These are challenging times for young athletes everywhere

The Jerry Kiernan Foundation is keeping his spirit alive and helping Irish athletes

Maybe it was the excellence of the house red at Er Buchetto and the company to boot or something like that because it felt like Jerry Kiernan was standing right there in the café among us, his quiet smile of approval as knowingly precise as it always was.

These are challenging times for young athletes everywhere. The cost of everything is going up and it’s harder to find the value in anything, including that once upon a time idea that being a successful runner would be a lifestyle choice of great envy.

It’s one of the reasons Kiernan always fought for the profile of the sport over the comforts of say the team environments, not out of spite or anger but simply because he knew it to be true.

It was mentioned a few times on Tuesday evening that this is where Kiernan often came to rekindle his maverick ideas, Er Buchetto being his favourite little corner of Italy in the heart of Ranelagh. He cared about such things, and very little of what he spoke about wasn't thoughtful and heartfelt in that manner too, first towards the students he taught for almost 40 years and later the countless athletes he coached.

Ask any young athlete today what's the biggest obstacle to success on the world stage and they're in denial if they don't mention money. Still, they mostly all get on with it, representing their country for better or worse of, including those at the aptly selected location for the announcement of new funding made available through the Jerry Kiernan Foundation.

The café room was full of athletes old and young, some of those touched by Kiernan’s generous spirit over the years, others about to be.

Set up by friend and training partner Murt Coleman as the means to keep giving back some of what Kiernan left behind after his sudden death in January 2021, aged 67, one glance through the 22 names who between them will share in around €30,000 to begin with (between events on the track, field, cross-country and race-walking) and it’s clear even a little can go a long way. Kiernan knew this as well as anyone.

Scruff of the neck

In April of 1984 the then governing body of athletics known as BLE staged their national championship in conjunction with the Cork City Marathon, which would also double as the trial for the Los Angeles Olympics later that summer.

As he invariably did, Kiernan took the distance by the scruff of the neck, hitting the front after the first mile and never surrendering it, winning in 2:14:29, eight seconds ahead of Dick Hooper.

As was often their case, someone in BLE wasn't impressed, this time by the fact Kiernan wore an adidas-branded running vest, the race sponsor, as did women's winner Deirdre Nagle, and two hours after finishing they were both disqualified.

There’s no doubt they were getting their few pound from adidas for their efforts, still BLE considered that branding as “illegal”, and out they were thrown. Hooper remains credited as national marathon champion from that year, only Kiernan wasn’t deterred: it merely reset his intent to make Los Angeles, and he told BLE they could pick him on that time or not at all. In the end they did.

The next day Kiernan was back to his job as a teacher at St Brigid's Boys School in Foxrock, his first class at the time containing 40 students.

Not long after that then headmaster Donald O’Meara, also a Kerry native, decided on a school fund-raising plan to assist Kiernan with his preparations for the Olympics, and in part given the pride he’d already brought to St Brigid’s, the figure raised was close to 4,000 of our dear old punts.

You do think sometimes 'is this worth it', then you just think about the good times, you never let go"

By mutually kind agreement this afforded Kiernan the chance to take two months unpaid leave and train full-time in San Diego in the lead-up to the Games, where he ran twice a day, every day, soaking up all the heat and the sun the California summer had to offer. With the obvious exception of John Treacy's silver medal, he then produced one of the stand-out runs of that August evening, moving through the greatest marathon field ever assembled to finish ninth in 2:12:20, still the eighth-fastest man on the Irish all-time list.

Given there was zero governing body funding at the time, there's an equally zero chance Kiernan would have finished ninth without the efforts of his school. For most Irish athletes all things financial didn't improve until a good while later, and before the 1988 Olympics in Seoul BLE came to the likes of Treacy looking to secure 15 per cent of his earnings. They pressed him hard and threatened suspension. In the end they got nothing.

Stud farm

Jack O'Leary is one of the athletes getting his small share of the foundation funding and straight up told me how far it would go. At 24, O'Leary was running at Iona College in the US for the last six years, returning last November and is now living and working part-time at the family stud farm in Mullingar.

“So my parents are funding me as much as anyone, I’m not paying for food, for rent,” he said, adding the foundation would afford him the chance to train at altitude in Font Romeu next month, and again in September. O’Leary is also coming back from a stress fracture of the sacrum, and with an MA in Business Analytics presumably knows something about the current value in the running market.

“You do think sometimes ‘is this worth it’, then you just think about the good times, you never let go. It’s something about Jerry’s spirit too, because you have to love this sport, you never think of it as a chore. I just keep telling myself it will work out, you have to believe it will work out.”

Also benefitting is Efrem Gidey, the 21 year-old who completed that remarkable journey from war-torn Eritrea via a series of refugee camps to the medal podium at the 2019 European Cross-Country, winning bronze for Ireland in the Under-20 race, behind four-time defending champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen from Norway.

Gidey has endured some setbacks since, including the death in December 2020 of Joe Cooper, his coach and mentor at Clonliffe Harriers, his move up to 10,000m, running 28:25 on the road in Dunboyne last month, surely approved by Kiernan.

Because Tuesday was a reminder too of how sadly he is missed, a teasing voice in the back of my head wondering what Kiernan would say about GAA players up in arms at being out of pocket for any expense related to their inter-county activity.

Maybe it was the excellence of the house red at Er Buchetto and the company to boot or something like that.

READ MORE