Ó Lionáird raises stakes with move to Beaverton


ATHLETICS:Carefree college days are over as promising Cork athlete joins the Nike Oregon Project under the tutelage of coach Alberto Salazar, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

LONDON. COMING on fast over the horizon. The Olympics of our lives. A once-off. Intimate and accessible and the ultimate sporting celebration. Blah blah blah.

Talk like that is cheap, isn’t it? Some of us like to raise the stakes and significance of the Olympics, kick back and watch, and if our athletes fail to deliver what we imagined they should then blame them for not trying hard enough. And that’s the cheapest talk of all.

Which is why last Tuesday morning Ciarán Ó Lionáird packed whatever key possessions he had into two heavy-duty sports bags, gave everything else away (including his car) and hitched a ride to Tallahassee Airport.

Florida State University had been his home for the past three years, and been good to him – helping develop his running talent towards that breakthrough 3:34.46 for 1,500 metres at the start of August, then the World Championship final, in Daegu. But at 23, and his college days done, it was time for Mad Len to move on. Some athletes talk the talk. Ó Lionáird prefers to walk the walk.

Three flights later he landed in Portland, Oregon – home to the Nike Oregon Project.

Ó Lionáird was met at the airport by the 53 year-old Alberto Salazar, who drove him the 10 miles to Nike’s world headquarters, in Beaverton, the next town over. This is where, over the next several months, Ó Lionáird hopes to find the extra edge that will turn him from World Championship finalist into potential Olympic medallist.

It’s a big, bold move, but a spectacularly opportune one too, and Ó Lionáird knows that. The Nike Oregon Project was set up about eight years ago to improve the state of American distance running, and remains a highly exclusive group, not designed to accept foreigners.

Britain’s Mo Farah became the first exception when he moved to Oregon last March, taking his wife and daughter with him. Farah had won a European 5,000-10,000-metre double in 2010, but was also searching for that “extra one per cent” that would bring him to the top of world level.

Within weeks of his move, Farah lowered the British 10,000 metres to an amazing 26:46.57, followed that with a new 5,000 metres record of 12:53.11, before winning the 5,000 metres in Daegu, and finishing a very close second in the 10,000 metres. “I always felt I was on the edge of something,” Farah reflected, “but Alberto got me across the line.”

Some people call him Alberto, others prefer Salazar, but either way he’s a man with a growing reputation as one of the best distance running coaches in the world.

Born in Cuba, raised in a suburb of Boston, Salazar turned a fairly ordinary running talent into some considerable success: he won three New York Marathons in succession, from 1980 and also won the Boston Marathon in 1982. His ability to push himself to extremes, while adopting some strange training methods, helped set him apart.

After training he would wear a scuba-type mouthpiece, that would absorb oxygen and supposedly mimic the effects of altitude training, and experimented with dimethyl sulfoxide, a lotion designed to reduce swelling in racehorses.

In 1980, to prepare for the Moscow Olympics, he was one of the first American runners to travel to Kenya to train at the high altitudes of the Rift Valley. Unfortunately for him the Americans boycotted Moscow, and then Salazar very probably over-trained for the 1984 Olympic marathon, in Los Angeles, and finished 15th.

Anyway, Salazar was recruited to front the Nike Oregon Project, and has done an impressive job. As well as taking Farah to the so-called next level, he’s coached Galen Rupp to an American 10,000 metre record of 26:48.00 in Brussels during the summer.

Somewhat ironically he’s also become obsessed with running form, carefully studying what it is that sets the East Africans apart, and continues to use every conceivable training aid – from underwater treadmills to portable cryotherapy chambers, all perfectly legit. This is the sort of scrutiny and perfectionism Ó Lionáird can look forward to.

Beaverton is a long way from Toonsbridge, outside Macroom, where Ó Lionáird grew up, but he reckons he’ll settle in just fine. The Nike campus is a sort of training haven, incredibly well-kept, with the neatness of a Japanese garden, and well-spaced modern buildings, each named after prominent Nike athletes like Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. Truth is Ó Lionáird is paying handsomely for the right to be there, helped by the Nike contract he signed earlier in the summer, and some careful sweet-talking with Salazar at the Nike hospitality tent in Daegu.

“I’d actually sent him a couple of videos from my college races, just to put something in his head, in case anything happened later in the year,” Ó Lionáird tells me. “It was something I had in my mind, to be part of that group, that was so successful. Then after my 3:34 things started to open up. I ended up meeting Salazar a few times in Daegu, and then it all came together in the last week or so.

“There are a lot of your own costs up front. Nike covers quite a bit, but a lot of things I’ve got to foot the bill for. But once I knew I’d be in the same situation as Mo then I was happy. I’m lucky now that the Sports Council grant can help out.

“But I’m committed, and they’re committed. The fact that it’s another foreigner joining the group shows that.”

Among the things Ó Lionáird has to help pay for is the complete sealing of his new apartment, which effectively becomes a high-altitude chamber, and one of the things Salazar insists on.

“That’s €20,000 right there,” he says. “But Salazar made the point that I could feel like a rich kid living in a college town, but to make the jump, it’s a big investment, hopefully for a big pay-off.

“Tallahassee was unbelievably good to me, but now I’m a full-time athlete, without classes, I’ve a lot more time on my hands. Sometimes you can over-think things in that scenario. You need people to share your goals.

“This is the whole package, proper focus 24/7, all year round. It also means having a coach with me year round, and training with the really top guys. That’s what it takes to get to the top level, to win Olympic medals, and that’s what I’m looking for.

“It’s such a professional set-up. I’ll train with Mo and Galen, most of the year, because I mostly train like a 5,000-metre runner anyway, but the goal, the focus, is definitely to run as close to 3:30 next year, and put myself in a position to contend for a 1,500-metre medal.

“There’s a big psychological aspect here as well. One of the first things Salazar said to me was that if he could make me faster and stronger then would I listen. I told him of course I would. Then he told me he could make me mentally stronger, because he believes athletes can always be mentally stronger. That’s what it will take to go from 10th in the world to hopefully top three .”