By Ciaran O’Donnell
To those in the know, Mark English’s bronze medal in the 800 metres European Indoor Athletics Championships in Glasgow at the weekend came as no real surprise.
A third major championship finals. And a third medal. Business as usual then for the high achiever from The Glebe on the outskirts of the Cathedral Town. It’s been a lengthy and frustrating road back to the podium however – the last time he stepped up was in these championships four years ago when being presented with silver in Prague. The summer before, he took bronze in the European Track and Field Championships in Zurich.
When the gun sounded for Sunday’s final, he wasted no time in getting to the front of the pack from the shared lane three and out of harm’s way. It was an approach that was to prove telling as he kept a strong and steady momentum. After getting on the shoulder of the early leader, he stayed in the mix. Crucially, though, he maintained his form over the all-important final lap, thus holding off the chasing four. It was a gutsy run, classic eye-balls-out stuff with the rev counter on the max and running on empty from the final bend. It was also a superbly executed race plan that most certainly merited a medal. His finish time was 1:47.39. The race was won by Spain’s Alcaro de Arriba in 1:46.83 with Jamie Webb of Great Britain second in 1:47.13.
Mark English went into the Europeans stronger, fitter and faster than he’s been for quite a while. Injury and study commitments had kept him under the radar in recent seasons. It was an extremely satisfied UDC medical student who arrived back in Dublin Airport on Monday after another weekend to remember, and another major championship medal hanging around his neck.
Reflecting on his latest achievement, Mark said: “It gives me a lot of confidence that the training I’ve been doing has actually been working. I owe a lot to Steve Magness, my coach who is over in Texas at the minute. I don’t think anything has really changed mentally, I’ve just put the right training in and I’ve got the right mechanical support to go with it.”
While there’s no doubting he left nothing to chance in preparation, no one could have predicted the drama that preceded his qualification for Sunday night’s final. The one thing certain in the cut-and-thrust of middle distance indoor track running at the business end is its uncertainty. And so it proved again at the impressive Emirates Arena on Saturday evening.
The Letterkenny medical student, who will sit his final exams next month, booked his place in the semis after a solid showing in his heat on Friday where he took victory in 1:49.38. When he was impeded by Great Britain’s Guy Learmont, who tripped before tumbling in front of the Irish champion two laps from home in the semi-final before finishing fourth – only the first three from each semi-final go through to the final – his chances of qualification for the final hung in the balance for a time.
The task of lodging the appeal to grant him qualification rested with Letterkenny AC’s Teresa McDaid, Ireland’s senior operations manager for what was the 35th staging of the championships. While the decision by the powers that be to reinstate the Irish record holder took longer than she’d had have preferred, she never doubted that the track specialist would be included in the final on day three.
“The most important thing was the good outcome,” Teresa said.
“When you’re coming back with medals it always makes everything better. I suppose I’m just pleased that the efforts that were made, which is part of my role, were worthwhile and that everything worked out. By the nature of indoor athletics there’s always going to be a bit of argy-bargy and we had a few protests. We had one for Cillian Green in the 400 metres. When the protest was lodged I learned that if he had finished the race he would have been reinstated. But as it turned out he wouldn’t have been able to compete anyway. We made a point of reminding athletes of that rule thereafter and I think that was in the back of Mark’s mind,” she added.
Teresa watched the drama unfold on the blue tartan from the warm-up area. The runners were still catching their breath by the time she had made her way to the Technical Information Centre (TIC).
“There is a process there and the key is to have the education and experience to know the process and how to manage it. The TIC is my hub in relation to things like final declarations and withdrawals.”
Her first priority was to fill out a protest form and ask to see the video footage. She then had a discussion with the video referee and track referee.
“I had an opportunity to bring another person with me, and I felt in this case it was appropriate to bring Mark as it was important to get the athlete’s take on it as well. It’s an opportunity to put your views across as strongly as you possibly can to the referee and influence them on your position. In saying that, you can only work within the rules,” she commented.
Other countries subsequently lodged protests around the same incident which went before the jury of appeal. This caused the delay in the declaration of the final outcome.
“I had to wait until I got the confirmation in writing. I was extremely confident having seen the video. I felt the same when I watched it in real time and could see straight away what had happened. The notes which I took backed that up.”
In the build-up to the weekend, Teresa identified Mark and Ciara Mageean as Ireland’s best medal prospects. Her hunch for both proved bang on, as Ciara also took bronze in the final of the 1500 metres.
“Looking at the entry lists before hand, I felt they were both in with a shout. But you don’t ever want to put pressure on anyone by saying it because there are rounds, particularly in the 800 metres. I never like semi-finals because too many good athletes go out in semi-finals.
“The International meet in Athlone gave us all great hope. Ciara broke her Irish record while Mark came extremely close to his Irish indoor record. “The signs were good and they were well within their standard.”
Prior to Glasgow, Ireland’s European indoor medal haul stood at 23. Mark English made it 24 and Ciara Mageean took it to a tidy 25 during a memorable hour on Sunday night.
“At the end of the day, this is a performance sport. In order to secure our sponsors and our funding, it’s so important to be among the medals. Equally, it’s important in terms of attracting people to our sport. It gives everybody such a boost.
“It’s great to see the public getting involved and getting behind the Irish team. We have a great fan base in Ireland and when we go away we are always well supported. So for those who took time out to spend money and travel at the weekend, it was great for them, too.”
Finn Valley AC’s Sommer Lecky was part of the Irish senior team for the first time last weekend and Teresa believes the experience she gained will prove invaluable as her career progresses.
“Sommer is only just out of junior and yet this is her first senior competition. The standard in women’s high-jump is unreal at the moment – the automatic height for qualifying is 1.96 metres. We will see a very different Sommer Lecky in two years time. She’s also one to watch in the under-23s this year.”
And finally, a good weekend?
“Absolutely. I was delighted and privileged to be there. It was a job well done.”
Only three Irish athletes have won multiple European Indoor Championship medals. Mark English is the latest addition to that elite group which includes David Gillick and Derval O’Rourke.