English and Mageean prove persistence the key to a brighter future
Nothing succeeds like success but both Irish athletes had to overcome past disappointments
Ireland’s Ciara Mageean and Mark English show their bronze medals from the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Glasgow. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
It says and tells a lot about an athlete that when celebrating the highs they can also point straight back to the lows. Nothing succeeds like success, only there’s no successful failure like the bettering of it.
Along with their bronze medals won at the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow, it’s what Ciara Mageean and Mark English now share in common: both overtly successful juniors, both already winning championship medals on the senior stage, there then came a period where it seemed the only thing that mattered was to try again and fail better.
In the aftermath of a European Indoors where most of the Irish team failed to reach their success point, there is both a lesson and a message in there.
At 26, Mageean has gone full circle already, a few times over, only now she has reached a level of maturity and consistency her 1,500 metres career is only getting going. At 25, English endured more subtle lows but for him the high of Glasgow also represents a sort of fresh start over 800m.
Neither athlete is shy about admitting that not everything has gone to plan since making that frequently treacherous transition from promising junior to successful senior. English was just 21 when he won previously European Indoor silver in 2015, having won outdoor bronze in 2014; after that things began to level off and then firmly plateau.
The most important thing, he said, was sticking at it.
“It’s nice to come back after four years, and that’s just the nature of this game, you’ve got to stick at it,” said English, injury playing an unfair hand at times, the Donegal athlete also sticking to his medical studies at UCD.
He finishes up there next month, the immediate ambition being to stay injury free for the summer season while training towards the World Championships in Doha, Qatar at the end of September.
For English that message is as important as the bigger picture: “You’re not going to win something every year, and I think that’s the lesson for any athlete coming through, just to stick at it, there’ll probably be more tough times than good times. But it’s worth it when you get the good times. The world level is a different game but I’ll be confident now that I could challenge.”
Only four other Irish athletes had previously won European championship medals both indoors and out: Frank Murphy and Eamonn Coghlan (both 1,500m), Mark Carroll (3,000m/5,000m) and Derval O’Rourke (60m/100m hurdles). Mageean and English bring that number to six having joined esteemed company.
What they both also share is the acceptance that sometimes the journey will require a change in direction. Mageean also won outdoor bronze over 1,500m in 2016, only the third Irish woman to medal in the long history of those championships after Sonia O’Sullivan and Derval O’Rourke. The two and a half years since have witnessed a proper rollercoaster of emotions.
In November 2017, realising that new direction was required she stepped out of any comfort zone, perceived or otherwise, and moved away from her coach Jerry Kiernan in Dublin to Steve Vernon’s New Balance Manchester group.
Before that, she’d left her underage coach Eamon Christie.
“Each coach I’ve had were a great benefit to me, brought me on as an athlete, and he had fantastic results. Then I went to Jerry, and ran my personal best with Jerry, 4:01, and had some fantastic years there. He had a huge impact on my life, and I do miss him, but now I’m with Steve and the Manchester crew, and hopefully this is the start of another very successful part of my career.
“I’ve had plenty of championships where I’ve walked off the track disappointed, and I’m sure there will be tough times ahead. And I’d a good underage career, constantly on an upward curve, then I’d a really tough injury, but I feel I am becoming a lot more consistent athlete.
“And to be able to deliver that out on the track means an awful lot. And I just wanted to walk off the track with my head held high. I’ve come off and I’ve beat myself up before after too many championships, but I go out to enjoy my athletics now as well, and a smile on my face.”
English also stepped out at that comfort zone, perceived or otherwise, when looking for a new direction at the start of the 2014 season, parting with his first coach, Teresa McDaid, who he still credits enormously for guiding him through his development years at Letterkenny AC, and, if you believe the story, was first informed of his talent after he won the egg and spoon race at his school sports.
Since then, English has been working with Steve Magness, the US-based coach at the University of Houston, sticking with his own motivations.
Over the winter he sought out fresh biomechanical advice to improve his running form, and also resigned himself to running the hard 10-12 mile runs to boost his endurance base. His bronze medal in Glasgow showed signs of both.
Even with the World Championships in Qatar so far away in every sense, Mageean and English also have fresh ambitions for outdoors. Mageean improved both her 1,500m and mile Irish records indoors in recent weeks, to 4:06.76 and 4:28.31 respectively, and that outdoor best of 4:01.46, set in Paris in 2016, is also now due for improvement.
Likewise for English, who ran his best 1:44.84 in his Diamond League debut in London in 2013, still short of David Matthews and his national record of 1:44.82 dating back to 1995. That is now surely overdue for bettering?