Ciara Mageean undeterred by Kenyan presence in Belgrade

Portaferry native getting over all difficulties to give her best at European Indoor Championships

There is no such thing as perfect championship preparation. A little niggle here and there. A head cold and a bad race. The death of a dear family member.

All of this happening in the two weeks before the European Indoor Championships might actually deter most athletes, although not Ciara Mageean: at age 24 she’s already built up considerable resilience over the years, bit by bit. Largely because chronic injury kept her out of the sport for so long.

So despite her clearly less than perfect championship preparation, she’s come to Belgrade defiantly buoyant.

Some things will always be outside her control – including, it appears, that disturbing presence again of Kenyan athletes running for Turkey without any affiliation to that country – and she’s only worried about trying to deliver the perfect championship run.


Or at least as close to perfect as she can, starting with Friday’s heats of the 1,500m.

“The body is fine now,” she says, “and I’ve actually had a good winter of training behind me. Training sessions have been great, and this is actually the first time I’ve put consecutive winters like that, back-to-back, since my junior days.

“And I actually managed to go the whole winter without a head cold, then I get one before the races. It’s all part and parcel of being an athlete. You know it’s a fine line. You try to stay healthy and injury free and head cold free, but whenever you’re training hard, that risk is there. And it probably came on when I was training hardest.

“Jerry Kiernan my coach still has confidence in the work I’ve done, and I do too. It’s just about putting everything together on the day, getting as much right as possible.”

Running perfectly

Indeed her indoor season had been running perfectly smoothly until the Athlone International, on February 15th, when suffering from a head cold, Mageean dropped off the pace early on and finished fifth.

Coughing and spluttering afterwards, she declared her intent to make amends at that weekend’s National Indoors in Abbotstown.

She then awoke the following morning to the news from home in Portaferry that her grandmother had died overnight. Granny Mageean, as she was fondly known, was one of her chief supporters over the years, and while no athletics aficionado, took great pride in the success of her grandchild.

She may have provided the good sporting genes too: her son, and Mageean’s father, is the famed former Down hurler Chris “The Hunter” Mageean, and Mageean has always credited him for guiding her down the sporting path.

“She was unwell for a while, so it wasn’t unexpected. Just one of those things. She never talked about competing herself, but maybe yeah it’s in the genes, somewhere. And I remember whenever I won a medal, especially in schools races, I’d be straight over the grandparents. Both sets of grandparents actually lived opposite to each other. So we were a very close family like that, in Portaferry. She wouldn’t have been the biggest athletics buff, but then neither am I, really. But she was always keen to find out how the races went.”

At no stage, however, did Mageean think about withdrawing from Belgrade: she still ran the National Indoors, winning the 3,000m on the Saturday, before returning straight home for the funeral.

“No, and I knew my granny wouldn’t have wanted that. She would have wanted me to go and race. It would have been different obviously if it clashed with a race. But I know the whole family and my aunts and uncles all wanted me to go race. Belgrade was always on the cards. It would have been different if it happened closer. Even racing in Dublin that weekend I felt I should have been at home, but daddy told me no, to go and race.”

She raced again at Abbotstown last Sunday, winning the Leinster 800m in 2:03.73 and, on paper, looks well capable of challenging for a medal in Saturday’s 1,500m (presuming of course she qualifies), having won European outdoor bronze in Amsterdam last July.

Record-breaking form

On that same paper, however, is Britain’s Laura Muir, in record-breaking form this season, and attempting a 1,500-3,000m double, and also Meryem Akdag, formerly known as Mirriam Jepchirchir, who has run for Kenya as recently as May of 2015, and still lives and trains there.

Along with Yasemin Can, formerly Vivian Jemutai, Akdag ran away with the European Cross Country in Italy in December, with Ireland’s Fionnuala McCormack once again run out of the medals in fourth.

Can won by 10 seconds, and is down to run the 3,000m in Belgrade, and while the IAAF last month put a “freeze” on all international transfers while sealing some gaping loopholes in the rules, the two Kenyan runners look certain to reach the podium in Belgrade.

McCormack hasn’t shied away from the issue, describing it as a “joke”, suggesting both women had moved to Turkey “for the craic”, if only because the rules allowed them to. Mageean doesn’t necessarily shy away but would rather keep her thoughts on her own race – at least for now.

“I’m honestly not one for sitting down and looking at the entries, before races. Jerry I’m sure has looked up everything, has all of the stats. I’ve never been one for that. I keep an eye out, but I can’t control what anyone else does in the race, so there’s no point in worrying about. I’d rather keep the head down, get ready myself.

“There are a lot of things in our sport that are out of our control, certain controversies, like athletes switching allegiance. Obviously if you’re running a European Championships you’d like it be about European athletes, but I don’t think it’s worth getting stressed over.

“I know Fionnuala feels strongly about it, and has lost out on numerous medals in different championships because of it. So I can understand that. And I know the IAAF have begun to address it. You want it to be fair, and what the championships says on the label. But that’s for the IAAF and European athletics to sort out. Maybe my opinion would be different if something like that happened to me.”

Not if she runs the perfect championship race.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics