Efrem Gidey and Sarah Healy defend Irish Schools Cross Country titles

Both athletes win with 30 seconds to spare at Clongowes Wood College

With a smile about as big as his victory margin, and to a suitably welcoming chorus of approval, Efrem Gidey underlined his status as the best schoolboy distance runner in Ireland. Now the hope and dream is to someday bring all that to the bigger stage.

It’s not yet two years since Gidey arrived in Ireland from his native Eritrea, via a series of refugee camps including several months in the northern French port city of Calais, only he’s fast settled into his new surrounds at Le Chéile Secondary School in Tyrellstown, west Dublin.

Fast and from the front is also how Gidey likes to run – and exactly how he defended his senior boys’ title at the Irish Schools Cross Country championships, staged over the flatly spacious grounds of Clongowes Wood College in Co Kildare. He toyed with the large field over the first of the small laps, before breaking clear for home, Keelan Kilrehill of Coláiste Iascaigh from Sligo finishing some 30 seconds back, with Micheál McCaul of St Colman’s Newry in third.

Gidey has already made a name for himself on the track too. Last May, he created his own special piece of schools athletics history when lapping the entire field to win the senior boys 5,000m at the Leinster championships in Santry, clocking 15:24.43. No one in Santry that day could recall such a feat.

Now in sixth year and also studying for his Leaving Cert, Gidey does much of his running with Clonliffe Harriers, where he is coached by Joe Cooper. He also enjoyed a strong team of support at Clongowes, many of his class-mates here to embrace him at the finish.

The English language is still something of a barrier, but he’s fast breaking that down too: “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not, but the more I practice, it’s getting better,” he said with that same smile. His talent and relaxed running style is clear to see.

“There was nothing [running] in the family,” he added, “but I would run by myself. I just it enjoy it.” And what’s next? “The Olympics,” his class-mates fast suggested on his behalf.

There was a similarly impressive display of front running in the senior girls' race, where Sarah Healy from Holy Child, Killiney maintained her unbeaten record in Irish Schools Cross Country by winning a sixth title – a feat only once ever achieved before, by Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner.

Healy, like Gidey, is also in her Leaving Cert year, and intent it seems on continuing her studies at home in UCD rather that follow the US scholarship route. The double European under-18 champion from last summer, over 1,500m and 3,000m, soon raced away over the 2.5km course to also win by some 30 seconds, ahead of Lucy Holmes from Ard Scoil na nDéise in Waterford, with Laura Nicholson of Bandon Grammar in third

Gidey, meanwhile, has already been recognised by Fingal County Council for his “courage and dedication” at a ceremony held last year, after he won the 2018 schools cross county event in Waterford, some nine months after he arrived in Ireland. He was described as “a great model of young people within community”, while councillors highlighted the important role of sport in promoting community integration.

Dr Áine Moran, the principal of Le Chéile, also said the school was “proud of Efrem and his friends” since he started there in 2017: “We are tremendously proud of his sporting achievements but also his courage and tenacity. His friends also deserve to be part of this because they are his family now.”

A total of 41 unaccompanied minors have arrived in Ireland from Calais under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP), an additional six unaccompanied minors also coming from Greece. All 47 are in the care of Tusla, the child and family agency which also caters for separated children seeking asylum team.

When asked about his experience in Calais, Gidey answered: “I did not like it,” also keeping that answer suitably fast.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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