We were finishing up at the Friday dawn swimming club at Lough Bray — the upper one, not the second one — when a younger member asked me when the track and field season gets started for real. When does it really end?
Jakob Ingebrigtsen is already hard at it. In case you missed it (easily done), the Norwegian won his first outdoor race of the season at the Rabat Diamond League last Sunday, perfectly executing another 1,500m. Same as he always does.
“I love the competition,” Ingebrigtsen said, when quizzed on his unceasing drive. “I’ve been competitive my whole life, I always put myself on the line, give it my 100 per cent. And that’s how I’ve been acting, and what I’ve been doing, my whole life … I love to race, and most of all I love to win.”
It’s one thing becoming the best runner in the world, another thing again becoming it before your 21st birthday
That much is undeniable.
His father, Gjert Ingebrigtsen, remembers things the same way. “When Jakob was around 11, he told me, ‘I want to be the best runner in the world’. He’d already worked it all out in his mind. And since that day, he’s never wavered.”
Ingebrigtsen snr told this story more than once, never wavering in his own belief either that Jakob, the second youngest of his six sons, would someday become exactly that — the best runner in the world.
Only in telling it again, in the aftermath of the Tokyo Olympics, could he also relish the speed with which their ambition was fulfilled: it’s one thing becoming the best runner in the world, another thing again becoming it before your 21st birthday — Ingebrigtsen winning that gold medal, in the old blue-riband event, in 3:28.32, breaking the Olympic record by just over three seconds.
There’s been a lot of talk and debate over the last week or so around what is the suitable age to introduce a properly competitive element to sport, particularly in Gaelic Games. Most people appear to have made up their mind, that everything under the age of 12 should only be played for fun.
By age 14, he was with the Bryne Under-19s, scoring from the halfway line at 15; then with Salzburg FC, the first teenager to score in five consecutive Champions League matches
To become the best in an individual sport, particularly athletics, that doesn’t necessarily hold true: if Ingebrigtsen hadn’t been honing his competitive edge since age 11, it’s hard to see him becoming Olympic champion just 10 years later.
The same perhaps for that other Norwegian wunderkind Erling Haaland being exactly two months younger than Ingebrigtsen. Long before proving his worth at Manchester City, Haaland was honing his competitive edge at his hometown club Bryne FC, which he joined at age five.
By age 14, he was with the Bryne Under-19s, scoring from the halfway line at 15; then with Salzburg FC, the first teenager to score in five consecutive Champions League matches; before in the 2019 Under-20 World Cup he scored a record nine goals in a single match.
What is undeniable is this: ask me when our track and field season gets started for real and the answer is still the Irish Schools Championships, the pure thrill of which again returns to Tullamore all day Saturday — and this year, for the first time, extended into the Friday evening too.
From an original entry of about 20,000 of the finest student-athletes across the four provinces — coming from 671 affiliated schools, just under three-quarters of all secondary and post-primary schools across the 32 counties — about 1,000 have qualified to compete for All-Ireland honours.
Given only the top three in each provincial event progress to the national stage, it’s a process equalled in ruthlessness by only the US Olympic Trials.
It’s naturally 50-50 boys and girls, utterly inclusive, and from Minor (under-14), Junior (under-15), Intermediate (under-17) to Senior (under-19), every one of those 122 events will be properly competitive, the mindset here being that winning at least a medal is everything and losing sucks.
Ronnie Delany was Irish Schools champion, winning the senior boys 800m in 1952, representing CUS in Dublin, and again in 1953
Most people who ever competed here know that, including myself, because in the now 34 years since tearing around the final bend of the old Belfield track, somehow snatching the 1,500m bronze medal, nothing else has really come close. There are more important things in life than standing on the medal podium at the Irish Schools Championships, although in that moment there definitely wasn’t.
That’s in part because the Irish Schools remain the single most important platform and pathway for any young Irish athlete seeking to attain some higher level of success on the track or field. Since 1916, to be exact.
Ronnie Delany was Irish Schools champion, winning the senior boys 800m in 1952, representing CUS in Dublin, and again in 1953 (only not before his brother Joe, who won the senior boys 400m in 1950). Just three years later Delany won his Olympic gold medal.
It is where you should go for a first sighting of the future. Beginning with say Sonia O’Sullivan, Catherina McKiernan, Niall Bruton and David Matthews, continuing with Rob Heffernan, Derval O’Rourke, Fionnuala Britton and David Gillick, right up to Thomas Barr, Ciara Mageean, Mark English and Phil Healy.
The latest was standout Schools champions from 2019 Rhasidat Adeleke of Presentation Terenure, who won a brilliant sprint double at intermediate level, winning the 100m in 11.69. Look where Adeleke is just four years later.
At the Tokyo Olympics, 18 of the Irish athletes who qualified were previously Irish Schools champions in their event, bringing the overall tally of that feeder of sorts to 91 in all. For some previous Irish Olympians their records still stand, such as the 14:17.0 which John Treacy from St Anne’s, Cappoquin, ran to win the senior boys 5,000m in 1974.
Almost without exception, every one of Ireland’s World, European or Olympic medal winners also won an Irish Schools title
Niall Bruton, who won the 800m and 1,500m that day 34 years ago, told me once that the Irish Schools always stood to him as a grounding not just in learning how to race and how to win, but also in dealing with the pressure of needing or being expected to win.
Indeed almost without exception, every one of Ireland’s World, European or Olympic medal winners also won an Irish Schools title, but then some of the losers did too, spurred on by that feeling of watching others stand on the medal podium ahead of them.
Such is the true competitive nature of any sport, and nowhere does it still flourish and last quite like a day at the Irish Schools.