‘Some are struggling to put shoes on our feet’ - Shanahan welcomes funding boost

Cork runner combining Cambridge PhD with aspirations to return to Olympics

No one said it would be easy living the life of a full-time athlete and a full-time student and all while living the dream, and Louise Shanahan has already found an impressively successful balance. Now things should get that bit easier.

We’re in the crowded Er Burchetto café in Ranelagh on Tuesday evening, where Shanahan is one of the 22 young Irish athletes to benefit from the first tranche of funding made available via The Jerry Kiernan Foundation. Set up late last year to honour the passion and insight which Kiernan, who died in January 2021, always brought to the sport, the fund of €30,000 to begin with is all about easing in some small way the needs of the young athlete - between the track, field, cross-country and race-walking.

Shanahan is on a brief visit to Dublin from her current residence at Cambridge University, where she’s a full-time PhD researcher in quantum physics, due for completion around December 2023. She’s already combined that with her quest to qualify for last year’s Tokyo Olympics, in the 800 metres, an experience which has only strengthened her intent to qualify again for Paris 2024.

She’s won Irish titles over 800m and 1500m, indoors and out (neatly completing a unique family double, her father Ray Shanahan also winning indoor 1,500m titles in the colours of Leevale AC in Cork). Shanahan talks about the healthy balance between her studies and running offered by the hallowed surrounds of Cambridge, still none of it comes cheap, not just the price of carbon-plated running spikes.


“I’m lucky to be able to do the sport I love, and some level of funding like this is massive,” she says. “Unless you’re at the very top of the sport, you likely won’t even have a kit contract, or any major funding.

“I’m a full-time student, and I guess a full-time athlete on top of that. This is targeting the level of athletes who don’t have that level of support, and for some athletes that could be the difference between able to go on a training trip or not, maybe train at altitude, even the shoes and spikes are so expensive, it might mean being able to change your shoes every four months, instead of every six months, which can help in avoiding injury.

“It’s all these little things. You might think ‘oh, she’s winning national championships, she doesn’t have to worry about this’, but no, some of us are struggling to put shoes on our feet. The new era of carbon shoes aren’t getting any cheaper.

“I’m lucky I get some support from the Cambridge Athlete Performance Programme, which covers gym membership, physio, strength and conditioning, that’s a big help too. For me it’s mostly a case of getting to more races now. The new qualification system relies quite heavily on ranking points, and to do this you need to travel to the right races.

“Last year I was lucky enough I was able to do that, but it was definitely a case of go to the races, worry about the bills afterwards. This year I can sit down and plan a bit more around what are the best races for me.

“Covid-19 really didn’t help, paying up to €500 some weeks for tests. Going to the Olympics had been my lifelong dream, so at that stage it was about giving myself the best chance of qualifying, worrying about the costs later. But there does come a point when without the money, you are cutting corners, looking at cheaper flights which might mean you’re travelling through the night, and don’t race as well.”

Now 25, Shanahan sealed her Tokyo spot last year with a perfectly timed win at the national championships in Santry, her best of 2:01.44 set the summer before. Then it was back to her quantum physics, her PhD a complex study using trace levels of diamonds to measure the temperature within different parts of the human cell, tied to cancer research.

“We take very, very small diamonds, put them inside cancer cells to measure temperature. There’s three of us on the team, it’s going well, and hopefully we’ll get something published over the summer. The plan is to finish the PhD by December 2023, and then really go full-time for Paris, again funding permitting.

“After I did physics in UCC, I got more interested in applied medical physics, seeing how they could be useful in everyday society. We want to be able to better understand cells. Cells aren’t not just one temperature, different parts are different temperatures, so if we can understand that environment better, we can do better targeted cell delivery.”

Shanahan jests that sometimes after a bad day in the lab she reminds herself she’s the full-time athlete, or after a bad day on the track she’s the full-time student. She hints too that she might move up to 1,500m more regularly this season, beginning with the British University Championships at the end of the month. Kiernan would no doubt approve.

* The Jerry Kiernan Foundation is a not-for-profit charity and funded exclusively through donations and sponsorship. Supported Athletes 2022:

Reece Ademola (Long Jump), Donal Devane (Mid/Long Distance), Thomas Devaney (Mid/Long Distance), John Fitzsimons (800/1500m), Roisin Flanagan (1500/Steeplechase/5K), Efrem Gidey (Mid/Long Distance), Cillian Greene (400m), Shane Howard (Long Jump), Keelan Kilrehill (Mid/Long Distance), Peter Lynch (Mid/Long Distance), Sean McGinley (800/1500m), Mark Milner (800/1500m), Aoife O’Cuill (Long Distance), Iseult O’Donnell (800/1500m), Chris O’Donnell (Sprints/400m), Jack O’Leary (Mid/Long Distance), Louise Shanahan (800/1500m), Roland Surlis (800m), Hiko Tonosa (Mid/Long Distance), John Travers (Mid/Long Distance), Michaela Walsh (Shot Put/Hammer), Kate Veale (Walks).