Síofra Cléirigh Büttner excels at famous Penn Relays

Irish athlete helps Villanova University record a triple success in the distance relays

Síofra Cléirigh Büttner, right, with her Villanova team-mates after their victory in the Penn Relays at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field.

Nothing encapsulates college distance running in America better than the Penn Relays, and no one boasts a better tradition there than Villanova University.

That’s thanks in no small part to the Irish pipeline that since 1948 has included Ronnie Delany, Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan, and Sonia O’Sullivan.

Now added to that list is Síofra Cléirigh Büttner, whose relay ‘triple’ last weekend ranks right up there with any previous achievements.

The Dublin athlete, now in her third year on scholarship at Villanova, ran a crucial leg in all three of what are known as the Championship of America distance relays: the distance medley relay, the 4x1,500m relay and the 4x800m relay.


It was only the ninth time any US women’s college team has pulled off the ‘triple’ and the sixth time that Villanova were the ones to accomplish it. Indeed on one of those occasions, back in 1991, the Villanova team was anchored by Sonia O’Sullivan. Some traditions are just hard to kill.

By the end of the weekend Cléirigh Büttner was also named the College Women’s Athlete of the Meet for the relay events.

They finished up on the Saturday afternoon at Philadelphia’s historic Franklin Field with the 4x800m relay, where Cléirigh Büttner anchored for the second straight day; it followed their victories in the distance medley relay on the Thursday evening, then the 4x1500 metre relay on the Friday afternoon.

Villanova’s fifth-year senior Angel Piccirillo also became the collegiate women’s record holder with her nine career Penn Relays victories; sophomore Nicole Hutchinson joined Piccirillo and Cléirigh Büttner in running all three relays, while freshman McKenna Keegan (DMR, 4x800m) and sophomore Bella Burda (4x1,500m) also played key roles in their respective races.

Cléirigh Büttner’s family had also travelled out from Dublin to witness the event, and their presence in the stand also helped inspire her when she needed that extra bit of grit in Saturday’s 4x800m climax.

Bold move

There were 250m left in the third leg of the race when Stanford made a bold move to try and separate itself from a leading pack, then still five teams strong. Still Keegan followed, never letting the lead out of her sights, and just six-tenths of a second separated Villanova, Penn State and Stanford at the final exchange.

Cléirigh Büttner then ran 2:04.10 for the anchor leg and pushed away from Stanford’s anchor Olivia Baker with just under 300m left. Danae Rivers of the Penn made a late charge but Cléirigh Büttner hung on with a winning time of 8:24.87.

Local Philadelphia reporters at Saturday’s press conference asked what Cléirigh Büttner’s legs were saying in the weekend finale.

“In my strides, they didn’t feel great but I know my legs are going to be fine once I get going,” she said. “It slowed down a bit coming up to the bell and I was thinking just wait.

“That 220 mark has been so good for me. Every time it seems to be my mark, and then coming off the ‘Nova section again [300m to go] I was like ‘oh God, just wait’, but I wanted to go so bad. I don’t even know when I’m going. I just go and that’s it. Then I’m at the line and the girls are mauling me. It’s hard to describe but it was great to be out there for a third day again.”

During the distance medley relay on the Thursday evening, Cléirigh Büttner blew open the race during the third leg of the relay: she then made her move on the anchor leg of the 4x1500 relay on Friday, with just over 200m to go.

“I usually try to wait until 200 metres to go,” she said, “but it [the distance medley relay] was a bit too slow and right before 300m left my legs just wanted to go. I started stretching out down the back straight and tried to excel a little bit more every 50m. I managed to do what we usually do, which was break away. I was able to give Angel a few metres and that was great. You can have a plan going in, but you can’t really hold yourself back. If you’re ready to go you have to go, and have to be confident when you do go.

“I have confidence in myself and I just remember what I am doing it for and who I am doing it for. You look up to the ‘Nova section and see all of them behind us, then I see my parents and finally you get Gina [Procaccio, their coach] on the back straight. There are so many people behind you, and then I see each girl do their job before me in the race. There is only one choice, and that is to win. We did it again, and I am proud of everyone beside me here today.”