Athletics: Welcome recognition for woman lost in joy of running

Catherina McKiernan did not care much for fame during her unique sporting career

 Catherina McKiernan who received the Outstanding Contribution to Women’s Sport 2015 Award. Picture Nick Bradshaw

Catherina McKiernan who received the Outstanding Contribution to Women’s Sport 2015 Award. Picture Nick Bradshaw

 

There was something gently ironic about being at the Sportswoman of the Year Awards and seeing Catherina McKiernan sitting at the top table. For years the last thing she ever wanted or needed was any sort of sporting recognition. 

My dad still tells the story about ringing up the McKiernan house in the early days. Her mother, Kathleen, would answer the phone, as she invariably did, immediately identifying the voice of this politely inquisitive journalist.

“And so is Catherina there?”

The kitchen was the sort of command centre of the McKiernan house, set on a hill overlooking their 90-acre farm in Cornafean, about 10 miles outside Cavan town. The phone was in the kitchen, and given Kathleen ran house and home, her job was to answer it. This suited everyone just fine, particularly Catherina, the youngest of the seven children.

Because she didn’t mind who was ringing as long as it wasn’t a journalist. Only later did my dad discover that whenever he rang the McKiernan house, and asked for Catherina, she would be madly mouthing to her mother in the background – “don’t you dare put any journalist on to me” – after which Kathleen would say: “Hold on, Tom, sure she’s right here beside me.”

Satisfaction

This had absolutely nothing to do with aloofness and not necessarily shyness either: it was simply the fact Catherina preferred her running success to come with no publicity whatsoever. She was perfectly content to run and win races for the sheer pleasure and personal satisfaction of it all, which she did, with increasingly impressive dominance.

She also knew exactly what she did want: a sense of her own destiny. One of those first calls to the McKiernan house, in early 1988, was after she’d won the Ulster Schools Cross Country in Belfast – running away with it, as we say in the business. Only that inquisitive journalist had got wind of a story: this victory hadn’t gone down very well at Loreto Cavan, where Catherina was doing her Leaving Cert, and they were actually considering suspending her from all sporting activity.

The problem was that given her athletic prowess, she’d been made sports captain of that Leaving Cert class, and their priority was the Ulster Camogie Championship. Catherina was equally deft around midfield as she was at running, and enjoyed both in equal measure too. Only when the Ulster Camogie semi-final was scheduled for the day before the Ulster Cross Country, there could only be one winner.

She ran the cross country, and won; the school played the camogie without her, and lost. On returning to school that Monday morning, she was snubbed by her classmates. She was then summoned to the headmaster’s office, stood down as sports captain, and told she wouldn’t be running the All-Ireland Cross Country.

“No way,” she said to herself, and when her father, John, also got wind of the story, the school very quickly relented. So, she won that All-Ireland title – yes, running away with it.

If this steely inner determination was somewhat masked by her aversion to any plaudits, then again it suited Catherina just fine. It wasn’t that she was sometimes underestimated by her opponents, although her fiercely competitive running instinct was somewhat of a contrast to her humble background. But there was an innate hardiness about that background too: she was brought back to the McKiernan house on the hill two days after being born, and didn’t leave it again until she was able to walk down the hill by herself. This was the way all seven McKiernan children were raised, and we wonder now why some Irish runners seem to have gone soft.

That her career flourished in near complete synchronicity with Sonia O’Sullivan also suited her just fine. Born just two days apart, they later shared the international stage on several occasions (also sharing that rare acknowledgment of first-name recognition). Sonia both courted and ignited a little more recognition by the very nature of her career, and Catherina never minded in the slightest.

What will always be recognised, whether Catherina wanted it or not, will be her own unique sporting achievements: the first Irish woman to medal at the World Cross Country Championships, winning four silvers in succession from 1992-95; the first Irish woman to win gold at a European Cross Country, in 1994; the first Irish woman to win the Berlin Marathon, in 1997, in the then fastest debut in women’s marathon history; the first Irish woman to win the London Marathon, in 1998; and still the fastest Irish woman’s marathon runner of all-time, her Irish record of 2:22:23 still standing from her victory in the Amsterdam Marathon in 1998 and looking ever more untouchable with each passing year.

World stage

Indeed, like Sonia, her achievements will always be recognised not because she’s a woman but simply because her career was such a great success in itself. She helped bring Irish women’s distance running to the very top of the world stage not because she wanted or needed any recognition but because she always believed she could, and with that is still inspiring the generation of athletes that followed.

And so perhaps now, in being celebrated for her outstanding contribution to women’s sport, can Catherina feel just fine about a little recognition. Everyone present at the Sportswoman of the Year Awards most certainly did.

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