Keeping up with junior athlete of the year Maeve Gallagher? You can try
Mayo triathlete caps off a great year with place at European Cross Country in Lisbon
Maeve Gallagher: ‘I’d a few bad injuries. So a little surprised to make the team for Lisbon, yes, but delighted’
The evening before Maeve Gallagher won her place on the Irish junior women’s team for this Sunday’s European Cross Country in Lisbon, she attended the Triathlon Ireland awards in Dublin, where she won junior athlete of the year for the second time.
It was no surprise that she won the Triathlon Ireland award, because Gallagher is unquestionably the best junior in the country, also competing on the World and European stage in 2019; the surprise was finishing third at the National Cross Country at Abbotstown last Sunday week, earning her ticket to Lisbon, given she wasn’t long back training after enduring a nasty crash inside the final 500 metres at the World Cycling Championships in Harrogate in Yorkshire, still in the hunt for a medal.
Indeed, Gallagher might well have earned herself a longer break, given her season began as part of the Celtic Cross Country team in Belfast in January, and saw her win both the Irish Under-19 1,500m title in Tullamore and the Irish Cycling junior road race title in Derry in June, compete with Triathlon Ireland at the Tokyo Olympic test event in August, and finish best Irish senior rider in the six-stage Rás na mBan in Kilkenny in September, shortly before her 18th birthday.
“I only really started training properly for cross country at the start of November,” she says, “because I missed most of October recovering from the crash. I’d a few bad injuries. So a little surprised to make the team for Lisbon, yes, but delighted.”
It will cap off a remarkable year by any sporting standard. There have been countless other races, for her athletics club at home in Swinford in Mayo, for Castlebar Cycling Club and Triathlon Club, and she also competes with Castlebar Swimming Club. Her appearance in Tokyo, incidentally, the sixth time Gallagher represented Ireland in triathlon in 2019, was in addition to racing the European Juniors in May, where she finished an excellent 11th place.
I’m very lucky we have such a great athletics club here in Swinford. It’s like a little family, great atmosphere
Are you keeping up? Most elite athletes, aspiring or otherwise, would be content to represent their country in the one sport in the one year; in Lisbon on Sunday, Gallagher will be representing Ireland in her third different sport in 12 months.
If such a triplicate sounds a little exhausting, Gallagher quickly suggests otherwise: that the training and racing is the perfect complement to her Leaving Cert studies at St Joseph’s Castlebar, and made all the easier by the support and encouragement of her properly sporting-mad family on their farm in Swinford – especially her parents Adette and Kieran, and older brother Conor, who also cycles internationally for Ireland.
Ask her where it all began and not surprisingly she points back to the Community Games, and the happenchance that often comes with it.
“Running was my first love, going back to when I first competed in the local Community Games, here in Swinford, getting to the National Finals in Athlone. That was my first big event, I got hooked there, and have been ever since then.
“I’m very lucky we have such a great athletics club here in Swinford. We don’t have the best facilities, they’re planning to build a running track, but it’s like a little family, great atmosphere. We mainly train on the GAA pitch, and we have a famous cross country course down, where I’ve been training for cross country over the last few weeks, with my coach Peter Hynes, with all the different age groups. We get on with what we have.”
Her calm and modest approach may gently disguise the hardiness and hunger that all three sports – running, cycling and swimming – demand, because anyone who witnessed her crash at the World Championships in Harrogate in September will tell you Gallagher is a brave and decisive competitor.
It was her second successive junior women’s race on the world stage, the wet course in Harrogate resulting in a series of crashes, and Gallagher went down twice, forcing her to chase for 10km to regain contact with the leading group; with 500m to go she went down again, along with seven others, but was still first up and finished 25th, just 33 seconds down, her Irish gear and large parts of her skin cut to ribbons.
“Yorkshire was still an amazing experience. I’ve been very fortunate with Cycling Ireland, travelling to so many different places from a very young age. It was unfortunate, but I’ll have other chances. It was still a great learning curve, and definitely took a lot from it.”
She first represented Ireland in cycling in Belgium at age 12, and credits dad Kieran for gently encouraging her along the way. His background was firmly in Gaelic football, a Mayo minor and under-21 who later coached the senior team, in 2006, alongside Mickey Moran and the late John Morrison, that reached that year’s All-Ireland final against Kerry, while also managing the Sligo IT team to a Sigerson Cup in 2005.
I’m just grateful to be getting the chances to compete, again and again, and with so many highlights already
“My dad was involved with the Mayo football team, and once he finished with them, he started cycling with Castlebar. When I was about 12 or 13 I started going out with him, and my older brother as well, Conor, he’s won multiple national titles as a youth racer, so I had the two of them to train with.
“And there’s no shortage of hills and challenging routes around where we live, and knowing the competitive nature of our family, it often turns into a race. So I do most of my training on the bike with my dad, and I’ve two younger brothers as well, so there’s always someone to go out with. Someone to push me as well.
“Swimming was the last sport I took up, when I started secondary school, with the local club in Castlebar also. I’m so fortunate with that club, because Marian English is an amazing swimming coach, and there’s a great group there to train with every few days. My dad would oversee most of the training, but I have a different coach with each of the clubs, but they’re all in contact, and know me very well.”
Cousins from Donegal
Ask her about the other influences and she immediately points to her cousins from Donegal, Sinéad and Caitriona Jennings, who have both represented Ireland in the Olympics – Sinéad in rowing in Rio, and Caitriona in the marathon in London.
“They’ve always been huge role models, and I could see how they could fulfil their dreams. So of course the dream is to go to the Olympics someday, but I’m not looking too far ahead. Going to college is the next step, so we’ll see after that.”
Her desire to succeed is also complemented by an appreciation for every chance she gets to compete for Ireland.
“I would train most days, it starts in October really with the cross country, then into triathlon after Christmas. The summer is the most difficult, between the travel and the races, but the training also changes throughout the year, depending on what competitions are coming up.
“I wouldn’t call it a sacrifice, it’s something I enjoy and want to be doing, I’m just grateful to be getting the chances to compete, again and again, and with so many highlights already, winning my first European medal in triathlon in Romania last year, the road race title this year, it’s so hard to pick a favourite.
“But that’s what I enjoy about it, the variety, not having to get into the pool every single morning, or out on the bike. It’s different every day. And it definitely helps my study for the Leaving Cert, they complement each other, because after a day in school, I always feel so much better to get out on the bike or for a run. It definitely makes me balance my time so much better.”
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