By Ciaran O’Donnell
Big championships. Big hopes. Big expectations.
Those at the top flight will always travel to major games with some degree of pressure to deliver. And while there is no shortage of notable features from Team Ireland’s performance in the European Athleltics Championships in Berlin to dissect and analyse, the summer of 2018 will forever be remembered for Thomas Barr’s bronze medal in the fastest ever 400 metres hurdles final.
Letterkenny AC coach, Teresa McDaid, has been around Irish teams long enough to give a pragmatic take.
“We all want to work together and move forward, step by step,” offers the Letterkenny AC coach, who has just returned from German capital where she was Senior Team Operations Manager for Ireland’s 42 track and field athletes.
“The women’s 4 x 100 metre relay team set a new national record and came agonisingly close to making the final, losing out by 0.06 of a second. Thomas Barr had a season’s best in his final and Chris O’Donnell from North Sligo, who is just 20, also set a season’s best in the 400 metres,” she says.
Ciara Mageean was a medal hope going into the games. Having won bronze at the same championships two years ago and qualified for Saturday’s final with ease, she looked a good bet for a podium finish. But it wasn’t to be for the Down native.
“I think Ciara put it very well herself afterwards when she said ‘Berlin, you left me brokenhearted’. We are looking for our athletes to perform to where they are ranked, or better than where they are ranked. So Ciara went into that race ranked fourth and finished fourth. I’ve know Ciara Mageean since she was 15 and what I see now is the outstanding junior athlete with a great future in front of her. She’s in a good place and I’m really excited for her, her coach and her family. Ciara is very clearly on the upward curve and has already committed to the European cross country team, as have a number of the other girls, and that is really exciting.”
Leon Reid, who recently transferred from Great Britain, had to content himself with seventh place in the final of the 200 metres.
“His connections with Ireland, both north and south, are very interesting. Again, it was a great performance from him given all that he has come through,” she comments.
The men’s 4 x 100 metre relay team went into the championships ranked 10th and finished 9th.
“They would have to had smashed the Irish record again to have made the final,” she explains.
It was an early start for Team Ireland’s management team on marathon morning and it proved a good day at the office, with the men placing sixth and the women finishing eighth.
Tom Barr’s performance, however, trumps every memory Teresa will take from Berlin.
“It was the final of the European championships, but it was a world-class field. When you look at the results, it was either national record, season’s best or personal bests after the times of the eight finalists. Tom was actually very relieved to make the final and I think that relief was evident from the television coverage.”
Describing the first ever Irish male sprinter to win European championship outdoor medal as a poster boy, she continues: “He’s a talented athlete and has a really good personality. He looks the part and enjoys the big occasion.
“I actually watched his final on the big screen in the warm-up area because there were other teams coming in. But I was at the medal ceremony and they do it on what they call the European Mile. It’s real glitz and glamour – it’s like something out of the Oscars. It’s like fireworks and the medal winners come down a big stairway, so it was just fantastic to be there. Everyone was out to see the green. It was a massive deal and gave everyone such a boost.”
The performances of Team Ireland’s youngest athletes were highly impressive and this wasn’t lost on the team manager.
“The success of the youths and the juniors was almost intoxicating and we’d be really, really enthused by it. At the end of the day, we are measured by the success and performance of our senior athletes. I think there are a lot of challenges for us as an organisation to bring those kids through. The make-up of the team was quite interesting. We had nearly a masters team in the marathon, along with a 17-year-old, an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old in other disciplines.”
Donegal’s two representatives on the Irish team, 800 metre specialist, Mark English, and race walker, Brendan Boyce, failed to hit the high levels of past glories.
“There were no surprises in that because their preparations weren’t ideal. You would always give Mark the benefit of the doubt because he’s a championship runner, but there was nothing to indicate in his early seasons efforts that he was going to be in the shake.
“One would have to admire Brendan’s tenacity and his belief in what he was doing. He slowed down towards the end and struggled over the last couple of kilometres, but still finished well outside his personal best,” she says.
Letterkenny physiotherapist, Johnny Loughery, managing director of JT Physio, was part of the Team Ireland’s medical team for the European Championships. It was Teresa McDaid who introduced him to Athletics Ireland.
“He was a physio who I would have been very happy to work with as a regional physiotherapist for the carded athletes in Donegal and surrounding areas. This was the first time we were away together with the same team which was fantastic.”
Athletics in Ireland, according to the Letterkenny AC coach, is in a good place.
From a team management point of view it’s professionally run, with roles and responsibilities clearly identified.
“Obviously we have leadership from our High Performance Director, Paul McNamara, myself as Head of Operations, Gill Brosnan, Performance Operations Manager, who looks after logistics, and then we have the medical team led up by Paul Carragher.
“Then there are the support coaches, personal coaches and 42 athletes. With ten of a staff and ten personal coaches, Team Ireland was made up of over 60 people.”
With the European Indoor Championships fixed for next February in Glasgow, there won’t be to much down time for those aiming to make the cut.
“The European Indoors represent a great opportunity to kick on and build from the success and progress in Berlin. It’s that close to home it’s going to be like a home games for us.”
Before that comes the European Cross Country Championships in December in Holland.
“We definitely have potential there. Cross county is very much about team. If everyone runs to their best of their ability, the team looks after itself. Last year in the European cross we didn’t have a medal, but we had our best ever overall showing – we were in the top five or six teams in all categories.
“Some of of marathoners in the Europeans will be coming on to the cross country team, while the likes of Ciara Mageean and Emma Mitchell will obviously be coming into the cross women’s team.”
There’s a new intensity around Ireland’s senior team these days.
“Juniors are still learning the trade, the under-23s are making the transition, but the seniors are the real deal,” she says.
When Team Ireland flies out to set up base on foreign soil again, the desire to succeed and close in on the podium will intensify once more.
More championships. More hopes. More expectations.
European Athletics Championships by numbers
1 – The number of medals Ireland took home.
2 – The number of season’s bests posted by Irish athletes.
4 – The number of Donegal people included in Team Ireland.
11 – The number of days of competition.
42 – The number of Irish athletes that competed – 21 women and 21 men.
43:80 – The digits of the new Irish women’s 4 x 100 metre relay record set on Sunday
48:31 – The magic sequence that won Thomas Barr his bronze medal in the final of the 400 metres final on Thursday night.
23 – Ireland’s ranking out of 52 competing nations.
84 – The number of years it took an Irish sprinter to win a medal at a European outdoor championship. The first games were held in Turin, Italy, in 1934.
4,215 – The number of athletes who competed in the 2018 European Championships.
74,475 – The capacity of Berlin’s Olympiastadion.
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