Girl from the north country's fair comparison


ATHLETICS:It is no longer possible to refrain from labelling Ciara Mageean as “the next Sonia O’Sullivan”

IT WAS around six o’clock on Thursday when my friend Johnny called up looking to go for a jar in the Blue Light. The sun was still warm and it was one of those beautifully calm mid-summer evenings that can make the idea of living halfway up the Dublin Mountains seem very wise, unlike the feeling of complete madness you get some days in the winter.

Looking out over Killiney Hill and across Dublin Bay to the tranquil outline of Howth, it quickly became apparent to both of us that this wasn’t such a bad country to live in after all. We’d spent many an evening in this same spot lamenting the decline of our civilisation, and by that we usually meant the decline of Irish distance running.

This time our mood was different, entirely upbeat. Johnny asked me when I was going to write about “that girl from the North”, the one everyone is calling “the next Sonia”. There was nothing to do except nod approvingly out and then explain everything.

There are some subjects in this sport, I told him, which are simply best avoided – such as dog bites, the politics of Athletics Ireland, and the prospect of the next Sonia O’Sullivan. Of course there is no greater compliment in the sport than to be labelled “the next Sonia” – but there is no greater curse either. Because the problem with labels, as everybody knows, is that they tend to stick. No young athlete, no matter how good, deserves to be burdened with that label. Off the top of my head I could think of half a dozen youngsters once considered “the next Sonia” but who for various reasons never came close. I promised myself I’d spare them such a burden.

It’s just there’s no avoiding it any longer. “That girl”, 17-year-old Ciara Mageean from Portaferry, on the tip of the Ards Peninsula, is so good, so talented, and already so quick, that it’s just impossible not to label as her “the next Sonia”.

She’s certainly not the first young athlete to walk into such daunting footsteps. What separates Ciara Mageean from the rest is that she already seems comfortable in them. She’s often cited Sonia as her sporting idol and perhaps the biggest giveaway is that there is more than a small resemblance in the way she runs, the way she looks, and even the way she smiles. She is, in other words, a complete and undeniable natural.

The first time I really noticed her talent, I think, was at the National Cross Country championships in Belfast in March of last year. A few weeks prior to that, aged just 15, Mageean had won the National senior indoor 1,500 metres at The Odyssey, her time of 4:24.07 knocking two seconds off the then national junior record. That didn’t so much announce her arrival as scream it. Not even Sonia was as good at that age.

She’d also won the under-17 races at the Stormont and Edinburgh international cross country, so expectations were already great when she came to that muddy course in Belfast. She took the lead early on and threatened to run away with the thing, before being clawed back by the twin talents of the Dundrum sisters Charlotte and Rebecca Ffrench O’Carroll – who still have prospects of their own to be “the next Sonia”. Mageean ended up fourth, but it was obvious she had enormous potential, particularly as she was running against girls several years older.

Her very emergence has echoes of Sonia. There was no great family background in athletics, and instead it was her PE teacher at Assumption Grammar School in Ballynahinch who first spotted her talent. Mageean excelled at all sports, especially camogie, although it was her ability to run and keep running which clearly set her apart.

How to best develop that talent wasn’t exactly straightforward. Living in Portaferry means she starts every day with an 8.15am ferry trip across Strangford Lough to catch the school bus to Ballynahinch. Without any great athletic expertise at the school, it was decided she would link up with Eamonn Christie of the Beechmount Harriers club in Belfast, who has been coaching her since.

This means that on Tuesday evenings during the school week she doesn’t get to go home at all, but instead travels into Belfast to meet up with Christie at the Mary Peters Track. Most other evenings she trains alone on the Portaferry hurling pitch – with the same sort of inner ambition to succeed as the young Sonia famously displayed.

Once school was out for last summer Mageean quickly went about adding to her reputation. Few events are more competitive at junior level than the IAAF World Junior Championships, particularly the distance races, where young Kenyans and Ethiopians look to make their name. She went to Poland and ran a lifetime best of 4:21.73 to make the final, where she finished ninth – not bad at all considering she’s still plenty young for the 2010 Championships in Canada.

Then in August she went to the Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India and despite suffering from a dose of “Delhi Belly” won the bronze medal. Anyone who thinks Irish kids just aren’t tough enough anymore to make it in distance running should search out the short BBC One to Watch documentary on this trip.

But the race which convinced me that Mageean was the real deal was the 1,500 metres at this year’s National Indoor championships, back at The Odyssey in Belfast. Still a few weeks shy of her 17th birthday she took off from the gun, gradually winding up the pace with every lap. Rose Anne Galligan, at 21 still a fine prospect, made every effort to get past yet Mageean simply drove on, holding on for the victory in another new Irish junior record of 4:20.88. It was an amazing show of self-confidence all too reminiscent of a young Sonia.

Still I resisted this label “the next Sonia”. Let her be, I thought, and I might have got away with it too had Mageean not showed up at the Irish Schools on May 30th and won the 800 metres in a stunning 2:05.38 – eclipsing the 22 year-old Irish junior record which had stood to none other than Sonia O’Sullivan. As if to add an exclamation mark she then won the 1,500 metres by 10 seconds in 4:34.25. I might still have got away with it had Mageean not come out last weekend and at the Mannheim Junior Gala in Germany, won the 1,500 metres in 4:18.52 – which is actually faster than Sonia ran at that age.

So before leaving the Blue Light on Thursday, after watching the sun go down and ordering a last jar for the road, Johnny said it to me one more time; when I was going to write about “that girl from the North”, the one everyone is calling “the next Sonia”? It was useless to resist any longer.