Aside from being born on the same day, 13 years apart, Sarah Lavin has spent a part of her life running in the shadow of Derval O'Rourke. A tall one at that, O'Rourke, remember, being the first and still only Irish woman to win a global sprint title.
At times it's been a grinding pursuit, particularly given Lavin's setbacks over the years, only now she's poised to make up further ground, eying up the final of the 60 metres hurdles at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade this weekend.
It’s her first appearance on this global stage, 16 years after O’Rourke won the title in Moscow, in 2006, clocking an Irish indoor record of 7.84 seconds which has remains untouched. Lavin has yet to break eight seconds, running 8.06 earlier this month, last year too, and knows well that’s the barrier to a potential final in Belgrade.
“Oh course, and I hate barriers,” she says, “but they’re called barriers for a reason, and that’s the one for world-class hurdling, really, and I’m .06 off that. I need to do everything right to go under that, and obviously I’d love to do that in Belgrade. But this time last year I’d have been crying with happiness with the times I’m running right now.”
Last June, Lavin became only the second Irish woman after O'Rourke to break the 13-second barrier for the 100m hurdles, running 12.95 in Madrid which effectively sealed her Olympic qualification for Tokyo; O'Rourke ran her best of 12.65, aged 29, when winning silver at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona.
Now 27, Lavin can still feel some way off her prime, given she’s missed a few competitive years, including 2016, her goal of making the Rio Olympics ruined when Lavin allowed her perfectly athletic body to be quietly ravaged by over-training and under-eating, developing the frequently crippling condition known as relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S).
Then, with Tokyo originally beckoning, she ripped tendons off her ankle in her first indoor race of 2020, and after that was admittedly praying for weeks at home in Limerick that the Olympics would be postponed. Getting there a year later clearly left her with mixed feelings, mainly an even greater determination to make Paris in 2024.
“I left Tokyo with everything to be honest. Extremely proud, because I know how much it took out, everything I’d gone through in 2018. People go through hard things in life, but I really wasn’t in a good place in 2018, and three years later I’m lining up in the Olympic Games. That’s massive.
"That being said I was slightly underwhelmed. Running 12.95, there's so many things you'd look back on, and change, but you have to go through these things, no matter who you talk too. Like I spoke with Susan Smith, Derval obviously, but you have to go through these things yourself to get that experience.
“And it’s awful, I’m sick of learning, and having these experiences, but I’m fortunate age is still on my side, the next Games is really only two years away, so it’s a no-brainer to want to go, knowing how far I took myself from January to June last year, and I just made up my mind to leave with a better Olympic experience.
"What also struck me about Tokyo, you spend your whole life trying to imagine what the Olympics would be like, standing behind the blocks. You just couldn't have planned for 40 coaches and journalists and staff. It's really strange to say I didn't have a lot of adrenaline. I do enjoy a crowd, even my coach Noelle Morrissey says I need a few people around me to pull my socks up. Not that Tokyo was a bad experience, but ultimately as an athlete you want to out your best run out, and I was slightly underwhelmed by my own performance."
With Permanent TSB announced as the new backers for Team Ireland, Lavin is also working towards Paris as a full-time pursuit, realistic enough to know sprint hurdling will never make her rich. A chance meeting with Wayde van Niekerk, the 400m world record holder from South Africa, and his agent Peet van Zyl (they ended up sharing a taxi back from the warm-up track in Madrid last June) ended with van Zyl agreeing to help her get into the bigger meetings. Lavin also credits the value in having Pierce O'Callaghan in such an esteemed role in World Athletics.
If you want to compete with the best in the world, you can't do this part-time
“The following day, after meeting Peet, I broke 13 seconds, so that’s just luck in life, isn’t it? Last November, I headed out to Tenerife, linked in with a few other European hurdlers, Italian, Hungarian, German, French, and to be in that environment, where you’d under pressure daily, is great.
“I’ve kind of been living the dream since, to be honest. Getting to the Millrose Games, The New York Prix, running in top races, because that’s where you want to be. I’ve no interest in coming first in a low-level race, I want to be in with the best of the best, the world record holder, you don’t want to hide, you have to be in those situations, to level up.
"I signed with Adidas this year, for another two years, there's some prize money too, if you run well in these good meets. I was a physiotherapist, well I still am, but just not practising, since last January, I just backed myself, and still getting away with it.
“I suppose it’s what’s socially appropriate as well. Is running and jumping over things at 27 still acceptable? But you have to back yourself, it was a dream of mine to make the Olympics, and having made Tokyo, I want to make Paris and do better. And still try to get away with it. If you want to compete with the best in the world, you can’t do this part-time, that’s scary, but I made that decision last January, I got my degree, I was practising the profession, and I could have stayed there, but I just went for it.”
Lavin didn’t progress from her heat in Tokyo, still she went down to the warm-up track on the night of the 100m hurdles final, just to see was there anything else she could learn: “There was nowhere else better in the world for me to be at that given moment, seeing what it takes in an Olympic final, and I was sitting 20 metres from what they were doing, just picking up one or two things, and you see they’re just human, they have good and bad days too.”
She knows the task at hand, the heats, semi-finals and final all set for Saturday: there is one less hurdle to overcome, Elvira Herman from Belarus, who ran 7.95 last month, banned along with the Russians following the military invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s very, very difficult circumstances, my heart is with everyone in Ukraine that’s affected at the moment, but she’s a very, very talented girl, reigning European outdoor champion. It’s just really sad seeing sport and politics and the line becoming blurred. Who really wins? Certainly not the athletes.”