hard, I was always busy. I went to school a good distance away from my house so I had to get the boat in the morning and then the bus to school. We got home around 4.30pm, I’d have to go train and I’d have to fit my homework in and shower and eat – I don’t quite know how I did it because reflecting now I couldn’t stick to that timetable; it was very tiring.

“I was very lucky to have a fantastic bunch of friends who didn’t mind that I didn’t go to the school discos and that I missed a lot of events, like birthdays and things because I had training on, or I couldn’t stay out late – I wasn’t your typical teenager.

“I’ve had a lot of tough times, but I’ve never really thought about quitting but I had to give up an awful lot of other things to pursue this.”

What advice do you have for young people getting into sport?

“I think for everybody it’s about finding that right thing for you. And there’s no shame if you are not enjoying something anymore, it’s so important to try and find the right thing for you. That might be playing a sport, joining a gym to learn how to lift weights or finding a class that you enjoy doing – try to find the thing that makes you feel good.

“Sometimes it can be tough because running can be hard and I don’t always feel good whenever I’m running but I know if I go and do it I’ll feel better after it, and I’m looking after myself mentally and physically by going out and being active.”

First steps to top level
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- Triathlete Donnacha McCarthy
- Athlete Ciara Mageean

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