Ian O'Riordan: Is staying at home now the way to go?

Growing evidence that perhaps once preferred option of US scholarship is no longer most successful one

UCD’s Darragh McElhinney: he is already an underage medal winner on the European stage. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

UCD’s Darragh McElhinney: he is already an underage medal winner on the European stage. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

We gathered at Santry Demesne from the early morn, and over the course of the long day watched one medal chance slip away after the other until all hope was duly lost. Just because you’re running on home ground doesn’t always make these tasks any easier, does it?

Either way, there isn’t any glory to be revisited here from the first and last time the European Cross-Country was staged in this country on this same weekend 2009. It wasn’t through lack of effort: for four of the five laps in the senior women’s race the Irish team looked certain of winning at least bronze. Then it all fell apart and they ended up a distant fourth, Fionnula McCormack again the best of the lot in 11th.

It was a day of mild surprises all round, Britain’s Hayley Yelling winning that women’s race, at 35, having come out of retirement at the start of the season.

Few expected the former Ethiopian Alemayehu Bezabeh to win the men’s race for Spain, out-sprinting Britain’s Mo Farah on one of those last days before he assumed that unbeatable mask. Turned out Bezabeh was up to no good, and he was done for doping a year later, caught red-handed carrying a bag of his own blood for a banned transfusion.

On paper that day the Irish senior men’s team of Mark Kenneally, Martin Fagan, Alistair Cragg and Andrew Ledwith looked capable of winning medals, were second after the first of their six laps, only to end up sixth.

Kenneally did well to finish eighth, the other three, who all came through the US scholarship trail, had recently trained at altitude in the US, unable to find their best form on home ground. The only other Irish athlete to make the top-10 that day was Ciara Mageean, ninth in the under-20 race, still aged only 17.

Irish teams

Fast forward 12 years to Abbotstown this Sunday, where the only three survivors from the six Irish teams who raced in Santry that day will be McCormack, Mageean, and Emmet Jennings, now suitably graduated from junior to senior ranks. Coincidentally or otherwise, all three progressed their careers on home ground rather than pursue the US scholarship trail, and there is increasing evidence perhaps that the once preferred option for young Irish distance runners, that holy trail of sorts, is no longer the more successful one.

Glance over the seven teams and 40 runners representing Ireland on Sunday – including the mixed 4x1,500m relay, introduced in 2017 – and for many it seems that traditional US breeding ground isn’t as desirable as being continually bred on home ground, particularly when it comes to those likely to be wearing the Irish vest in the years to come.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the men’s and women’s under-23 races, introduced in 2006 to help bridge that often difficult gap between junior and senior level. Leading the Irish challenge here are Darragh McElhinney and Sarah Healy, both happily pursuing their running and studies at UCD, both already underage medal winners on the European stage, both turning down the plethora of US scholarship offers that came their way.

McElhinney was among the most promising Irish juniors in many years, first laying claim to that as a 17-year-old when he broke the Irish youth 3,000m record, running 8:18.18, with that eclipsing the 8:20.40 which had stood to John Treacy since 1974.

Two summers ago McElhinney further underlined his potential when he became the first Irish teenager to break 14 minutes, running a brilliant 13:54.10, and followed that up with a bronze medal at the European Under-20 Championships in Sweden, duly celebrated with a homecoming to Glengarriff in west Cork, even if this actually fell short of his own expectation, which was to win gold.

Stepping stone

With that he became only the third Irish athlete in 55 years to medal in an under-20 5,000m after Treacy’s silver back in 1975 and Mark Carroll’s gold in 1991. Treacy went on to win a few more medals, Carroll did too, and while every underage medal is just a stepping stone to what potentially lies ahead – and there is no more perilous journey in sport than what lies ahead for the young athlete – McElhinney has continued to progress nicely.

After completing his Leaving Cert year at Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí, McElhinney had no doubt he wanted to continue that progress at UCD, where he is studying politics and history, coached by Emmet Dunleavy, who has a growing stable of promising young athletes.

Just turned 21, McElhinney has some additional motivation for Sunday having being forced to withdraw from the European Indoor Championships in Poland back in March due to a false positive for Covid-19, then enduring the “farcical” situation of having to run the ‘B’ race at the European under-23 championships in Tallinn, Estonia, after they decided to split the entries based on ranking, the problem with that being McElhinney had not yet run a 5,000m this year in order to be ranked.

He got some consolation in running a 3:58.20 mile in London in July, another Irish under-23 record and only the eighth man from Cork to go sub-four, and so far has no doubt that going to UCD was the better option.

“It probably should have been a little bit more a difficult decision than it was. This is just my opinion, I kind of feel that if I went to America, graduated at 22, had raced all NCAA seasons every year for four years, trained like a professional four years, then you get to 22 and where do you really go, where is the next step?”

First preference

For Healy, still only 20, as well as making the Tokyo Olympics in the 1,500m she continued her record progression this summer by breaking the Irish under-23 3,000m record, which had stood to Sonia O’Sullivan since 1990. The UCD option was also always her first preference.

“I really like my set-up at the moment. It’s very much an Irish base, I have great people around me, great coaches, and I don’t feel like I’m lacking in any facilities or anything like that. I’m very confident that I can get to where I want to go from here.”

Under-23 team-mate Danielle Donegan is also at UCD; Lauren Tinkler also happily progressing from a home base at Dublin City Harriers under her coach Enda Fitzpatrick; Rebecca Rossiter among the under-20 runners already eyeing UCD as her next breeding ground too.

So is Nicolas Griggs, the super-talented still 16-year-old who may well open proceedings on Sunday with glory in the men’s under-20 race. So far he is equally impressive running on home ground or away.

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