What ails Irish athletics? A tale from Stillwater, Oklahoma

Kevin Mulcaire the latest to slip through the cracks in the Irish athletics system

Kevin Mulcaire: “How many Irish juniors actually go on to achieve something? It’s so easy to get lost in Ireland.” Photograph: Inpho

When Kevin Mulcaire arrived at Dallas airport in January the line at US Immigration was already around the corner. His student visa should have allowed immediate clearance although by the time he got through, two hours later, he’d missed his connecting flight to Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Welcome to Donald Trump’s America.

Stillwater – where Oklahoma began! – has a population of around 45,000, and roughly half are students at Oklahoma State University.

About 60 miles northeast of Oklahoma City, in the old prairie country, it’s an area popularly known as “Tornado Alley”. It’s also celebrated as the home of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Tumbleweed Dance Hall, where Garth Brooks got his start.


At 19, and evidently our most talented junior men’s distance runner since John Treacy, this wasn’t a journey Mulcaire made by entirely choice or design, but also necessity. In ways Stillwater is the last place he wanted to be, given Mulcaire could count on one hand the number of days he’d run consecutively in the previous 10 months.

“We could sure use you guys at Villanova,” said George Guida, almost 70 years ago, changing the course of Irish distance running history.

That story has been told many times: how sprinter Jimmy Reardon got chatting to two American athletes, Guida and Browning Ross, at the 1948 Olympics in London. Guida and Ross were students at Villanova, and not long after leaving London, Riordan joined them along with thrower Cummin Clancy and miler John Joe Barry.

It quickly became known as the US scholarship trail – spreading east from Villanova to Providence and Iona, south to Arkansas and East Tennessee, north to Michigan and Notre Dame, and as far west as Pocatello, Idaho, in the heart of the Rockies.

During his final year at St Flannan’s, in Ennis, Mulcaire wasn’t entirely sure if the US scholarship trail was for him. After 70 years, was there not a better ‘system’? For all the investment in facilities and structures and strategic plans, evidently not. Because as Mulcaire explored his offers, and options, he realised Oklahoma State University suited not just his needs but that necessity.

Most impressive

That begins by running again: it’s now exactly one year since Mulcaire finished his last race, winning the senior boys’ title at the Irish Schools’ Cross Country, at Sligo racecourse. As this correspondent duly reported:

“If we have a fitter, leaner, stronger schoolboy athlete than Kevin Mulcaire right now then he’s hiding out somewhere. No one could touch Mulcaire at Sligo racecourse on Saturday, his runaway victory in the senior boys’ event quite possibly the most impressive in the history of these championships.

“That is saying something: this year marks the centenary of Irish Schools Athletics, many athletes going on to great things after winning this title, and yet Mulcaire’s performance was utterly consummate and entirely without flaw.”

Mulcaire had repeatedly proven this pedigree: it was his fourth straight Irish Schools’ Cross Country title; in May 2015, he ran 14:02.30 for 5,000m on the track, breaking the Irish junior record which had stood to Treacy for 40 years.

Only about a week after winning in Sligo, he first noticed a pain under his right foot. He’d never been injured in his life, and the more he tried to run on it the worse it got. Athletics Ireland arranged for an MRI scan, in Dublin, and he was originally diagnosed with an inflamed tendon. He followed that path of recovery, but to no effect; he then prioritised his Leaving Cert, while becoming increasingly frustrated by the level of attention from Athletics Ireland.

Eventually, in consultation with his coach in Ennis, Pat Hogan, he decided to go outside the ‘system’, set up an appointment at the Sports Surgery Clinic, in Santry, where he was diagnosed with a stress fracture, a tiny crack at the side of the foot.

He underwent surgery on December 18th, and this weekend is due to have his first test run since, on the anti-gravity treadmill known as the AlterG.

He’d deferred his entry to Oklahoma State until January, then headed away – feeling as if he’s slipped through those still conspicuous cracks in the Irish athletics system.

“If anything, it’s just reaffirmed my decision to come to America,” Mulcaire told me from Stillwater this week. “I’d be very disappointed with the Irish system, I didn’t get the sense anyone really cared. It’s not the facilities, it’s the structures. The whole thing needs to be restructured. It’s too top-heavy. It needs to be built from coaches up. It’s too focused on the officials at the top, on the crazy salaries, and you don’t even meet them.

“I’d be worried more for the younger juniors, coming through. It’s not just me. How many Irish juniors actually go on to achieve something? It’s so easy to get lost in Ireland. You look at the college system, what the kids typically do in college. It’s incredibly difficult if you’re not surrounded by like-minded people. Especially when you’re injured. Mentally, I don’t know if you’d get through it at all. The incentive is not there to stay in the sport.”

For now, he’s doing okay in Stillwater – “basically a running town, nothing to do here but run”. He can take encouragement from a similar tale, 30 years ago, when another of our most talented junior distance runners went to Villanova, spent the first two years injured before making any breakthrough: her name was Sonia O’Sullivan.

Of further encouragement is that Síofra Cléirigh Büttner, our most successful athlete this indoor season, is still thriving on that US scholarship trail, running US Collegiate championships this weekend for Villanova, ranked fourth fastest in the women’s mile, while almost 70 years after first laying that trail, Jimmy Reardon can be found in Leopardstown Hospital in Dublin.