Cullen earns medal the hard way

 

IF THERE is such a thing as winning a championship medal the hard way, not just earning it but not settling for anything less, then Mary Cullen has shown exactly how it should be done. Sweet doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Not that championship medals are ever won easy, and as it turned out, the women’s 3,000 metres was one of the most competitive events at these European Indoors. So Cullen’s bronze, like Derval O’Rourke’s last Friday, felt almost as good as gold – and rounded off what has been a largely memorable weekend for the Irish in Turin.

Incredibly, there was very nearly a medal-winning climax when the women’s 4x400 metres relay team found themselves in third place with half of the final leg left to run. Unfortunately, Belarus came past and the Irish ended up fourth. No shame at all in that, though.

It would have been a real shame had Cullen missed out on a medal. She’d come to Turin a week early, off the back of her best US indoor season to date. At 26, eight years after leaving for a scholarship at Providence College in Rhode Island, she was in her prime. It was a winning preparation, and she was prepared to win.

As promised, she hit the front with 800 metres remaining in an effort the burn the legs off all the bigger kickers. And she very nearly did. She pressed harder and harder from the front, which takes great courage, and even greater determination – something Cullen has always shown since her school days in Sligo.

It just wasn’t quite enough to burn off Almitu Bekele, the Ethiopian disguised as a Turk, who forced herself past Cullen about 100 metres from the line. About 50 metres later Portugal’s Sara Moreira got past too – but by then it was too late for anyone else. Cullen held on in 8:48.47, behind Bekele’s Turkish record of 8:46.50, and Moreira’s personal best of 8:48.18.

“I knew I had to take it out, that I couldn’t leave it until the last 400 metres. I had to go for it. The plan was to shoot for the win, and at least get a medal. But I’m not going to lie. Coming down the back straight I did think about standing on the podium, with the Irish anthem being played. My sprint isn’t my strongest point, and I really had to dig deep. At least I held on for hardware.

“I knew that Turk was a dark horse. I’m disappointed the Portuguese just caught me. I’m happy with bronze. But silver would have been nice as well. But this is why you run. People still talk about money in athletics, but winning medals outweighs money by a long, long way.”

Truth is, it very nearly went wrong for Cullen. Five laps from home, shortly before making her surge to the front, she was clipped from behind and very nearly went down: “I just thought this is the same point David Gillick went down . . . there’s a jinx on us. It was a real shock, and I just about stayed up. I found it quite an aggressive race, compared to what I’m used to in the US. There were five or six there all thinking of winning. And there were no bad runners in there. I went for the win, got the bronze. Because I knew it was always going to be tough.”

Cullen did leave some serious athletes in her wake. The 1,500 metres specialist Nuria Fernandez of Spain was fourth, while the big Russian hope Anna Alminova faded to sixth – clearly over-stretched by her ambitions to add a second medal to her 1,500 metres gold. Deirdre Byrne, Ireland’s other finalist, was 11th in 9:08.89.

That an Ethiopian athlete ended up winning the European title is another reflection of the increasing trans-nationalities in athletics. Bekele still trains in Ethiopia, where her husband still lives, along with their five-year-old son. And when Cullen finished fourth in the European Cross Country back in December it was a Kenyan-born athlete, now disguised as a Dutch, who won gold.

“It’s hard sometimes if you think about that,” said Cullen. “But at the same time it makes us as athletes step up too. I still came here very confident, especially after beating Sonia O’Sullivan’s record.

“I’m looking forward to getting on with the rest of my career, after missing so much of 2008 with injury. Missing Beijing was a big, big disappointment, but I always knew I’d get back to my best, once I got back to the pain of racing.

“And I’ve had a lot of help along the way. Ger Hartmann got me back from injury, and gave me little tips as well to become more professional. And my coach Ray Treacy at Providence has been great. He kept telling me ‘believe’. Because I did have a hard time believing I could win. He sent me an email last night saying that. Believe.”

Cullen will spend the next five weeks in her native Drumcliff, preparing for the Great Ireland Run in April, and ultimately the World Championships in Berlin. She’ll also have to update her family on the final stages of her race. Although her parents are in Turin, the rest of the family watching on television in Sligo missed it when there was a power cut just as the race entered the final lap.

It’s a sweet story she’s likely to recount for a while anyway.