Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Mageean in the running to be class act at 2012 Olympics

The night draws in on another session. At the 200m mark the shrill sound of Eamon Christie's whistle pierces the Belfast air and, at his signal, two girls push hard for home.

The coach knows they are tired now, approaching the limit of their endurance, but still he drives them on. He cajoles them into one last, lung-bursting effort, hoping to instill the belief that, although they are close to exhaustion, they can still aim higher. Still ask themselves for more.

When they are done, Ciara Mageean finds the support of a wooden barrier to anchor her burning legs. She gasps for breath and forces a broad smile. “Alright?” Christie asks. “Yeah, grand,” she replies. The ankle she tweaked running for the bus in Portaferry that afternoon has stood up to the test. She couldn't feel better.
When she is racing there are times Mageean will cross the line hoping to find a quiet spot where she can throw up, or any available space beside the track if she cannot. She tries to eat as lightly as she can on the day of a big race, but not to the detriment of her performance. She's not embarrassed anymore. She's an athlete trying to be the best she can be, she says, not auditioning for the Rose of Tralee. For a time it bothered her. Once at an indoor meet she threw up after the line, found herself apologising profusely and offering to clean up the mess. She just lives with it now.
When she claimed a remarkable silver in the 1,500m at last year's World Junior Championships, she was immediately surrounded by a posse of reporters, stunned that an unheralded white Irish girl could live with the best Africans in the world. “Excuse me a moment,” she said. She had business to take care of first.
“I suppose it's kind of strange,” she says. “Sometimes when I'm coming into a race I know I'll be throwing up afterwards, but I don't mind it that much. I mean if I could change it I would but it's not something I worry about. I've come off the track many's a time and thrown up and anybody who's been with me knows that. It tends to happen if I run a PB or a season's best so it's nearly like if I run a fast race and don't throw up I wouldn't be happy.”
Her constant fear is of leaving the track with the uneasy feeling that she still had more to give. At the European Cross-Country Championships in Portugal last month, she ran well and finished seventh but felt too comfortable at the finish. She hadn't emptied herself. Broken her first rule of running.

“I don't want to finish and think ‘oh, I could have run faster’. I want to be completely exhausted. If you finish fifth and know you've run your guts out, that's okay. You've run the hardest you could.”
She was 11 when she learned the lesson, competing at a cross-country meet in Newtownards, the first proper race of her life. She finished fourth, missing a medal because, half-way through, she'd felt tired and stopped to a walk.
She had waited for the cover of trees before stopping, ashamed that people would notice her taking the soft option, and vowed on the way home that she would never do so again. “I had to get rid of that mentality,” she says. “I wouldn't have got very far.”
Christie has coached Mageean since she was 13 when Helen McCambridge, her PE teacher at Assumption Grammar School, Ballynahinch, contacted Northern Ireland Athletics to alert them to her potential. At first he had little reason to imagine she was anything other than mildly promising. He had another athlete, Joanna Mills, who had beaten Mageean any time they'd met. Mills was one of the best juniors around, though. There was no shame in it.

Three months later, he took them to Tullamore for the 1,500m under-15 championships. For three laps Mills and Mageean ran shoulder to shoulder. He waited for Mills, the more seasoned campaigner, to assert her dominance over the final 400m. But with 300m to go he watched Mageean power clear and put 10 seconds on her rival by the time they reached the line. He remembers thinking. What exactly had he just witnessed?

Two years later, she lined up for the national senior indoor championships at the Odyssey Arena. Christie had quietly told friends to expect something special, thinking she might win in something like 4:35 or thereabouts. In the event she blitzed the field in a time of 4:24.07, shaving two seconds off the existing junior record and the first of the Sonia O'Sullivan comparisons were born.
Under Christie, her progress has been relentless. He has watched her develop from the five minute-plus athlete he first saw at 13 into the sub-4:10 phenomenon who stunned the athletics' world in Canada last August, running almost six seconds quicker than she'd ever run in her life.

O'Sullivan's long-standing junior records have tumbled. And because he has deliberately kept her training schedule light, Christie is certain there is more to come before she hits the inevitable plateau.
Canada worked like a dream. Christie figured correctly that the Kenyans and Ethiopians, no love lost between them, would cut their throats up front and that the American girl, Jordan Hasay, would try to slug it out with them. He didn't fancy her chances. He told Mageean not to worry if a gap opened up. The key was not to panic, trust that her heart and finishing speed would stand to her on the last lap.
The race panned out exactly as he had predicted. At half-way he clocked her at 2:09, not quick, but she was still on her toes, still in control. Then when the bell sounded and she began to bear down on the leader, Tizta Bogale, he thought for a few strides that she might kick on for victory, but the Ethiopian proved too strong. He thinks of the 61-second first lap they ran that day, how comfortably she lived with such searing pace and the possibilities it induces for the future. Four steady laps like that, he thinks. Almost scary to imagine.
Ask him for a defining memory, though, and he takes you back to Bydgoszcz two years previously. Mageean's first World Junior Championships. He points to a spot maybe five feet in front of him. The distance, he says, she dipped to clinch fifth place in her heat and make the final as a fastest loser.

