Sara Treacy knows hitting peak in Rio will be just what doctor ordered

Meath steeplechaser wants to give it best shot before knuckling down career in medicine

According to all the bibles of sports science, the key to success in any athletic event is to choose your parents wisely. Sara Treacy made a good choice, although her parents certainly wouldn't claim all the credit for her success.

Instead, they were more intent on letting her achieve it on her own. Both her father Liam and mother Siobhan were distance runners of considerable repute, and first met through the Dublin City Harriers club. Still, even though running was definitely in her genes, Treacy never felt forced to pursue it in any great hurry.

Indeed at 27, she's only now beginning to come into her running prime, having also qualified as a doctor. She has actually taken a break from medicine as her running career shifts into another gear at this week's European Championships in Amsterdam, then next month's Rio Olympics.

Her event, the 3,000 metres steeplechase, also demands a level of endurance above most other track distances, so it’s no surprise Treacy is only now reaching a sort of career peak. What has definitely helped her is having parents who fully understand the sport.


“When I first started in athletics, at the primary school sports, my mum and dad actually thought I was too young,” she says. “My brother Daniel and sister Fodhla were into athletics as well, so I would always join in with them and just really enjoyed it.

“But at that stage I was only seven or eight, and my parents didn’t want me to get started too early. So I was allowed to go one night a week, and then eventually it moved on from there.

“And I was about 11 or 12 before I realised that mum and dad actually met through running. And it was only later again, when I got a little more serious about the running, that I realised they had the knowledge to fall back on. So yeah, in that way, they have been very instrumental in me coming up through the ranks.”

Her local club was Moynalvey-Kilcloon AC, close to Summerhill in Meath (the same parish as rugby player Devin Toner), although Treacy tried her hand too at Gaelic football and hockey (where she played alongside another Irish Rio Olympian, modern pentathlete Natalya Coyle). It was only towards the end of secondary school, at The King's Hospital, that she began to put all her focus on athletics.

Still, her parents never pushed her and never made a big deal out of their own athletic backgrounds. “Funnily enough,” she says, “when I was in secondary school, lots of people thought I was John Treacy’s daughter, because he did have a daughter in the school at the time, around the same age. But I suppose I was always exposed to the sport, without maybe realising it, given the fact my parent were so involved.”

Liam Treacy was a standout junior international over 800m, while Siobhan ran a range of distances, mostly 1,500m on the track; she also ran in three World Cross Country Championships for Ireland. She then served as physiotherapist with the Irish Olympic team at the Barcelona and Seoul Olympics.

International experience

Treacy’s first major international experience came at the age of 16, when she ran for Ireland in the junior race at the 2006 World Cross Country in Fukuoka, Japan.

“That was big eye-opener, being exposed to the sport at that level, on the other side of the world, and I think realising that in terms of training I hadn’t even started. It was around then things got a little more serious.”

Which also meant considering an offer of a US scholarship. “I visited Villanova, and Providence, and was quite taken by them both. Then I picked up my first ever injury, on Christmas Day of my sixth year, and missed the rest of that whole season. That made for a bit of a change of heart on America, and I decided to focus on my Leaving Cert instead.”

She'd decided at that stage too she wanted to study medicine, and one of the best options was at Birmingham University. She started there in 2007 and has been based there ever since, helped by the guidance of veteran UK athletics coach Bud Baldaro. "It's a great set-up. Everything you need is here, if you have the drive. It was the best combination and worked out great for me," she says.

Treacy graduated in 2013, and has spent the last two years completing her doctor training. She hadn’t planned on taking a career break until last summer, when she made the biggest breakthrough of her career in achieving the Olympic qualifying time for the 3,000m steeplechase.

She had been building steadily towards it. In 2012, Treacy was part of the Irish women’s team that won gold at the European Cross Country, in Hungary, although it was only after that, in 2014, that she decided to focus on the steeplechase. The event appealed to her, the distance being near ideal, together with the challenge of clearing the 28 barriers, each 2.5 feet high, plus seven water jumps.

“I really do enjoy it. When you’re in a really competitive race, trying to find your path, protect your space, get over the barriers, there’s so much to think about you never get bored. It’s nearly always drama. Thankfully I’ve never fallen in the water jump yet, touch wood.”

Then, a year ago, at the Letterkenny AC International meeting, she was one of three Irish women to secure the Olympic qualifying time in the same race. Kerry O'Flaherty, from Down, ran 9:42.61, Michelle Finn from Cork 9:43.34, and Treacy 9:44.15 – all inside the required 9:45.00.

“It was a great night, especially to get three of us inside the time, because we all know each other, and I think drive each other on. But at that stage, Rio felt like ages away. So it’s only really been sinking in the last few weeks, that I’m actually thinking about the Olympics for real.

“And every athlete will say it, anyone who loves sport, that the Olympics are the pinnacle, where you want to be. But for a few years I definitely thought it wasn’t going to happen for me.”

Not that everything about the build-up to Rio has been rosy. The Russian doping scandal cast a dark shadow over the sport, and Treacy’s event felt the brunt of it, given the 2012 Olympic champion Yuliya Zaripova is among the athletes now banned. The Zika virus isn’t helping either, although Treacy isn’t buying all the negativity.

“When you love the sport, it’s just annoying, because doping does feel like it’s wrecking the sport for everyone. Still, I wouldn’t line up, look around me, and think everyone here is cheating. I don’t think it’s as bad as people make it out.

“Whenever I ran at home, or in Britain, we don’t think everyone is cheating. And you’re still competing against yourself, doing the best that you can. That’s all you can do.”

Mosquito level is low

The risk of Zika, she suggests, in no way surpasses her desire to represent her country in Rio. “I actually don’t think the risk is very high at all. It’s their winter, mosquito levels low, and we’re by the sea. And I’m not planning to have a family any time soon, so that’s a factor as well.

"I'm not playing it down either because there is a bigger concern for Brazil, and the government, and the impact it's having on the population. But at an individual level, I don't think the risk is bad."

Her individual goal for both competitions is clear: tomorrow’s heats in Amsterdam, and ideally Sunday’s final, will provide the perfect dress rehearsal for Rio less than a month later, and Treacy certainly believes she is in the form of her life

“Everything indicates I’m in shape to run a personal best. I just have to do it. It’s all about Rio, and I haven’t actually raced that much, because this is the time of the season that counts.

“At European level, there’s not much between the top, so getting into the final is definitely the goal. For Rio, that’s definitely the ambition as well. I’m not just going for the T-shirt. I want to do well. It will probably mean getting down to around 9:30, to make the final, which sounds like a massive jump, but that’s possible in the steeplechase. And I’m hoping to rise to it.

“I know I’ll be back working as a doctor in September, so it’s about making it count now. I’ve had such great support over the last nine months, allowing me to get to this stage, everyone from the local area in Meath.”

And of course from her parents, who will also be travelling to Rio, and who are certainly entitled to share in the success of Treacy getting this far, even if not claiming some of the credit for it.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics