Subscriber OnlyAthletics

‘I’m a quick learner’ - Israel Olatunde’s rise to becoming Ireland’s fastest man

Daniel Kilgallon helps trace the short journey of the European Championship finalist

Franz Stampfl, who coached Roger Bannister to the first sub-four minute mile, always said his athletes never discussed any of his training methods. They were only given the chance to agree.

It worked for Bannister and for Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway too, though others might disagree. Stampfl also said the coach’s job is 20 per cent technical work and training, and 80 per cent inspirational.

“He may know all there is to know about tactics, technique and training, but if he cannot win the confidence and comradeship of his pupils, he will never be a good coach.”

Others might disagree with that too – an old reminder there is no such thing as the right or wrong method when it comes to coaching. Only what works best between a certain coach and usually less certain athlete.

READ MORE

Israel Olatunde and his coach Daniel Kilgallon are sitting on a sofa in the lobby of the Irish team hotel in Munich and talking about what it is that works so well between them.

It is the day after the night before, when Olatunde announced himself as the fastest Irishman in history, making the 100 metres final at these European Championship and then breaking the national record to finish sixth in 10.17 seconds. He only turned 20 in May, and if Munich has changed his life utterly already his sprinting career is only getting going.

Rhasidat Adeleke, still only 19, the following night went where no Irishwoman had gone before, finishing fifth in her European 400m final, lowering her own national record to 50.53 seconds. Olatunde’s close friendship and witty rapport with Adeleke was forged in more recent years, tied in part to the fact both their parents moved to Ireland from Nigeria before they were born, and they’ve never known anywhere other than Ireland as home.

Kilgallon is eminently qualified to assess the rise of both, given he first coached Adeleke too during her formative years at Tallaght Athletics Club, which he joined in 2010, becoming club sprint coach two years later.

So where did it all begin with Olatunde? Like many coach and athlete relationships there was some reluctance at first, after Olatunde’s existing coach in Dundalk, Gerry McArdle at Dún Dealgan AC, spoke with Kilgallon about taking the young sprinter to the next stage.

“When Gerry got in contact with me, and it’s important to mention his role in all this, he’d already coached Israel through school,” he says. “I was national relay coach at the time and we got a team to the World Under-20s in 2019. Israel was on the squad, was one of the quickest, but his baton-changing skills weren’t where they needed to be, so he didn’t make the team.

“Then the season after that, when Rhasidat was still in our training group, had won two sprint gold medals at the Youth Olympics. Israel had finished fifth, he got his place in UCD and Gerry got in touch again about taking on Israel.

“Then I heard Israel was going to be living in Dundalk, commuting to UCD, then over to Tallaght to train with us, then back to Dundalk, I thought it was crazy. So I did try to talk him out of it. I was just thinking he’s going to spend his life on a bus.

“We agreed to give it a try for six weeks. I remember the last thing Gerry said to me before he got back into his car and drove away was ‘Daniel, this guy has got something … I don’t know what it is yet, but he’s got something’. And he has got something, and I don’t know what it is yet either.”

Fast forward two years to Monday morning in Munich, when Olatunde is lining up in the outside lane of his 100m heat: Kilgallon wouldn’t arrive in Munich until Tuesday, also coach to the Irish 4x100m relay squad, which meant Olatunde was acting alone: he won his heat in 10.19 seconds, a personal best and just .01 shy of Paul Hession’s 15-year-old Irish record.

“He gave me all the pointers,” Olatunde says, “everything I needed to do to execute my race. I think I was only ranked third or fourth fastest in the heat, so just wanted to perform to my best. I wasn’t shocked to come away with the win, just really pleased, a personal best as well at 11am in the morning.”

For Kilgallon, the 42-year old originally from Ballina who also serves as sprints coach at DCU, there was no great reason to be there anyway: “Israel said he’d see me at the semi-final, that confidence was there. He’s got that himself already.

“Covid actually had some benefits for him, in that athletes can become over-reliant on coaches, and during Covid a lot of the time I couldn’t be there. I could be at training, but not at races, so you give pointers, start thinking about how the race will go.

“But I wouldn’t be giving much advice on the day of a race anyway, I think it muddles the mind. We talk about these things in advance, and the last few championships, like the World Indoors, I wasn’t there. You’ll have some pointers on race day, like ‘remember you were working on this’, and ‘make the last 10 metres the best 10 metres of your race’, so that you’re always crossing the line at 100 per cent. We worked on that a lot, which is exactly how he raced in the semi-final and final.”

