A typical week of winter training for Kate O’Connor reads more like a school timetable. Physio, high jump, sprints, gym lessons on a Monday morning, then long jump, javelin, sprint hurdles and ice baths in the afternoon.
Shot put, physio, flat sprints on a Tuesday morning, then strength and conditioning, a double of distance running and ice baths in the afternoon. And so on and so forth for the rest of the week.
Hers is a training programme unlike most others given her multievent discipline demands it: the heptathlon, seven events staged across two days – the 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200m on day one, then the long jump, javelin, 800m on day two – also demands discipline without compromise.
It’s already brought O’Connor some considerable reward, including a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham last August, representing Northern Ireland, which neatly connected her with one of the great multievents athletes of all time.
Because watching O’Connor in the Alexander Stadium was Mary Peters, who in between winning two Commonwealth gold medals for Northern Ireland in the then five-event discipline, the pentathlon, won the 1972 Olympic gold medal in Munich 50 years previous.
Though born in Lancashire, Peters moved to the North at age 11, first to Ballymena and then Belfast, where the 83-year-old still lives. For O’Connor, born in Newry and now living in Dundalk, the chance to meet Peters after her own Commonwealth Games medal success clearly made a lasting impression.
“I’d had a couple of interactions with her, but never met her to that extent,” says O’Connor. “We’ve sat down and had a few chats, and she’s given me a lot of advice. Just listening to her, she’s such an amazing woman, and all the stuff she still does now for her trust fund.
“I think I always knew of Mary Peters, she was always a role model, coming so close to home as well. Then once I got more aware of the event I became more aware of her huge achievements. She’s definitely someone I aspire to be like.”
Still only 21 (she turns 22 on December 12th), O’Connor wrote her own little piece of athletics history when in 2019 she won the first international medal for Ireland in the heptathlon, nailing silver at the European Under-20 Athletics Championships in Boras, Sweden. The only Irish man to medal in a major championship multievent before also came at this level, when Barry Walsh won decathlon bronze in the 1987 European Under-20s in Birmingham.
These are rare medals given the demands of the discipline, and O’Connor can vouch for that too. Two weeks after winning her Commonwealth Games silver, injury forced her late withdrawal from the European Championships in Munich, another medal a realistic possibility.
“With the heptathlon you’re always going to have some niggles,” she says. “It’s just such a full-on, high intensity event, with so much training involved. The competition as well is always full-on, and taxing on your body.
“Just from talking with the other heptathletes, everyone gets injured, you just have to deal with it. I was all set to compete in Munich, even with the quick turnaround from Birmingham, went through warm-up, then just felt a leg strain. I possibly could have got through day one, but might well have ended up making the injury a whole lot worse, I so pulled out. But definitely the right call in the end. I had a previous stress fracture in the area, and it’s just something I need to monitor for the rest of my career.”
Indeed her career is only beginning, what unfolded in Birmingham last August a reminder of that. Following a brilliant series of performances over the two days, O’Connor finished second behind defending champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson from England, the 29-year-old also a World Champion both indoors and out.
Thanks to a spectacular javelin throw in the penultimate event, her 51.14m the best of the lot, O’Connor moved from fifth to second, before her fourth-place finish in the final event, the 800m, sealed her silver medal, scoring a season best of 6,233 points (gold going to Johnson-Thompson with her 6,377 points).
O’Connor also set personal bests in the 100m hurdles and 200m on day one, those runs coming either side of solid high jump and shot put marks; she dropped back to fifth after the long jump, that likely costing her the chance to surpass her own Irish senior record of 6,297 points, set in Italy last year.
Her breakthrough performance at those European Under-20 Championships in 2019, aged 18, saw her win silver with 6,093 points, that also smashing the existing Irish senior record, the first time any Irish woman has surpassed 6,000 points.
She first took to the multievents at school at St Gerard’s in Dundalk, coached by her father Michael, her success in 2019 presenting the chance to attend the University of Texas, where Rhasidat Adeleke has been making such fast progress. Instead, O’Connor briefly moved to Sheffield to train in the group of Toni Minichiello, who coached Jessica Ennis to Olympic heptathlon gold in 2012.
The pandemic brought her back to Dundalk in March 2020, and after completing a BA in communications, is currently doing a part-time MA at Ulster University, training between Belfast and Dundalk, her father back overseeing the coaching.
“I loved Sheffield, loved the experience,” she says, “and it definitely opened me up to the level of training required, the level of discipline. With my dad we get on great, we’re like best friends, and it’s always nice to know you have someone who is 100 per cent on your side.”
Next summer’s World Championships in Budapest offer the chance of another first given there’s never been an Irish representative in the heptathlon before. Which is the motivation through much of that typical winter training.
“We’re working on the long jump that bit more, that’s basically where I lost the gold at the Commonwealth Games, so I need to pull up my socks there. But you can’t just focus on one event either, it just means trying to stay fresh going into those sessions, so I can put more effort in. We try to hit each event twice, if we can. It doesn’t always work out. We have a training programme we call a moving programme – it depends what happens during the week.
“In competition we’re all so close. Even at Commonwealth Games, Katarina was giving little tips to everyone, kind of like the big sister, even though we were all competing against each other. None of are standing on the line hoping for the worst for the rest of us, we all get along, that’s one of the really nice things about the heptathlon.