Phil Healy claims Sportswoman of the Month award

Cork 400 metre runner making rapid strides as World Indoor Championships beckon

The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman Award for January: Phil Healy (Athletics)

It was when she was lining up for the 400 metres in Karlsruhe the weekend before last that Phil Healy glanced at her three rivals in the race and could only conclude that she was now in “a new world”.

There was Natasha Hastings of the United States, Poland’s Justyna Swiety and Lea Sprunger of Switzerland.

“All top athletes, all Olympians, Olympic and world indoor medals between them. I’m there, standing in my college kit, the only unsponsored athlete, I run 52.67 and I come second. So yeah, it’s definitely a new world for me.”


Her invitation to run in Karlsruhe, the meeting there part of the World Indoor Tour, came as a result of the run of her life in Vienna the week before when she knocked over a second off her personal best.

To put her time of 52.08 in context, it would have placed her fourth in the last World Indoor Championships. It qualified her for next month’s World Indoors in Birmingham, and if she runs the same time next year, it will book her a place in the 2020 Olympic Games. Decent going for her first race of the year.

The 23-year-old from Ballineen in West Cork reckons, though, that this is only the beginning thanks to a career switch and relocation that has given her the chance to fulfil her potential.

Before she moved to Waterford last September, Healy only got to see her Wexford-based coach Shane McCormack “once every two weeks, at best”, which made real progress close to impossible.

“It was just me on the track on my own, just me and my watch, and that was my only indicator. It’s hard getting the best out of yourself when there is no one pushing you.”

Now she’s doing a Masters in Enterprise Computer Software at Waterford Institute of Technology where McCormack works with the athletics club.

“For four years I might just have seen him 20 times in the year, now I see him nearly 20 times in one week. That’s a massive boost. And I have all the facilities in Waterford, I’m on a great scholarship at WIT as well. And they’re super supportive. The majority of my training group are boys, so that pushes me on – and it pushes them on knowing they have a girl behind them.”

And she’s no longer having to fit 12-hour shifts as a student nurse in to her day.

“I did nursing for my first three years in UCC; it took its toll. On your feet in the wards all day, I’d come off a shift at half-eight at night and had to be up again at six in the morning. I’d have to skip training sessions, you just couldn’t do it. Then I asked myself if I wanted to be a nurse when I’m 35, 40. I decided it wasn’t the career for me, so I switched to computer science, which I always had an interest in.”

Jaw-dropping run

“So I’m giving myself the best opportunity now. They were hard decisions, life-changing decisions, but I just took the chance and it’s paying off. Now that I can work day in day out with Shane, I’m getting the best out of me. And I know there’s a lot more in me. He believes it’s only the start, I believe it’s only the start.”

Until Vienna, Healy was best known for that jaw-dropping run of hers in the 2016 Intervarsity Championships’ 4x400m relay. She was fifth at the beginning of her anchor leg for UCC, close to 100 metres behind the leader, catching up and throwing herself across the line to snatch a seemingly impossible victory. The latest view count on just one YouTube video of the race is 3.3 million.

What was most startling about that performance was that Healy wasn’t even a 400m runner, specialising instead in the shorter distances.

“I hadn’t trained properly for it at all. I suppose what it showed is if you give it your all, you’ll always have a chance. It’s like in Vienna, being in my college kit, unsponsored. Having a kit sponsor would be lovely, but it isn’t going to make you run faster. It shows to everyone watching that anyone can do it, you don’t have to be sponsored to make it to that level, it’s just about getting the sessions in, working hard, and the times and performances will come.

“And that experience in Vienna just made me want more, to be at that level, in that atmosphere, in with all those top athletes, in a world class field. Someone said to me, you have to believe that you are actually world class too. It doesn’t click with me, but I came second in that field, and they were world class times as well. It gives me confidence and belief.”

Next up for Healy are this weekend’s National Indoor Championships, where her sister Joan will attempt to join her in Birmingham by reaching the qualifying standard in the 60m.

“That would be the icing on the cake, us both making it to the world indoors,” she says.

Already voted European Athletics’ Female Athlete of the Month, Healy now has our gong to add to her collection. Has she come back down to earth yet after Vienna?

“Absolutely,” she says, “the show must go on.”

Previous monthly winner (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, the Mayo midfielder earning the Player of the Match award for her performance in a 0-15 to 1-10 win at Parnell Park.

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times