'We're all here, we're all great mates, let's do this'

 

ATHLETICS UNDER-23 EUROPEAN CROSS COUNTRY CHAMPIONSHIP: Team member BRENDAN O'NEILLtells the story behind Ireland’s stunning, gold medal effort in Portugal last Sunday: the years of effort, the mentors, a special feeling before the race and what the victory can mean for the sport here.

WOW. I MEAN, we thought we had a chance, but to actually go and do it is a whole different matter. Ireland – champions of Europe? I could get used to that.

To think that us six Irish contenders could overpower the greatest distance runners that powerhouses like France, Spain and Britain could produce is a really proud thought, and I couldn’t think of a better bunch of guys to do it with.

Our bond goes as far back as the Under-15 Schools International in 2003, where five out of the six of us were selected for the Irish team, young and full of dreams. And I’m happy to say those dreams were fulfilled on the podium in Albufeira last Sunday.

The race really began the night before. All six of our team (David McCarthy, Michael Mulhare, David Rooney, John Coghlan, Ciarán Ó Lionáird and myself) met Br John Dooley, our team coach. He had a scented candle lit in the apartment, and he passed around a picture of Ireland’s last medal-winning team, silver, in 2004. We knew how much it would mean to him for us to win, and in that meeting, as we passed around the photo and looked at each other, something clicked.

My heart started racing from that moment until the starting gun on Sunday, and I think in our own, secret way, without ever saying it, we knew the gold medals were ours before the race even started.

Liam Moggan was also a member of the management team, and he told us at a gathering on the Saturday that it would be us who would write Monday morning’s papers, not the journalists. “So, what are they going to say?” he asked, and left us with the thought for the night.

Sunday morning was warm. We were calm and relaxed as we left the hotel on the bus to the course, quietly confident. We are all so used to racing by now that we know there is little point in getting uptight about it.

We warmed up in packs of two, one in front of each other like a small platoon. It was my idea, because I knew none of the other teams would do that, and it would freak them out.

We eye-balled the French on our warm-up. I slapped high-fives with one of the Scottish guys running for Britain, and by doing that and joking around a bit we managed to scare the opposition even more.

The last thing we did before the race started was huddle as a team, and for one last time reinforced what we had discussed in the previous days: “We’re all here now, we’re all great mates, let’s do this. Just be safe at the bends, we’re in this together and let’s make the most of it.”

Next thing I know, I’m high-fiving John Coghlan after crossing the line. I’m slightly disappointed I missed out on a top-10. I was flat out the whole race, and although I could hear Irish accents screaming frantically the whole way around I was too out of it to understand what had happened. Ah well, we did our best. Maybe next time, as the saying goes.

David Rooney attacks me from behind. “We won! We won! We got the gold.”

“No, no, you’re joking.”

I look up at the giant screen: 1. Ireland 60pts. I clench my fists, lean back, tilt my head in the air and scream as loud as I can. Pure sense of victory. We are number one! We are the best! We won the battle. The first – ever – Irish team gold medal in athletics. And we did it. I still can’t comprehend it.

I had no idea the media would be so interested in our success, as athletics tends to be down the pecking order behind soccer, rugby and GAA. So when we walked through the arrivals area in Dublin Airport we were overwhelmed with the reception.

Me? Us? What do they want to talk to us for? Why are they taking so many pictures? These were my thoughts as we stood there in front of a sea of cameramen. I thought, this was ridiculous.

But later, after reflecting on the last four years, I feel like there was somebody up there looking out for me. There were flashbacks of Toro 2007, trailing in last, injured (metatarsal) after being tipped for a top-10 finish.

Early in 2008 I went on to break my left foot. I thought my career was done. I was depressed and thought my running days were over – and now I had to catch up with my peers, because after all those nights out and wild holidays missed because of training and competition – surely they were much better craic than the running buzz? Right?

Well, I learnt the answer to that question on Sunday. When I was handed the European trophy and lifted it over my head to the deafening shouts of the large Irish contingent, as I gripped it tightly as the Tricolour was raised and I sang Amhrán na bhFiann at the top of my lungs, I thought: may the dream never die.

I think the best element of this success is that it will act as a launch pad for our senior careers. The Irish athletics system can be cruel when it comes to pursuing athletics at a professional level, or post-collegiate competition. There hasn’t been the support or opportunities here like there are in America, but I’m glad to say that is beginning to change.

My own experience coming through the Sports Academy in DCU has been key to my improvements in the last year. I am blessed with great support from the staff in DCU and, in particular, the system which I grew up in, with my club Dundrum South Dublin.

Now when I train in Marlay Park at weekends, I look over my shoulder wondering when the throngs of youngsters are going to challenge me up the hill. It’s great, and it is all down to the commitment of the parents, coaches, and my own coach, Eddie McDonagh.

This community-based environment in which sport can be enjoyed from an early age is the key to fostering talent. Controlling and carefully monitoring talent will carry it through to senior level, where there then needs to be a support framework to allow our top athletes to give full commitment to fulfilling their potential.

I would also like to share this success with the dedicated mentors who have helped me get to this stage: Fr William Bradley, who introduced me to the sport, along with all the other staff at St Michael’s College, who instilled belief in me from day one; Eddie McDonagh’s training and motivation has kept me going, through thick and thin; and Enda Fitzpatrick, in DCU, who has provided me with everything I need to succeed while in college.

Diary entry at 10pm, night before race:

“The weather is warm and my heart is beating fast. It’s Albufeira 2010, we are here. There are six of us and, whatever may be, there is a special electric feel in the air. I can feel it as I type and visualise the race at the same time. I can feel it running through my veins, down my arms to my fingertips. I am ready, we all are. Whatever may be, we have done everything in our control to make it happen. Now we can just let it happen.

“My head gets dizzy from the thought of leaving my blood, sweat and skin on that course tomorrow, but man do I relish the thought. It’s not often that I feel like this.

“And so, for the sake of everyone who has ever believed in me, stood by me when times were rough, or simply asked how I was getting on with ‘the running’ and given me a clap on the back – when I feel burning pain, when I grimace with anguish, when I know that courage is what I need to get me through, I will not surrender.”