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Rising star Sarah Healy looks to European Cross Country podium

Leading the senior races for Ireland will be Kevin Dooney and Ciara Mageean

Sarah Healy: “For the under-18s there was a bit of pressure because I’d run some good times before I went. For an under-20 race there’s no pressure, it’s just see what happens, so I think there’s less pressure”

Cross-country running has always been something of a numbers game, individually and collectively, and nowhere will that be more evident than in Tilburg on Sunday.

In the previous 24 editions of the European Cross Country, Irish athletes have brought home 13 medals, and with a 39-strong team making the trip to the Netherlands there are enough numbers to bring home another one and possibly more.

Age is often just a numbers game too – and nowhere will that be more evident that in the women’s under-20 race. Sarah Healy, still only 17, will be conceding two years to most of her opposition, but on the track she has already beaten or run faster than most of them on route to winning a European under-18 800m/1,500m double back in July.

Healy doesn’t have to look far for inspiration either. In the men’s under-20 race rising superstar Jakob Ingebrigtsen from Norway, who in August won a European senior double over 1,500m/5,000m, will look to win a third successive title in that grade, still only three months over the age of 18.

Healy represents the best medal chance individually, and collectively with a strong team that includes Sophie O’Sullivan, daughter of Sonia, who also won under-18 silver over 800m in July.

It won’t be straightforward: Jasmijn Lau, now 19, was fourth last year and carries the Dutch hopes; Turkey’s Inci Kalkan and France’s Alessia Zarbo were second and third behind Healy over 3,000m, and will be looking to make some amends this time; Switzerland’s Delia Sclabas, also 19, is in telling form, and so are Cari Hughes and Khahisa Mhlanga, two of Great Britain’s team gold medallists from last year. Germany’s reigning under-20 steeplechase champion Lisa Oed is also bound to have some say.

‘Less pressure’

“I kind of think it’s less daunting,” Healy says of her more senior opposition. “For the under-18s there was a bit of pressure, because I’d run some good times before I went. For an under-20 race there’s no pressure, it’s just see what happens, so I think there’s less pressure.”

Healy’s only previous cross-country race this season was last Sunday week, winning the National under-20 title by 18 seconds, the hardest part there being not making it look so easy. Still playing hockey while also studying for her Leaving Cert at Hold Child Killiney, Healy considers herself a cross-country runner first.

“This is what I first started doing, and I was always better at cross-country when I was younger, so I would never skip it. It’s been really, really busy, training five or six days a week, and the year has already gone so fast, so I hope it keeps like that. I’ll just put myself in there, and see that happens.”

Three athletes now score per team instead of the previous four – Healy joined by the next three finishers at the Irish championships, Emma O’Brien, Jodie McCann and Laura Nicholson, along with US-based Stephanie Cotter, currently on scholarship at Adams State on Colorado, and O’Sullivan.

Senior races

Leading the senior races will be Kevin Dooney and Ciara Mageean, both with plenty of experience. At age 25, Dooney won his first Irish title last Sunday week after a proper battle with Sean Tobin, who finished 15th in Europe last year. Both men have aspirations of making the top 20 this time, a team medal possibly within reach if they do.

Mageean also won her first National senior cross-country title on Sunday after a few years of trying, and is joined on the senior women’s team by Ann Marie McGlynn and Fionnuala Ross, plus Michelle Finn, Sara Treacy and Kerry O’Flaherty – all three of whom ran the 3,000m steeplechase at the Rio Olympics.

Irish teams in Tilburg for the European Cross Country

Senior men: Kevin Dooney (Raheny Shamrock AC), Sean Tobin (Clonmel AC), Kevin Maunsell (Clonmel AC), Mick Clohisey (Raheny Shamrock AC), Stephen Scullion  (Clonliffe Harriers AC), Kevin Batt (DSD AC)

Senior women: Ciara Mageean (UCD AC), Ann Marie McGlynn (Letterkenny AC), Fionnuala Ross (Armagh AC), Michelle Finn (Leevale AC), Sara Treacy (Dunboyne AC), Kerry O’Flaherty (Newcastle & District AC)

U-23 men: Brian Fay (Raheny Shamrock AC), Ryan Forsyth (Newcastle and District AC), Paul O’Donnell (DSD AC), Cathal Doyle (Clonliffe Harriers AC), Garry Campbell (Dunleer AC), Jack O’Leary (Mullingar Harriers AC)

U-23 women: Fian Sweeney (Dublin City Harriers AC), Eilish Flanagan (Carmen runners), Aoibhe Richardson (Kilkenny City Harriers AC), Roisin Flanagan (Carmen runners), Sorcha McAlister (Westport AC)

U-20 men: Daragh McElhinney (Bantry AC), Sean O’Leary  (Clonliffe Harriers AC), Jamie Battle (Mullingar Harriers AC), Fintan Stewart (City of Derry AC Spartans, Daire Finn (Dublin City Harriers), Micheál Power (West Waterford AC)

U-20 women: Sarah Healy (Blackrock AC), Emma O’Brien (Sli Cualann), Jodie McCann (Dublin City Harriers AC), Laura Nicholson (Bandon AC), Stephanie Cotter (West Muskerry AC), Sophie O’Sullivan (Ballymore Cobh AC)

Mixed Relay: John Travers (Donore Harriers AC), Paul Robinson (St Coca’s AC), Claire Tarplee (St Coca’s AC), Siofra Cleirigh Buttner (DSD AC).