Christie knows they have reached a critical stage in the athlete's development. She is pushing 19 now, her A-Levels behind her and a life to think about too beyond athletics. She spent the first week of the month helping out in a veterinary clinic in Downpatrick and, somewhere down the line, she'd love the chance to pursue such a path in university. How that would combine with her athletic ambitions is a conundrum she will have to work out.
Even before Canada she was an athlete in demand: scholarship offers pouring in from America, the UK and Ireland. She visited Villanova and Providence and spent time at Loughborough University in England, but for all the vigour with which they pursued her, she found they had little to offer her academically.

Growing up in Portaferry in the Ards peninsula, her father Chris was one of the best hurlers in Down and that was her first love. Pucking a ball around the local hurling field with her sister every day and then, when she started running, pounding lap after lonely lap around the same muddy field.

School, camogie, running, home. She can't imagine a happier childhood. And she likes it too that, with Christie, the simplicity has been retained. Just a coach, a physio and a small, happy group of athletes. She needs no gimmicks to help her run fast, no music to pump herself up before a race. “I just like to have my own mind,” she says. “My own voices in my head telling me what to do.”

There are no clouds in her life right now. Last week brought the Belfast Telegraph Young Player of the Year award — and the announcement of a lucrative sponsorship deal with the Boston-based footwear giant, New Balance.
She doesn't see any of this changing her. She'll still blush when someone makes the Sonia comparison, still talk humbly of the day, when she was 14, when she was selected for a day out at the Mary Peters' Sports Academy and she didn't even know who Northern Ireland's most famous athlete was.

She hears people talking about her as if she is a full-time athlete and the words seem strange and ill-fitting. “I never really imagined myself as a professional athlete,” she says. “Lots of people say it and it makes me laugh 'cos I'm doing exactly the same as I was at this time last year when I was doing my A Levels.
“Training hasn't changed at all. People think you can make a fortune in athletics. They don't see how hard it is. Anything can happen. It can all go down the tubes in a flash. At some stage I want to go into university. Putting all your hopes into athletics isn't a good thing.”
For now it's enough to think about the next day. The next race. This week she’s off to the Armory in New York City for a 1,500m indoor race for New Balance athletes, a chance to impress in front of her new sponsors.
She had an invitation to run in the Millrose Games the following week, but will be at home instead, getting ready to defend her national indoor title at the Odyssey next month. That's the stage they are at now. Turning down prestigious events because they don't fit her schedule.
After Belfast, she will train for the European Juniors in Estonia in July. Her last big target as a junior. After that she will chase the Olympic target for 2012. Christie figures the B standard will be in the region of 4.07 and she will be disappointed if she doesn't reach that mark somewhere during the year.

Push him gently and he states his belief that she'll run 4.04 over 1,500m this year and go close to breaking the two-minute barrier over 800m.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Running the Show

There's not many people who can say they have one of only twelve in the world of anything. Athletics NI are lucky to be in that position, holding an IAAF 2011 World Permit for the Antrim International Cross Country.

This event is happening once again at CAFRE's Greenmount campus this Saturday, and I'm going to give you a bit of a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes in putting on the show...

The preparation starts many months in advance with the decision on a fixture date, application for an IAAF permit, confirmation of inclusion in the McCain UK Cross Challenge, securing sponsors, booking the venue & facilities and blocking off accommodation. When the event is set in stone there is the small matter of a 6 page checklist to work through, all before the hard work starts in the final countdown after Christmas. So this week has been somewhat frantic!

Everything is put together at Athletics House, including an Air Traffic Control-spec transport plan for our two drivers, accommodation logistics that change on a daily basis right up until the day before the event, 700 athlete chips & numbers, workplans for the course builders, the staff, the marshals, the ANI Volunteer Squad (email me if you want to get in on that), checking deliveries, trying not to leave anything back at the office. And there's the Marketing & Communications plan... but that's Clare's problem!

There are some common side effects in prescribing to our particular brand of mania, including temporary forgetfulness, episodes of hilarity, technology rage, over-caffeination, talking to yourself, but if you can keep on top of that it's all worth it. With only one more day in the office, and one day to set up at Greenmount, there is a real buzz in the place as everyone pitches in to get it done.

Hopefully at the end of today there will be a neat snake of boxes in the function room ordered by where they've to go at the course. Then all we'll need is the weather to hold out, for all the flights to get in ok, and for some great international standard competition to make it a great day out for all.

