“We could sure use you guys at Villanova.”
So it’s 65 years already since that simple proposition changed the course of our sporting history – or at least bulldozed an entirely new trail. Although not everyone thinks George Guida did Irish athletics a favour.
Guida was a student at Villanova University and part of the American sprint relay team at the 1948 Olympics in London, where one morning at the athletes’ dining hall, he noticed three young men laughing away at each other. Recognising good company when he saw it, Guida sat down, introduced himself, and told them all about what Villanova had to offer.
“George, are you’re telling us if we could run or throw well enough, we’d get a scholarship to an American university, which would include full tuition, full board, books, and all that?”
That’s what fellow sprinter Jimmy Reardon thought of the proposition, while the two men sitting beside him, thrower Cummin Clancy and miler John Joe Barry, nodded approvingly. “In my opinion,” Guida continued, “all of you would easily qualify. The very fact you’re here representing your country, you must be the best Ireland has to offer.”
Whatever about being the best Ireland had to offer, the following year, 1949, Reardon, Clancy and Barry were wandering around Villanova, looking for the coach branded as “Jumbo” Elliott. So began the so-called American scholarship trail: one small step for three Irish athletes, one giant leap for Irish athletics.
In the decades that followed, that trail not only spread across America, but attracted an increasing number of young Irish athletes. While Ronnie Delany, Noel Carroll, Eamonn Coghlan and later Marcus O'Sullivan all followed the Villanova trail to Pennsylvania, others headed south to Arkansas and East Tennessee, or north to Michigan, one young Kerry athlete even finding his way as far west as Pocatello, Idaho, in the heart of the Rockies.
Soon, the American scholarship trail was sign-posted as the only way for Irish athletes to succeed in the sport. The dearth of facilities and proper competition at home meant those who dared stay behind were destined to fail. When John Treacy won his two World Cross Country titles, in 1978 and 1979, he was still on scholarship at Providence College, in Rhode Island; same with Sonia O'Sullivan, who burst onto the Olympic stage in Barcelona in 1992 while still on scholarship at Villanova.
All this painted a brilliantly cinematic opportunity, when in reality, for every Treacy and O’Sullivan, there were dozens of young Irish athletes who followed the scholarship trail and almost dropped dead in its tracks. I know that because I was one of them. That’s not saying some of them didn’t end up living in a penthouse apartment overlooking Wall Street, or owning thousands of acres in Wyoming, but their running careers never recovered from four years of adding up weekly mileage to avoid a one-way plane ticket back home.
Then, in the 90s, things started to change. In 1992, Catherina McKiernan won the first of four successive silver medals at the World Cross Country, training around the fields of Cornafean. Cavan. In 2000 James Nolan won the silver medal over 1,500m at the European Indoors, on the back of a scholarship at UCD.
There'll be further evidence of this shift in direction at tomorrow's European Cross Country, in Belgrade. At 29, Fionnuala Britton is in the prime of her career, as hungry as ever for a third successive title. Indeed Britton needed some careful nurturing during her time at DCU, without which things might have gone horribly wrong. Paul Pollock, now 27, leads the Irish men's challenge, his career only beginning to bloom after several years concentrating on his medical studies – and again it's hard to imagine him still running had he spent four years counting his per diem to survive like some of us did.
Indeed these days the scholarship trail is sign-posted with flashing warning lights. Beware of athlete burnout! The number of young Irish athletes currently on scholarship is probably close to its lowest of the last 65 years, although the trail is not buried yet. Two weeks ago, at the American Collegiate Cross Country, Ray Treacy – brother of John, and also a former scholarship athlete – celebrated 30 years of coaching at Providence by producing the winning women’s team, which included young Irish athlete Sarah Collins. This week, Marcus O’Sullivan – now head coach at Villanova – was home looking for some fresh recruits, with an acute awareness that a running career shouldn’t begin and end on the scholarship trail.
That can only work if the athlete has something to come home to, as David McCarthy has just discovered. Now 25, he finished up on the scholarship trail in Providence, last year, and very nearly ran aground before falling under the wing of Chris Jones, the man now charged with developing Irish distance running.
“The big difference is that in America you feel you’re just going through a system,” McCarthy told me this week, before heading to Belgrade, also leading up the Irish men’s challenge.“Since I’ve come home, and joined up with Chris, I feel I’m in a system.”
It might be that the American scholarship trail has run its course and that if a George Guida ran into three young Irish athletes today they’d need a little more coaxing, and yet it’s still hard to imagine a Ronnie Delany or an Eamonn Coghlan without his simple proposition.