Hartmann's book takes us on jaunty and energetic ride


ATHLETICS:Born to Perform is as much about the lives of others as it is about Ger Hartmann’s life, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

THE LAST thing Ger Hartmann needs is another glowing recommendation or words of praise, especially from the likes of me. This after all is the man who once found himself sitting in John Travolta’s private jet, en route to Florida, shortly after the star of Saturday Night Fever hurt his back so badly he couldn’t get out of bed.

By chance, it seems, he’d seen Hartmann on the Oprah Winfrey Show, alongside Paula Radcliffe, the day after she’d run a then world record of 2:17.18, in the Chicago Marathon. Radcliffe was lauding Hartmann’s healing power, and that, apparently, is what prompted Travolta to send for help. Two phone calls later Hartmann was headed for Ocala, Florida, where Travolta had his own private runway.

I’ve probably told this story before and whatever about the exact truth it still makes for a great intro. And Hartmann, I know for a fact, has dozens of stories just like it, most of which the rest of us couldn’t make up.

Like the first time I interviewed him at his old sports injury clinic, on Patrick Street, in Limerick: it was sometime in 2003, and for the few hours I was there, I witnessed Hartmann reduce one Irish rugby star to tears, tell one county GAA star he was getting fat, and answer a phone call from one big soccer star who’d once walked out on his team. Afterwards we went across the street for a cup of tea, and Hartmann made me promise not to tell anyone he knew of one Irish distance runner that was definitely on drugs.

Thankfully he wasn’t a star, but turned out to be Cathal Lombard.

A few years later, cycling over the Sally Gap, I crept up behind a lonesome rider, dressed in classic retro gear, and who I immediately recognised as Daniel Day-Lewis. We chatted away and have shared many a cycle since but what helped make that initial connection was that he too had been down to see Hartmann, at his clinic in Limerick, shortly after hurting his back on the set of Gangs of New York.

More recently Hartmann has been servicing the back of a famous drummer who would rather not be named here: suffice to say he’s the founding member of the biggest band in the world. How Hartmann ended up in the rock n’roll business is beyond me, but I have made him promise to alert the band to my exceptionally clean rhythm guitar playing.

None of these stories by the way have made it into Born to Perform – which is essentially the Ger Hartmann autobiography, and hits bookshops early next week. He’ll formally launch his book on Monday evening, at his new clinic – which a few years ago he moved, to the Sports Arena at the University of Limerick. There’s a pretty big crowd invited and the interesting thing will be their range of sporting backgrounds – from athletics, and also rugby, Gaelic football, hurling, soccer, swimming, cycling, horse racing, and triathlon. And I could go on.

Believe me, none of them will be there for the Chilean wine and chicken vol-au-vents. It’s amazing how many people who, a bit like Travolta, were somehow tipped off about Hartmann’s healing power, and they’ll be coming along on Monday as a sort of tribute. Hartmann has developed a bond with these athletes and players and even managers that goes beyond his mere treatment on the physio table – and that’s the first thing that sets Born to Perform apart.

The problem with most sports books is they’re typically a shallow and fruitless exercise, simply because the author – him, her or whoever – has too much to lose by telling the truth, or at least the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I could count on one hand the number of athletics books that would qualify as brutally honest reads, in the style of The Irishman Who Ran for England, by Jim Hogan, and unfortunately none of them have come in the last few years.

But Born to Perform is as much about the lives of others as it is about Hartmann’s life. He is our energetic and jaunty tour guide through the pioneering years of triathlon, when Hartmann himself won seven Irish titles between 1984 and 1991, and armed with amazing observation and total recall, he later walks us through the sporting lives not just of our own Sonia O’Sullivan and Eamonn Coghlan, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Séamus Moynihan, but the likes of Radcliffe and Kelly Holmes and also many of the great Kenyan runners, such as the mighty Douglas Wakiihuri and Moses Kiptanui.

Many of them will be along on Monday, and I can imagine Mickey Harte chatting to Jack O’Connor, Brian Dooher reminiscing with Moynihan, Keith Wood in awe of Seán Kelly, and Holmes trying to understand them all. Radcliffe has flown in for the week; O’Sullivan is coming back from Australia a week early to be there and Coghlan will do the formalities.

Still, Hartmann took a bit of stick last year when he “miraculously” got Henry Shefflin on to the field for the All-Ireland hurling final, exactly four weeks after he’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee. As it turned out Shefflin didn’t finish the game, and Kilkenny ended up losing to Tipperary. But ask Shefflin where he’d rather have been that day, on the field or in the stands, and there’s only one answer – and you’ll find it in Born to Perform.

I should point out at this stage that I do have a considerable bias here: I worked with Hartmann on his book, although not in the strict ghost-writing sense, whatever that actually means. (I was however only yesterday mistaken for a ghost, running in the wooded trials of Marley Park after dusk, when sweeping past a solitary man at such speed I very nearly frightened him to death.) Anyway, it was sometime in early January when Hartmann called me with his proposal. Truth is we’d discussed it before, thinking some sort of sports injury/treatment/rehab theme, although a bit like cookery books they’re usually more style than substance. I just told him to start writing something down, and instead he went down to Lanzarote for eight days, and handwrote around 300 foolscap pages in the brilliantly spontaneous style of Jack Kerouac and On the Road.

He starts, fittingly, with his bike accident, in 1991, when four days after winning his seventh Irish triathlon title, and back training in America, he hits an armadillo at 32mph and goes flying over the handlebars – splicing his right hip like a diamond. The Ger Hartmann story would have been interesting enough up to that point, but instead that still frightening turn of events made him realise he was born to perform in even more exuberant and masterful ways.

The only challenge was reining in his enthusiasm and sometimes over-sentimentality, but ultimately it’s written in his own style, his own voice, and from his own heart, complete with moments of self-doubt. In the end it means Born to Perform is much less about Hartmann’s healing power than the great power in the telling of it.