Natalya Coyle had enjoyed plenty of good days through her sporting career, not least those ninth and sixth place finishes at the London and Rio Olympics, as well as World Cup success with her partner Arthur Lanigan-O'Keeffe. But what she craved more than anything was an individual medal in a major international event, that prize eluding her, occasionally agonisingly so, until Sofia last month.
And then she stood on the podium with a silver medal around her neck. “I couldn’t stop smiling,” she says. “You’ve worked so long and so hard for it, all those running and swimming sessions when you’re on the floor afterwards, they just melt in to the background.”
The 27-year-old from Meath came second in the fourth World Cup event of the season, only Britain's Kate French finishing ahead of her.
“I swam a good two seconds better than I did in the semi-final, so I knew I was in good shape, and then I won the fencing so I was leading going in to the horse-riding. I managed to go clear with just some time penalties, so I led in to the combined (pistol shooting and cross country running), which was a kind of a new position for me, so I was a little bit nervous. I kind of messed up my third shoot and that’s where Kate was able to overtake me. But on that last lap I was just running for home as fast as I could so I could get hold of that medal.”
Stepping on that podium, she says, was the most magical of moments. “You’re swept up in the whole thing, I’ll never forget it. And then Mum was crying on the phone. My family have been there for me from day one and supported me through all the dark days, so it was incredibly emotional. It was a really, really good day.
“I’d been hunting for something like this since I started, I did well in two Olympics and that was fantastic, but just to have a medal around my neck was so special. It felt really good. All those hard sessions . . . it just made it feel like you’re doing the right things. It can get quite lonely at times, and on those dark days you need all the help you can get, but when myself and Arthur are back training at the Sport Ireland Institute it’s like family, that’s where you get the support you need.”
That medal was the first ever won by an Irish athlete in an individual Modern Pentathlon World Cup event, Lanigan-O’Keeffe taking inspiration from his partner’s feat by taking gold in the men’s event the following day.
“Which made the weekend perfect,” says Coyle. “When we were starting out we wouldn’t have had anyone else to compete against, so we had to push each other on. Medals definitely seemed very far away back then, but gradually we started getting closer and when Arthur won the Europeans in 2015 I just thought, ‘ah, we can definitely do this’. And I think that’s maybe what happened in Sofia, when I got silver it made Arthur believe there were was no reason why he couldn’t medal too. He did brilliantly, his first World Cup medal was gold, just fantastic.”
Next up for both Coyle and Lanigan-O’Keeffe is the World Cup final in Astana, Kazakhstan (June 21 - 24) where the top ranked athletes, based on results from World Cups 1-4, will compete for the world title. Coyle’s season concludes with the European Championships in July.
“I can reflect on it all then, for now one event runs in to each other, you have to get straight back in to it, but come the end of July . . .”
A glass of champagne?
“Or maybe two.”
She’s earned it.
Previous monthly winners (awards run from December 2017 to November 2018, inclusive):
December: Fiona McHale (Gaelic football). McHale was the driving force behind Carnacon's victory over Mourneabbey in the All Ireland Club final, their first title since 2013. The Mayo midfielder earned the Player of the Match award for her tireless performance in a 0-15 to 1-10 win at Parnell Park, having also shone in the Connacht club final and All-Ireland semi-final.
January: Phil Healy (Athletics). The Cork woman had an encouraging start to the indoor season when she knocked over a second off her 400m personal best at a meeting in Vienna, and she's maintained her excellent form - last week alone she improved her 200m and 400m outdoor personal best, having already set a new Irish record in the 100m. She now has qualifying times over all three distances for August's European Championships in Berlin.
February: Cora Staunton (Australian Rules). Staunton made such an impression in her first season with the Greater Western Sydney Giants, when they just missed out on a place in the Grand Final, that the club has signed her up for a second campaign. Before then the 36-year-old will play for Mayo in a remarkable 24th Championship campaign before returning to Australia in November.
March: Katie Walsh (Horse racing). Walsh won't forget in a hurry the six week spell she had from March 14 - first she rode her third Cheltenham winner, Relegate in the Champion Bumper, then she was one of just 12 finishers in the Aintree Grand National, on board Baie Des Iles, trained by her husband Ross O'Sullivan. Then, in April, she rode another winner at Punchestown, SalesSense in the International Novice Hurdle, after which she announced her retirement. Dizzying. An outstanding career it was too.
April: Leona Maguire (Golf). The 23-year-old from Cavan closed out her spectacular amateur career on a high, winning the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship for a record-equalling third time. She was showered with awards during her final weeks with Duke University where she ended up with the best scoring average (70.93) in Division I women's golf history. And last week she made her professional debut at the ShopRite LPGA Classic in New Jersey where she finished eight under, tying for fifteenth. There will, you sense, be many a good day to come.