Nakita Burke – December Sports Star of the Month
In truth, Nakita Burke could well have been named the Donegal News Sports Star of the Month a number years ago – albeit for her achievements in a different sport entirely.
The Letterkenny native first caught the attention of the Donegal sports community in 2007 when she donned the green jersey of her country and travelled to Thailand with the national students’ team. There, she was amongst a great team of young Irish footballers which finished fourth in the world at the University Games.
She was called up again two years later, this time competing in Serbia.
She remembers her footballing days fondly, and says it was an incredible opportunity to see places in the world which she never would have thought of travelling to. “It was great to have a number of familiar faces from Donegal around me there too,” she said, “Niall McGonagle was part of the backroom team and Yvonne McMonagle (of Donegal GAA renown) was on the team as well. It really was a great experience.”
But it is not due to her achievements on the playing pitch for which she was received most acclaim, but as a cross-country runner and national champion at that – having won the National Cross-Country Championships in Waterford last December. There, she held off stiff competition from Lauren Dermody and Sinead Keaveney to get her hands on her first Irish title.
Though now widely respected in her chosen field, it is perhaps unexpected that she would reach such heights at this time – having only taken up the sport a couple of years ago. “I would have done some running just to keep fit,” she said, “I was focussed on the football and would have done the odd 5km here and there but that was purely for fitness; nothing too serious. Then, in the last two to three years I started running in the Parkrun in Letterkenny.”
It was there that Kevin Toner suggested she started training properly and think about competing. In the park she would also run with Irene McFadden – one half of a couple which she has a huge amount of praise for. Irene is a dedicated member of Letterkenny Athletic Club and wife of Sean McFadden who would coach Nakita to national success. She would later pay a huge tribute to Sean and Irene for the selfless dedication they commit to athletics in the town.
“Kevin and Irene said that I should go down to Letterkenny AC as Sean was organising a group there,” she said, “So I went down and started training on Tuesdays and Thursdays and things began to get a bit more serious. With Sean training me then, it got a lot better. That was great.”
And with a new found focus on running, the gold medals started to arrive. Nakita won the Donegal Senior Novice in 2015 and then the Ulster Senior Novice a year later. Really standing out, she picked up those medals as part of a team but finished first herself on both occasions.
Modest in her own abilities, she credits those successes to the group of runners they had pulled together under the stewardship of Sean McFadden, “We have a great team there she says. Noeleen Scanlan (who finished second in the race), Maria Mulligan and Shauna McGeehan; that’d be the core four that would always go and run together. It’s great to have them.”
She says that winning the national title was, without a doubt, the high point of her sporting career. “Originally, I kind of went down just for the experience,” she said, “In 2016 I went to Dundalk and finished 15th or 16th. I was a good bit off the standard. So back then I looked at it and thought that if I was ever going to win that race then I was going to need to do a good bit of training and put in a lot more effort to get up to that standard. Sean took on that role. He started setting up plans and goals so that I could reach my target.”
During that time, the belief started to set in, “Sean said to me ‘you know, you could actually go and win that race,’ so that’s how it panned out and I went down having taken it a bit more seriously.”
Still, despite the more professional preparation, Nakita still didn’t expect to take home gold, “I was a bit more confident, I was hoping for at least a top ten finish,” she said, “That was the goal. I got in with the group and then got into the top three. I had faded a bit and I thought that I’d be happy with a medal. Then I thought again that I was never going to have another chance to win an All-Ireland race so I just went for it. I just took off sprinting, knowing that if they caught me, at least I’d given it all I’ve got.”
The rest, of course, is history.
With the novice title now in her back pocket, Nakita has bigger plans in store. On 11th February she’s running the Intermediate Cross-Country Championship, though cautions that that’s just for experience for now. On 15th February, she also plans to run the Armagh 3km, which is of an international standard. “I just want to see where I’m at when I step it up to the next level,” she says, “I’m training hard but I know it’ll be tough. I’ll be out of my comfort zone there!”
Though with such a quick rise in the sport, having so recently taken it up, who knows what medals lay in store for one of Donegal’s finest.