Irish athletics gets another sweet taste of the next generation
O’Connor’s historic silver medal in the heptathlon a good omen for the weekend
Kate O’Connor of Ireland competing during Heptathlon Women’s Long Jump at the European U-20 Athletics Championships in Boras, Sweden. Photograph: Maja Hitij/Getty Images
There is nothing more sad or glorious than generations changing hands. That’s from Ecclesiastes, again, a book normally referenced in profoundly spiritual matters and also perfect if you’re stuck for a handy sporting intro.
No one is saying just yet that Roger Federer may never again grace Centre Court for a men’s Wimbledon final, but you know what I mean.
No one is saying either that a European Under-20 Athletics championships are anything more than another stepping stone to what potentially lies ahead. And there is no more perilous journey in sport than what lies ahead for the young athlete.
Only now more than ever it feels like this is whole new and entirely different generation of Irish athletes, no longer burdened or necessarily even compared to those who have come before, are setting their standards for what may come next.
Day two of the Under-20 championships in Borås, Sweden provided another sweet taste of that, and even if there are some sporting success stories that need to be talked up and talked down at the same time, the ones you want to fist pump with one hand and wave away with the other, there is no denying the changing of a certain guard.
It’s certainly different when there is a first – and in other cases maybe the first in a long time – and also when an Irish team has athletes across such a range of events and is also this inclusive, this representative, and this properly broad.
Before teatime on Friday, no Irish woman had ever won a championship medal at any level in the heptathlon before, the seven-event disciple demanding all-round talent and athleticism, and Kate O’Connor had already made sure of it going into the final event, the 800m.
It was, as inevitably described, one small step for Irish athletics, one giant leap for O’Connor, her silver medal writing its own little piece of history. The 18-year-old from the Dundalk St Gerard’s athletics club, who is coached by her father Michael O’Connor, was racing to determine which colour, and in the end was rewarded with silver, her total of 6,093 points also smashing the existing Irish senior record.
It was that good – the first time any Irish woman has surpassed ,6000 points:
“I’m completely ecstatic,” she said, “6,000 points is the goal of every heptathlete, from the very beginning, and I can’t believe I’ve already achieved it in this competition, and to win the silver medal as well, to top it all off. I’m so proud of myself, the first one to medal in the heptathlon, I can’t explain it, how happy, how excited I am, and just so looking forward to what the future holds.”
In truth there is some history here from a generation long gone, Tom Kiely from Ballyneale in Tipperary was the world’s first all-round athletics champion, winning the 1904 Olympic gold medal in St Louis, before the establishment of the Irish Free State, in what was the precursor to the modern decathlon.
The only Irish man to medal in a championship multi-event discipline before also came at European Under-20 level, when Barry Walsh won decathlon bronze in 1987 in Birmingham.
What sets O’Connor apart, as well as being the first woman, is the way she went about it. Just 15 points had separated the top three going into the final event, the 800m, O’Connor sitting a close third behind the leader Annik Kalin, the 19-year-old from Switzerland, with Maria Vicente of Spain lying in second.
That all changed again when Vicente was best of them in the 800m with her 2:16.26, passing O’Connor in the last 100, moving her into the gold medal position on 6,115, with O’Connor still close on her heels in 2:16.98 – enough to move her into silver. Kalin came home in 2:19.81, and that dropped her to third with 6,069.
Over the course of Friday’s three events, O’Connor first went out to 5.73m in the long jump, with that dropping down to fourth, before producing the throw on her life in the javelin – her 52.92m an outright Irish under-20 record, further than any Irish woman of her age has thrown.
That came off her super start in her first four events on Thursday, clocking 14.61 in the 100m hurdles, clearing a personal best of 1.81m in the high jump, throwing 13.41m in the shot put and then clocking another personal best 24.82 in the 200m.
It also pushes out to 16 the number of medals won by Irish athletes at European Under-20 level, which began back in 1964 with the European Junior Games in Warsaw – with at least a couple more expected by close of business on Sunday evening.
Davicia Patterson also cruised her way into the final of the women’s 400m, the 18-year-old from the Beechmount club in Belfast the fastest across the two semi-finals with her 52.81, a repeat of that on Saturday evening is sure to see her right in the mix for gold.
Also set for the high jump final on Saturday is World Under-20 silver medallist Sommer Lecky, with Sarah Healy, who won double gold over 1,500m/3,000m at the Under-18 championships last summer, also through to her 1,500m final on Sunday evening.
Darragh McElhinney also goes in Sunday’s 5,000m as the only Irish teenager to break 14 minutes with his 13:54.10, and has also added an under-20 3,000m record of 8:01.48. These are rare and exceptional times.
Then there’s Aaron Sexton, already Ireland’s fastest ever schoolboy, looking poised to sign off on his athletics career with a strong challenge for a medal in the 200m. The Bangor athlete, already signed to the Ulster Rugby Academy once he gets home, cruised through his heat to take the win in 21.17 – clearly with plenty more to spare.
The fastest in the event with his best of 20.69, Sexton still has to negotiate Saturday morning’s semi-finals before the final later in the evening, but everything about his heat performance suggests he’s in top form.
Sexton has admitted that choosing rugby over athletics wasn’t completely straightforward, only part of the difference is no doubt making the front of the sports supplement or the sports digest somewhere near the back.
In the meantime Sexton is also lined up for a first. No Irish male sprinter has ever before won a medal at European Under-20 level – and if Sexton wins gold it will feel sad and glorious at the same time, a sweet taste of the new generation already lost to rugby.