Battling big odds to make start line


A persistent Achilles injury had put Ciarán O’Lionáird’s Olympic dream in jeopardy. He tells IAN O’RIORDANwhy it was worth fighting for

If the Olympics didn’t come round only once every four years he’d be nowhere near London right now, probably hiding out instead, maybe even in the Catskills. He’s accepted that it’s not going to be the performance that he’d planned on, but he’s won the ticket, and O’Lionáird is determined to enjoy the ride.

It’s not even a year yet since, with one single run, he improved his 1,500 metres best by nearly eight seconds to 3:34.46, moved to fourth on the Irish all-time list, qualified for the World Championships in Daegu, and the London Olympics.

For those who thought it was a fluke – and plenty of people did – O’Lionáird went on to make the final in Daegu and finish 10th, the best ever placing by an Irish athlete in the event, and better still looked entirely comfortable in such world-class company.

Onwards and upwards for 2012, or so he thought: this evening, in Santry, O’Lionáird will have only his second race of the summer, in the Morton Mile, and his 1,500 metres best so far this year is 3:50.12, probably one of the slowest times he’s run since his schoolboy days in Macroom.

It’s no secret or mystery as to what’s gone wrong, but simply a chronic inflammation of his left Achilles tendon – which first came on during the indoor season, soon crippled his ability to train, and very nearly pulled the curtain down on 2012 before it ever really began. A lesser man would almost certainly have limped away, but O’Lionáird, perhaps stubbornly, ran on, and for that Irish distance running has a lot to be thankful for.

At 24, O’Lionáird may only be coming into his prime, but he’s embraced the sport with levels of openness and enthusiasm that quickly set him apart – at least on the social networks. Though his daily tweets and extensive Facebook blogs it’s been access all areas, and usually fascinating, occasionally daunting, and, as his appearance in the London Calling documentary series also proved, always entertaining.

For the past week he’s been based in London, in Teddington, having finally got through his first outdoor race of the summer at last week’s Cork City Sports. He finished fifth in the mile, clocking 3:58.84, which removed at least some of the physical and mental doubts going into the Olympics.

“People are saying to me now, ‘you’re healthy, it must be great to be healthy’, and I kind of laugh, because healthy really is a relative term,” he says, and by that O’Lionáird means that he’s still considerably restricted when it comes to doing the proper speed work necessary for an Olympic 1,500 metres.

It won’t help that this year, like every Olympic year, has seen the 1,500 metres move into a higher gear: in 2011, no man broke 3:30, and so far this year three men have, the best of which is the 3:28.88 that reigning Olympic champion Asbel Kiprop ran in Monaco just last Friday night.

There have been countless moments over the last four months when O’Lionáird thought it would be better to be watching these Olympics on TV. After Daegu, conscious of the importance not to rest on his laurels, he made the bold yet daunting move to the Nike Oregon Project in Oregon, to work with leading American distance running coach Alberto Salazar, and some of his star pupils, including Britain’s Mo Farah.

Everything was going to plan, and when he ran a 3:54.76 mile in one of his first indoor races, the London Olympics suddenly couldn’t come quick enough. But quicker still the wheels starting to come loose, and O’Lionáird went to the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul as a possible medallist, and instead effectively finished last in his heat, running that 3:50.12. By then his Achilles was screaming, and something clearly had to change.

A few weeks later he’d jumped ship, with Salazar’s approval, to the nearby Nike Oregon Track Club Elite, based in Eugene, to work under former British steeplechase standout Mark Rowland, and train, perhaps, at a more reasonable pace.

“It took some tough talks with Mark Rowland,” he recalled. “coupled with taking a serious look in the mirror, for me to realise that the 2012 Olympics were worth fighting for, and that if I was to make it to the start line I would have to be prepared to start the build-up very slowly, and deal with the pain that running caused.”

Typical of O’Lionáird, there was an honesty in his appraisal, both humbling and motivating: he admitted there were days “where I’ve thought to myself that I stumbled into the realm of professional running almost by accident last year”, and “that I was not built with the body or the mind frame to sustain the rigours of competing at this level”. It can’t have been easy, but he found the spirit to rise above the negativity, and is now poised to bring some of the old fire back to the track this evening, and then try light it up again in London next week.

* This evening’s Morton Games International begins at Santry Stadium at 7.15 pm, the highlight being the Morton Mile (9.0pm), where Ciarán Ó Lionáird will line up against 13 other sub-four minute milers, all eyeing the 32-year-old stadium record of American Steve Scott, who ran 3.53.80 in 1980.

Around a dozen London Olympians will be action, although none more fired up to run than Ó Lionáird.

TOP 10 1,500 METRES MEN OF 202:

1: 3:28.88 Asbel Kiprop (Ken)

2: 3:29.63Silas Kiplagat (Ken)

3: 3:29.7 Nixon Kiplimo Chepseba (Ken)

4: 3:30.31 Ayanleh Souleiman (Dji)

5: 3:30.35 Nick Willis (NZL)

6: 3:30.54 Amine Laalou (Mar)

7: 3:30.80 Taoufik Makhloufi (Alg)

8: 3:31.00 Bethwell Birgen (Ken)

9: 3:31.45 Mekonnen Gebremedhin (Eth)

10: 3:31.61.Benson Seurei (Ken)

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