Indoor Championships draws record number of athletes despite pandemic

English is joined by McPhillips and Fitzsimons in the 800m men’s event in Torun

Ireland’s Andrew Coscoran during the 1500m heats at  the European Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Ireland’s Andrew Coscoran during the 1500m heats at the European Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

It’s a long way from Doha to Torun and longer still when you’re waiting on a championship race to run in between. And just one reason why the 2021 European Indoor Championships already have a special ring about them.

Despite the continuing lockdown across many parts of Europe, the 36th edition of these championships have drawn a record 733 athletes from 47 nations to the old historical city in central Poland, where even without the presence of live spectators the atmosphere will be one of a proper championship. The tight qualification process and margins of indoor racing demands nothing less.

Despite a couple of late withdrawals there’s a record Irish entry too, only that doesn’t necessarily transfer to medal hopes: these may well prove the most competitive in European Indoor history too, given they bridge the way and wait from the last such event of any sort, the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Qatar, which finished almost exactly 17 months ago to the day.

Since then coronavirus has forced the postponement of the Olympics, World Indoor Championships (twice), the European and World Cross Country, plus the cancellation of European outdoor championships set for Paris last summer, all of which adds to the sense around Torun.

Withdrawal

After Ciara Mageean’s withdrawal on Monday, the bronze medal winner from the 1,500m in Glasgow two years ago, Mark English is the only Irish athlete with a senior European medal next to his name; three, to be exact, English also winning bronze two years ago, to go with his silver from Prague in 2015, plus outdoor bronze in Zurich in 2014.

Now a qualified doctor, juggling his winter training with long shifts at the Mater Hospital in Dublin, English improved his own Irish indoor record to 1:46.10 at the Elite Micro Meet in Abbotstown last month, the Finn Valley AC runner also crediting part of that to his new training environment at the Dublin Track Club under coach Feidhlim Kelly.

Joining English in that event will be 18-year-old Leaving Cert student Cian McPhillips from Longford AC, who pressed him so hard to the line in that race, rewarded with an Irish junior and under-23 record of 1:46.13, and also John Fitzsimons from Kildare AC, the 22-year-old who also clocked a best of 1:47.80 in that same race.

Both McPhillips and Fitzsimons are being carefully nurtured by Joe Ryan, endurance running coach at Mullingar Harriers for the best part of 20 years already, who sees particularly unique potential in the two rising names.

“Cian has won juvenile All-Irelands at every age, while the training has always been very, very light, so he always stood out as an athlete with a lot of talent and potential,” says Ryan, the former race walk international, now also a primary school teacher in Rhode and who has coached McPhillips since he was 12.

“His only experience before is the European Youths, where he actually lost his shoe early in the race, so it’s obviously a big step up from domestic racing to European Indoors. It’s about the experience, taking the opportunity, to learn from that and bring it forward to the future. But look, running 1:46 was a huge breakthrough for Cian, phenomenal running really for an 18-year-old, to produce that in his Leaving Cert year.”

Indeed he hadn’t broken 1:50 for 800m before, making it one of the biggest breakthroughs for any junior Irish athlete in recent years; his 1:46.13 is also the second fastest run indoors by an 18-year-old in European athletics history, second only to 2004 Olympic champion Yuriy Borzakovskiy of Russia.

“He’s shown now he’s a little ahead of the curve,” says Ryan, “and whatever happens this weekend, this is part of that learning curve. He’ll be looking to get in and compete as best he can, right now”.

Qualification

“John [Fitzsimons] too won a European Under-20 bronze medal, back in 2017, kicked on again to make the Under-23 final, just missing a medal by .3 of a second, but has had some injuries since. Before the Micro Meet, he hadn’t actually raced in 18 months, and we knew it was his one shot at qualification. He probably ran a little more conservatively than Cian, who attacked it, but to run 1:47.80 in his first race in 18 months is very pleasing.

“It’s a very deep event in Torun, they won’t get anything easy, but they’re certainly capable of pushing on over the coming years. They’re both tactical astute too.”

Friday’s first full morning session will include six highly competitive heats of the women’s 800m, and which includes Síofra Cléirigh Büttner, who broke the Irish indoor 800m just four days after Nadia Power had broken it for the second time this season.

Büttner took almost two seconds off her previous best, clocking 2:00:58, and with that taking another chunk off Power’s previous record of 2:00.98, and is now ranked third fastest of the 800m entries; Power, ranked fifth, has plenty of race experience of recent weeks to improve her chances of progressing to Sunday’s final.

Also arriving in form is Phil Healy, who improved her indoor 400m best to 51.99 on Sunday, the sixth fastest by any European this season, and will be eyeing a semi-final spot at least when her heats also get under way earlier on Friday morning. Every session from Torun is live on the RTÉ Player, with live RTÉ2 coverage starting from 6pm on Friday 5th.

Irish in action on Friday (all times Irish)

10.22: Women’s 400m heats: Phil Healy (Bandon AC) Sophie Becker (Raheny Shamrock AC); Sharlene Mawdsley (Newport AC)

12.00: Women’s 800m heats: Nadia Power (Dublin City Harriers A.C.); Síofra Cléirigh Büttner (Dundrum South Dublin A.C.); Georgie Hartigan ( Dundrum South Dublin A.C.)

18.55: Men’s 800m heats: Mark English (Finn Valley A.C.) Cian McPhillips (Longford A.C.) John Fitzsimons (Kildare A.C.)

18.33: * Women’s 400m Semi Final

20:35:*Men’s 1,500m Final

* Pending qualification

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