Catching up with Phil Healy – Ireland’s new fastest woman
In sun-kissed Morton Stadium in Santry on Wednesday, a rare sporting moment came
Phil Healy: the runner would be the first to admit her title of Ireland’s fastest woman may not last long. File photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Sometimes the rarest and finest moments in this sport can sneak up on you out of the ordinary and the proverbial nowhere. Not at the sun-kissed Bislett Games in Oslo on Thursday night, where Caster Semenya won her 24th straight 800 metres in 1:57.25 and is now unbeaten in the event since September 2015 – or since the courts and not the scientists cleared her way.
More like at the Morton Stadium in Santry the night before, sun-kissed too but mostly silent except for the clicking of track spikes and the faint echoes of snare drums and tubular bells from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds playing down in the city.
Where Phil Healy sat back in her blocks, stared down at the straight in front of her, clapped her hands and said watch me go. And exactly 11.28 seconds later wrote her name down in history as Ireland’s fastest woman. Now read on.
There are some sporting achievements which require some context, or come layered in hype or perhaps even special praise in order to level some sort of inequality. Not the standalone achievement of becoming Ireland’s fastest woman – which no more or no less than becoming Ireland’s fastest man can be taken exactly for what it is.
Healy’s performance on Wednesday night was both rare and fine – especially given the fact not long ago she wasn’t even the fastest in her family. It’s also only the second time since 1978 that the title of Ireland’s fastest woman has changed hands, and yet Healy is the first to admit it may not be hers for much longer. She was, after all, only warming up.
For 32 years, the title belonged to Michelle Carroll, formerly Michelle Walsh, who won 31 Irish sprint titles in her day (that’s not a misprint), and in June of 1978 ran an Irish senior record of 11.43 in the Dutch town of Sittard. She was aged 17 and some thought we may never see her likes again.
That stood until July 2010, when Ailis McSweeney ran 11.40 at Liège in Belgium, breaking out on her own after being better known as the Cork training partner of Derval O’Rourke. Four years after that Amy Foster also ran 11.40, at Clermont in Florida. Ireland then had two fastest women, before Healy suddenly started to close in fast.
She actually ran 11.16 in Waterford last month – “wind-aided”, one of her three times quicker than 11.40, only for the wind advantage to rule them out for record purposes. When she arrived in Santry for the Dublin Graded Meeting on Wednesday evening, there was hardly a puff.
So began a minor adjustment to her evening race plan. Everything about her summer is geared towards the 200m and 400m, Healy’s preferred events; only, with conditions so perfect in Santry, she decided to have a “blow-out” over the 100m, 35 minutes before racing again over the 400m.
“A calm summer evening in Santry, you can’t beat it,” says Healy, telling me this on the phone before a flight to Geneva, where she races again on Saturday evening. “My coach, Shane McCormack, had been looking at the weather all week, and if the record came, great, but I was still targeting the 400m. I actually stumbled out of the blocks a bit, it took me a while to pick it up, but I was in lane nine, felt no wind as well, and definitely as quick as I’ve a run before. Then when you see the time and the wind is legal, of course you think ‘absolutely brilliant’. And the reaction has been great.”
In other ways too, as, just 35 minutes later, Healy also ran a new personal best of 52.63 seconds over the 400m. She now has the qualifying time for all three distances for the European Championships in Berlin this August, and, at age 23, is edging closer to that 11-second barrier.
McSweeney was one of first people to text her, recognising Healy’s time for what it is and also for what it promises. Rarely if ever has Irish women’s sprinting been in such rude health, and thanks in part to a new generation of young women such Gina Apke-Moses, who has run 11.46 this month, and Rhasidat Adekele, who has run 11.60, both still in the junior ranks.
Their talents have already been quick to shine, which also sets Healy’s achievement apart. When she was growing up in Balineen in west Cork, it was her sister Joan, three years her elder, who was first drawn to athletics, and was the fastest in the family. Encouraged along the way by the likes of John Caulfield, the former manager of Cork City FC, the sisters travelled around to club and Community Games events, not for one second thinking either of them would end up running their way into the Irish record books.
It’s also what restores faith in the sport. After leaving school, Healy spent three years as a student nurse in UCC, sometimes doing 12-hour shifts as part of her training day, on and off the track. Last year she opted out and moved to the Waterford Institute of Technology, starting an MA in Enterprise Computer Software, and training every day under McCormack, a young Irish coach whose main interest is in getting the best out of his athletes.
Healy had already left an earlier mark of sorts: her jaw-dropping finish at the 2016 Intervarsity Championships 4x400m relay, where she took over the baton in fifth place at the beginning of her anchor leg for UCC, and produced one of social media’s most-watched comebacks in Irish athletics history.
Until perhaps last Saturday, when, despite crash-landing over the third-last hurdle of the 1,500m steeplechase at the Irish Schools Championships in Tullamore, Alannah Neff from Carrigaline Community School produced, out of the proverbial nowhere, the extraordinary. Watch it here: iti.ms/2HzYi22.