On paper and in practice they had little right to be here. Only in keeping with much of the Irish spirit around Munich this week that’s just the way they like it.
Here we go again. Saturday night’s penultimate session of these European Championships had originally been looking a little thin on Irish interest. Instead the women’s 4 x 400 metres relay team booked their place straight into the final (8.45pm Irish time) after running a new Irish record on Friday morning which equally put them in medal contention.
Not long before that Louise Shanahan booked her place in the 800m final (7.15pm Irish time), originally unlikely too as she toed the line against women of considerably greater experience. Undaunted the Cork runner produced an astute tactical race to nail her automatic qualifying place in third in 2:01.15, Olympic silver medallist Keely Hodgkinson winning in 2:00.67.
Also on Saturday (7.43pm Irish time) Sarah Lavin goes in her opening heat of the 100m hurdles, certainly capable of making Sunday’s semi-final, and possibly the final later that night too.
As if Rhasidat Adeleke hadn’t done enough already, she joined the Irish quartet of Sophie Becker, Phil Healy and Sharlene Mawdsley in the second semi-final needing to finish in the top three to secure automatic qualification, only they went a lot better – taking second with a new national record with 3:26.06.
It might have been a victory too, Mawdsley on the last leg only overtaken near the line by Lisanne de Witte of the Netherlands, who won in 3:25.84, the Irish quartet still taking a second and a half off the previous national record of 3:27.48, set back in 2011 at the World Championships.
All four splits were impressive, Becker opening in 52.21 despite missing several weeks of training with a third dose of Covid; Becker handed over to Healy, who ran 51.75; and then came Adeleke, who produced an astonishing 49.49-second split to leave Ireland clearly in front, in her now 50th race of the season.
Adeleke, for one, believes there is more there. “I just wanted to make sure I passed off the baton in the lead, get as much as a gap as we can get. I didn’t realise I was running that fast, felt in control, but really happy and looking forward to the final now.”
Mawdsley closed out in a 52.58, the job impressively done.
“I was in a lot of pain, very sick, but I got over it soon enough,” Becker said of her Munich build-up. “Not ideal, so I decided not to do the individual and I think that gamble paid off. I’m not gonna lie, I felt the pressure of [running] the first leg, lane one, there’s a lot to do, but I’m really happy with how I ran. I handed to Phil and she got to the break first so mission accomplished.
“There’s definitely room to take another second, second and a half, off that time. We’re all hungry for more. Why can’t we battle for a medal? It’s not out of the question.”
The eight-team final also includes medal favourites the Dutch, Britain and Poland, along with Germany, Spain, Belgium, and Switzerland, Ireland ending up fifth fastest after the two semi-finals.
Healy also put behind her sub-par run in the individual, admitting she was running on anger. “When I came out of here on Monday I was like, ‘jeez, have I lost my spot on the relay?’ I knew I was in better shape but I had no answers to what happened but to come out, do myself justice – it was almost an angry run knowing what I was capable of, and to get a 51-second split, it’s what we needed to do.”
And the chance of a medal?
“Well medals need to go off the table,” said Healy, “if you put that expectation on you, you get distracted. We have a job to do, everyone is looking for a top position. We’re in the final, we have that box ticked, we need to do our job correctly, and if we do that everything can happen.”
It certainly can, and while the Dutch have individual champion Fenke Bol to call on, she’s coming off a heavy race schedule having run the hurdles too. The Irish team includes Róisín Harrison and Cliodhna Manning and one of those may come into the mix too, the other question being do Ireland put Adeleke on the anchor leg or not?
Shanahan produced an excellent first-round heat on Thursday morning and, despite visible signs of illness after, went better again here when nailing third place. It’s a more daunting final for her, perhaps, but she’s there too and that’s good enough for now, her 2:01.15 the second fastest of her career.
“The race was almost identical [to her heat] but I felt so much better,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I got the big Q, and to see it next to my name and be in a European final is a dream come true. I’ll go into it and give it my all.
Shanahan, currently a PhD student in quantum physics at Cambridge, qualified eighth fastest overall. “To make the final is a huge achievement. We’re already in bonus territory as my goal here was to get out of the heat. I ran the heat as if it was a final and I ran this as if it was bonus territory. I was surprised by how much my legs had. I’m absolutely delighted, happy out.”
There was, however, big disappointment for the men’s 4 x 100m quarter of Israel Olatunde, Mark Smyth, Colin Doyle and Joseph Ojewumi, Olatunde, getting them off to an excellent start only for Smyth and Doyle to mess up their exchange and Ireland failed to finish.