IT'S fair to say lockdown suited some sports and some sportspeople more than others.
The O’Donovan brothers described recently just how little the entire thing impacted on their daily lives. They got up in the morning, rowed, spent a lot of time training and eating together – as they put it, just like normal really – and other than the Olympic delay shifting the training load a little, not much altered.
If GAA and soccer players were a little lost in the daily routine of training pretty much on their own for weeks and months, that slightly solitary existence is part of the life of say a runner or an athlete in most individual sports anyways. The loneliness of training in isolation was hardly a new thing for the runners and it’s been interesting therefore to see athletics drift back to life in comparison to manic breathlessness of the soccer and GAA seasons.
The national athletics championships last weekend gave a decent glimpse at some old stories and some new stories. There was Phil Healy, still the fastest woman in Ireland at 100m, to the extent that it looks like she’s running a completely different race at times, out on her own in front.
And there was Darragh McElhinney, sweeping into the 5000m at 19 years of age to win a title that managed to seem both quite early in his career and still an age in the making. McElhinney is one of those guys everyone has seen coming from way out, snapping up titles at underage, competing a few years ahead of his age, generally taking those steps of potential and improvement. He’s already got those bad experiences clocked up too.
He got a chasing at the World U20s in 2018 and came 53rd in the cross-country in 2019, put both down to learning experiences and moved on. 2019 brought Irish records at U20 for 3000m and 5000m. McElhinney went to the U20 Euros last summer, and managed to end up disappointed with a bronze medal as he’d expected and targetted first place. It showed a mentality not happy with taking part and yet when Thomas Barr and others pointed out afterwards that medals of any sort don’t come along that often, he was able to reassess and take the positives.
He just comes across as devastatingly with it. In his Leaving Cert year, he balanced training by replacing some subjects with a run or exercises, just to fit the regime into the day with study. He didn’t go down the US scholarship route as he felt the opportunities to train with a good group was there in Ireland anyways.
And the move to college has opened up chances to improve, that extra time training allowing McElhinney blow away personal bests over the last year. Through lockdown he spoke of piling up the eighty or so miles a week at home, laps of Glengariff GAA pitch, out the Caha mountain road, all the while with no race to aim for or obvious motivation only his own internal drive to get better times.
At the Euro U20 cross-country championships last year he was blown away by Efrem Gidey who took bronze for Ireland and yet spoke about how that sort of competition drove him on, how it was a good thing after being the main-man at his age level for so long.
Watch the last lap of that 5000m race last weekend with him and John Travers leading and there’s a moment with about 250m to go where McElhinney seems to just engage that turbo boost with an awesome kick that left Travers for dust. It was one of those revelatory shows of power and speed that hinted at something extra. McElhinney is simply a kid to watch, for now and the near future.
As a bonus and with a nice off-the-track twist, the 1500m final was more dramatic, an intense fight to the line for Paul Robinson and Sean Tobin.
Ciarán Ó Lionáird put out a tweet after the race commenting on the strength of 1500m running in Ireland right now and adding himself to the list, a welcome development it’s fair to say nobody saw coming a few months ago. Ó Lionáird could be the most interesting wildcard out there over the coming year.
It feels like a different lifetime now that he gave that desperately heartbreaking interview – the line about having to find something else to do with his life particularly crushing - when he crashed out with his body wrecked with injury at the London Olympics. There was a false dawn at the indoor Euros in 2013 and then, more injury, many more months wasted trying and eventually failing to fix things before retirement and no serious running or running at all really for several years.
Lockdown brought an urge to run again suddenly and so he moved to Arizona to join a running group with an old friend. His body has felt more aligned than ever. He openly talks about righting a wrong from London, about the potential to make this kind of unprecedented comeback after years away - like solving an old murder case is how Ó Lionáird makes the comparison.
He looks like somebody who’s enjoying the simple act of running and remembering what it felt like to be fast. There’s a cautionary tale side note of course.
Ó Lionáird has spoken about that feeling where everything was coming together perfectly in 2010/11 where he felt this natural progression would just automatically continue; it didn’t and it won’t necessarily follow here either.
Injury is the one constant interruption in all athlete’s plans. McElhinney spoke earlier this year about where Paris 2024 might fall into a longer-term plan. A few months later he was in lockdown in West Cork clocking up miles not knowing if he’d get a chance to show he could make it. He showed last weekend he could.
What comes next for McElhinnney or Ó Lionáird is unknown, two athletes at very different sides of their times but driven by the same thing. The romance of a resurgence for Ó Lionáird in a year that the Olympics has been delayed? If it feels almost too good, it still seems the perfect story to latch onto for these times.