Sarah Lavin bidding to clear last hurdle on the way to her Olympic dream

Limerick woman within touching distance of joining elite 100m hurdlers in Tokyo

How many times would you check your lifelong investment knowing its value was slipping out of the black and into the red and there’s nothing to be done for another month at least, then suddenly it’s make or break?

The answer, according to Sarah Lavin, has gone from once a day to none at all, and not because she's necessarily worried: Lavin is well used to hurdles being placed in her way and in that sense her final journey towards Tokyo Olympic qualification is no different.

She turns 27 next month, and since she first starting racing over hurdles as a seven year-old in Limerick, competing at the Olympics has always been the ultimate goal. She missed out on Rio 2016 in part by over-extending herself, and now that she’s within touching distance of Tokyo there is no turning back.

Here’s the deal: come June 29th, the top 40 women in the 100 metres hurdles will be invited to Tokyo, maximum three per country, based on qualifying time or world ranking, and Lavin is currently ranked 41st; after running six personal bests indoors over the 60m hurdles, including a third-place finish at the World Indoor Tour final in Madrid, she improved 16 ranking positions, at one point sitting 38th.


The problem now is the outdoor season is already underway in the US and Asia, affording other athletes the chance to improve their ranking, while Lavin must sit and wait and for now at least just forget about that lifelong investment.

“I have actually stopped checking last week, just because when you’re not racing, your ranking is only going in one direction,” Lavin says.

“I’m under no illusion, it’s skin of my teeth. I know I’ll have to be better than ever before in the few outdoor races I get, if I am to make Tokyo. It’s Olympic year and everyone else is stepping up their game too.

“Because I jumped 16 places indoors, it was different then, you were constantly looking at the rankings, watching your move. It’s a bit funky, the whole ranking system, and ideally you want the automatic qualifying time, of 12.84 seconds, which is very fast, based on making the Olympic final.

“But honestly for me, and I know it’s so clichéd, it would be a dream come true. When I started out in the hurdles, at age seven, if I ever thought all that happened to me up to this point happened, only in my wildest dreams would I believe it.

“The other part of you has to think, why won’t it happen? Because you are so focused on what you have to do, every day, and getting your 12 hours sleep every night, eating right, and making all the right choices that will ultimately make me faster.”

Prior to this Zoom interview, Lavin was announced as an ambassador for the Olympic Federation of Ireland’s Dare to Believe programme, which will be calling on schools throughout May to highlight a typical Olympic journey: Lavin is eminently qualified, experiencing the full rollercoaster of a career to date, yet never once losing sight of the goal.

Silver medal

She also admits openly the postponement of the Games last summer served her well, given she sustained a “complete freak of an injury” in her first race of 2020 (a complete tear in the deltoid ligament in the ankle, plus two lateral ankle ligaments).

Born on the same day as Derval O’Rourke, 13 years later, in 2013 her last as a junior Lavin also broke both O’Rourke’s Irish junior records, indoors and out, her 13.34 outdoors also earning her the silver medal at the European Juniors.

By Rio however her progress had stalled, her overtraining and under-eating resulting in the frequently crippling condition known as relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S).

Fully recovered from that, although still "managing" the ankle injury, she's taken another leave of absence from her career as a physiotherapist to concentrate fully on the last quest to make Rio, like Nadia Power and several other Tokyo contenders doing it without any funding so far in 2021 from Athletics Ireland.

After improving her indoor 60m hurdles best to 8.06, missing the European Indoor Championship final by one spot, her immediate target outdoors will the 13.23 seconds which has also stood since 2014. Any significant improvement on that will inevitably push her back inside the top 40.

“My first race will be in Spain, at the end of May, then a few more in June, Slovakia, Geneva, maybe European Teams, Madrid, and assuming Nationals go ahead, they’re actually worth quite a few ranking points. So you’re looking at races, where they’re at in terms of safe travelling, then what grade rankings they are. One thing indoors told me is just be race-ready, the options will come.

“Once you get there, the racing is the easy part, it will be exciting, and I think will reward the pressure players. You have to step up at the right moment, which is what those last six weeks will be all about.”

And ideally it will leave Lavin perfectly safe to check on that lifelong investment come June 29th.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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