To find out more about the event visit and click on to the event page. If you can't get there don't be left out of the action - follow the goings on with Twitter throughout the day, and see the athletes' reactions on YouTube. Full results lists will be posted on the Athletics NI website.

Jenni Robinson

Admin & Events Manager  

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Sally Brown: It was just like Christmas when my kit arrived

I can't believe I'm in New Zealand! This time last year I was competing in Northern Ireland for my school and for Springwell Running Club in non-disability events and I had no idea there were such amazing opportunities in Paralympic sport.

I'm a T46 100 metre and 200m sprinter and the only Northern Irish athlete on the Aviva Great Britain and Northern Ireland team out here for the IPC Athletics World Championships. This is my second time away with the team but my first in a senior competition and I'm really excited to be part of it.

Overall I've had a brilliant year – I competed at events at home and in England and my highlight was definitely going to the Czech Republic for the IWAS World Junior Championships where I won two silver medals for the 100m and 200m sprints.

I feel really lucky to have been given a break in disability athletics. I was invited to Leeds by UKA to be assessed by some of the team there including the UKA Paralympic head coach Peter Eriksson and former Olympic sprinter Paula Dunn. We went through all sorts of drills and it made me realise what I could really be capable of. The fact that Paula was excited made me excited too.

I went on to compete in Cardiff at the Aviva Parallel Success event and to be officially classified for the first time. I'm a T46 which means "single above or below elbow amputee or physical impairment".

My whole summer was then mapped out and I went on to compete in Gateshead in UKA's Disability Athletics Challenge. I must have done something right because a couple of weeks later I was called with the great news that I'd been selected for the IWAS Juniors.

It was just like Christmas when my kit arrived – I had no idea how I'd find time to wear it all but I was so proud to know I'd be representing my country for the first time and wearing the red, white and blue.

I don't think even I believed I'd go on to be selected for the IPC Athletics World Championships but now I'm here in New Zealand it's really starting to hit home. I flew from Belfast to Heathrow on January 4 and ended up using my sprinting skills to good effect when we were delayed and had to race from one terminal to another to catch our flight to Auckland via Los Angeles. It was quite strange meeting up with everyone for the first time but it also made me really proud to wear my team kit.
There are 40 athletes on the team but I'm one of the youngest along with Jade Jones. I think it must be weird for some of the older and more experienced athletes like David Weir, Shelly Woods and Stephen Miller who have been competing at this level for a while – they must be wondering who we all are. We know who they are though and it's great to know we can speak to guys like that and ask them to help us out or give us advice as they are always full of wisdom for the situations we find ourselves in.
My own coach Phillip Tweedy isn't out here but the coaches with us have been brilliant and it's great for me to work so closely with Paula Dunn who was one of the first people to get me involved. Paula really knows all about competing at the highest level - she went to the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988 in the 100m, 200m and the relay and she won five Commonwealth Games medals in the 100m and the relay from 1986 to 1994.
She's taught me a lot and I'm already starting to see a difference in my training and the way I can interpret and know the difference between a good session and a poor session. I know when I'm running correctly and when I'm not and I've been practising my relaxation techniques and my breathing.
We couldn't really ask for a better place to prepare for the championships. We're staying at the Millennium Institute of Sport and Health in Auckland and it really does have everything we could ask for. All of the athletes and most of the staff are staying on site so we can get up in the morning and be sitting eating breakfast within five minutes while looking out of the window on to the track. I've also got wise to the fact that I can literally jump out of my window and on to the track if I'm running late.
As well as the main outdoor track there's an indoor track, a 50m pool, a CV gym and a weights gym. Everything is so accessible. I think it's been quite hard for some of the wheelchair athletes who have been trying to get some miles in on the roads because it's so hilly, but it'll definitely be helping to get them into peak shape for the competition.
In my spare time I have been shopping with Hollie Arnold and Hannah Cockroft in the mall which is just ten minutes away. There are also some shops close by so when we're walking to them we get to see some of the beautiful area and also soak up some sunshine.

I'm competing on the very first day (January 22) in the 200m and hopefully I'll make it through to the final the next day. My 100m heats and final – all being well – are on January 24 and 25. My personal best times at the moment are: 13.33/13.32 for the 100m and 27.37/27.04 for the 200m. My main aim is go even quicker and to make the final, but of course I want to win a medal, as does everybody on the team.
This is a huge stepping stone for me in my aim to represent Great Britain in the Paralympic Games. I'd absolutely love to compete in front of a home crowd in London next year, but I have to remind people I'm only 15. If I do make it to London it would be a dream come true, but my real chance of a Paralympic title might be four years later in 2016 – Rio watch out!
Sprinter Sally Brown is one of the youngest members of the Aviva GB & NI team competing at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the only member from Northern Ireland.