Indeed he did, Olatunde finishing second to Italy’s Olympic champion Marcell Jacobs, who took the win in 10 seconds flat to Olatunde’s 10.20 – the second fastest time of his life. Neither coach or athlete had any fear of being overwhelmed by the occasion.

“I woke up at 7am, did some stretching in the morning. I’ve been reading a Muhammad Ali biography, a really good read, which also keeps me from over-thinking too much. I knew it would be my first time in an arena like that, 50,000 people, and all I was thinking then was ‘take it all in.’

“I had no idea where I finished, I was just waiting for my name to come up and when it did I just dropped. Then I just composed myself real quick. I had the final to run.”

Kilgallon was impressed and not surprised: himself a former sprinter of some pedigree who frequently raced against Hession, he knew the lessons his athlete had learned, his capacity to ensure they didn’t happen again.

“I don’t think Israel will mind me saying this, but at the European Under-20s last year, when we expected a final place, he got a little ragged at the end of his semi-final, reacting to people around him. And this year’s World Indoors, too, he maybe jumped up too soon, rather than hit maximum velocity.

“So the goal out here was to execute the race no matter what position or where he is. Actually in the semi-final maybe the occasion did get to him a little bit, you can see him reaching, but the focus he has brought him back in, again the last 10 metres he finished strong.

“I know I am older than him, but he thinks I’m ancient, and before that race I was telling him about the 1974 World Cup final held inside this same stadium, and it looks exactly the same in the old videos. I remember it too from Panini sticker album, for the 1990 World Cup.

“Anyway, Gerd Muller scored the winning goal in 1974, against the Netherlands, and his nickname was Der Bomber. So when Israel was going into the call room before his semi-final I just said ‘Der Bomber, be Der Bomber’ and he was, taking guys out right through the race.

“You try take a little inspiration from other sports like, and sometimes a little nonsense too in these situations, take some of the focus off what’s actually about to happen.”

What is increasingly evident as they talk about each other is the gentle mutual respect: “I think yes when Daniel is not there, I’m still equipped to do what I need to do,” Olatunde says. “But when he is there, it does take a load off me, just talking nonsense or more random stuff together like. It puts me at ease, calm and confident too.”

Back on the warm-up track before the final, Olatunde did one last transition run when he felt a pop go inside one of the air capsules in the sole of his spike, which would mean racing on a slightly deflated tyre.

“All my spikes have burst at this stage, I’d no spare, and it was too late to change. It happened before when I ran my 10.27 in Austria. I’ve burst five pairs already. So I just had to get on with on, not let it get to me.”

Kilgallon certainly wasn’t bothered either: “He’s definitely an old head on young shoulders. Between the semi-final and final he put on some classical music, he has some very exquisite taste in music like that.

“I knew he had the potential. For some athletes that can be a burden. Having coached Rhasidat before as well you’ve been in positions like this before, and you just try to normalise it as much as possible. We’re not talking about a European final, we’re talking about another race.

“With Israel too he’s very in control of his own warm-up, with other athletes you might have to go through it with them. He made his plan, sent it on his phone to me, and we stuck to that. The funny thing too is that everyone else was talking about the national record, and we never once talked about it.”

Still, as certain as it appeared Olatunde would one day break through, his goal is to be among the fastest of all time.

“Of course,” he says, “I will enjoy the experience but it’s just a stepping stone on my journey. I’m still so young, still have so many things to work on and improve, and I’ve learned so much here the last few days, I just want to keep going further and further. I’m just looking forward to improving more, and seeing how far we can take it.”

It was midnight when Ireland’s now fastest man got back to the hotel, and agreed a walk with his coach to McDonald’s would be a nice way to sign off.

“As a coach with any athlete, whether they run well or not, I find a little walk in the evening is a good way to clear the head, reflect on things, and Israel feels the same. We do get on well, but what I find is you only have to tell him something once. It goes into some computer system in the head and it stays here. The support of his parents and family has been perfect balanced too, never too pushy, always just supportive.”

On his return, Olatunde will complete his final year in Computer Science at UCD as a campus resident, the absence of that long commute one less thing to hold him back so.

“True but things could go the other way too, because he has to do his own cooking and washing now too, and isn’t a great cook” says Kilgallon.

Olatunde is given the chance to agree or disagree.

“No, but I’m a quick learner.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics

IN THIS SECTION