Not many people willingly left Cheltenham at the start of this week, especially those with any interest in horses, although Rose-Anne Galligan had a perfectly good excuse.
She’s the only Irish athlete qualified to take part in this weekend’s World Indoor Athletics championships, being staged in Portland, Oregon, and with that carrying the sole hopes of some success: not that a small team should necessarily limit medal potential.
At the inaugural World Indoor championships, in 1987, also staged in the US city of Indianapolis, Ireland had just four athletes: Eamonn Coghlan was favourite for the 1,500m, only tripped and fell in his heat, before Marcus O'Sullivan stepped up to win gold; then Frank O'Mara and Paul Donovan pulled off a one-two in the 3,000m, winning gold and silver, probably the most successful Irish team in championship history.
For Galligan however the hopes aren’t for a medal but rather to make her 1,500m final: she’s one of the first in action too, her heat set for Friday evening (7.35pm Irish time). The 28 year-old from Newbridge, who has lived in Cheltenham for the past few years while pursuing her teaching career, is ranked 14th of the 22 entries, with the 4:11.07 personal best she ran a few weeks back, at the Athlone Indoor Invitational. Only nine athletes will make Saturday’s final – although without the banned Russian athletes, who traditionally dominate the event, that task is certainly less daunting.
“I’m in the best shape of my life and would love to make a first World final, but I know I’m probably going to have to run another personal best to do that,” said Galligan. “Staying injury-free over the winter has helped make a difference this year, the main goal of which is to qualify for the Rio Olympics.”
It’s almost three years now since Galligan made her first big breakthrough on the senior stage, running 2:00:58 over 800m at the London Diamond League and with that eclipsing the Irish record which had stood to Sonia O’Sullivan for 19 years. The 800m is still her preferred distance, the event she hopes to qualify for the Rio Olympics this summer and she’s giving herself every possible chance of that. Having taken a break from work and already spent time altitude training in France and South Africa, she will stay on in the US for another four-week spell of altitude training. The Rio qualifying time of 2:01:50 is certainly within her reach.
In the absence of world record-holder Genzebe Dibaba (who has chosen to focus on the 3000m), Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands is the gold medal favourite, having run 4:01:40.
There is one other Irish participant in Portland, with Joe Gough one of just six athletes from around the world invited to compete in the masters 800m race, for runners aged over 60; there is also a women's 800m for runners aged over 55. These promotional events are staged by the World Masters Athletics (WMA), and given the approval by the new IAAF president Seb Coe in his quest to liven up the championships and make them more local-spectator friendly. (Masters athletics in very popular in North America).
Among the other novelties that Coe has approved is staging all the medal ceremonies outside the track facility at the Oregon Convention Centre and at the Pioneers Courthouse Square in the heart of Portland each evening, effectively opening up the event medallists to the wider public, although how well that goes down with the athletes remains to be seen.
Also, in the shot put, long jump and triple jump, after five rounds only the top four athletes will have a sixth attempt; this should intensify the battle for medals and allow the final-round attempts to be the sole focus of the arena at that time.
For Gough, who runs for West Waterford AC, there are definite medal winning prospects in what is a straight final (Saturday at 9.15 Irish time); he ran 2:15:33 in Athlone last month, his fastest indoor time in two years, although unfortunately his event doesn’t qualify for any of the $2.5 million in prize money, with each individual winner getting $40,000.