The Leeside Legends series: Fanahan McSweeney always showed true grit

The Leeside Legends series: Fanahan McSweeney always showed true grit

Cork runner Fanahan McSweeney pictured at the Cork City Sports in 1970.

IN THE world of athletics few could match the achievements and bravery of the late Fanahan McSweeney.

Fanahan’s grit, determination and style marked him out as an athlete and a man apart from many of his peers.

McSweeney a former national record holder at 200 metres and 400 metres battled for 10 years against cancer before eventually losing his battle in 1995 at the age of 47.

A native of Cork he was the first Irishman to go on an athletics scholarship in 1970 to MacNeice State College in Louisiana.

Fanahan was attracted there by the name of Bob Hayes among the athletics coaches on the college syllabus.

To his dismay he discovered on arrival that the Bob Hayes mentioned wasn’t the celebrated American who had won the Olympic sprint title in Mexico two years earlier but a rather avuncular field events coach.

Undeterred he stayed on to take a degree in civil engineering as well as giving substance to the university’s athletic team which at its height in 1972 the year in which he competed in the Munich Olympics — was exhilarating.

At that time Fanahan was troubled by a recurring back injury which was later to manifest itself as a disease that he would have to fight against literally for his life.

Such was the bravery of Fanahan travelling to Helsinki in 1971 for the European Athletics championships he was in so much pain that he had to be carried off the plane.

His competitive instincts were such that just days later he was back on the track and sufficiently recovered to reach the semi-finals of the European 200 metres championship.

Fanahan is still an Irish record holder of the now defunct 880 yards.

He set the record in typical style going out in 48 seconds in Houston’s Astradome and then taking a full 12 seconds longer for the second quarter for a European indoor best of 1.48.

That was an illustration of the swash buckling style of the man whom many would regard as the most exciting relay runner of his generation.

McSweeney anchoring the 4 x 400 was never more riveting than on a summer’s evening in Reykjavik in 1972 when taking the baton some 25 metres down on the anchor leg he electrified the crowd to get up and get up to win on the line.

The same stadium saw him set an Irish record for 400 metres that stood for over 20 years.

His courage shortly before his death was quite incredible as he wrote a book titled ‘Living and Loving with Cancer’ which gave a full account of his battle against the dreaded illness.

Fr Andy Sheehan was Fanahan’s best friend a colourful young priest who was one of the stars of The Holy Show a charity raising troupe.

Fr Andy tragicially died himself with cancer in the course of the book’s narrative.

This was Fr Andy’s initial reaction to Fanahan’s diagnosis.

“Listen to me; as soon as you get up there get on to Elvis, Jim Reeves and John Lennon, and all the friends we know and in a very short time we will all be up there with you and we will have one hell of a party- I mean of Heaven of a Party.”

In 1994, Fanahan began a crusade to stop preservatives in food believing his change to eating organic food made the side effects of his cancer much easier to endure.

He showed sheer strength of character in a manner that enriched everybody that had the honour of knowing him.

He was simply a remarkable who stood and fought a battle that encouraged so many others.

The legendary Eamon Coughlan said at the time of Fanahan’s death: “Fanahan was a unique man who through all the years of suffering gave so much hope to so many others in similar circumstances.

“Because of injury he never had the chance to reach his full potential as a top international athlete but in life generally his impact was enormous.”

His wife Jean McSweeney knew exactly what was wrong with Fanahan when she agreed to marry him.

She knew he had cancer, but then she also knew she was marrying a man who was a fighter who was very positive about illness and who certainly wasn’t prepared to die without a battle.

Thanks for the memories Fanahan.

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