Women in Sport: Louise Shanahan running ahead of schedule towards Tokyo

Cork runner has been included in the Echo Women in Sports Awards for the first half of 2021 after a blistering race landed her a national title and a trip to the Olympics
Women in Sport: Louise Shanahan running ahead of schedule towards Tokyo

Louise Shanahan of Leevale A.C celebrates winning the 800m ahead of Siofra Cleirigh Buttner of Dundrum South Dublin, Georgie Hartigan of Dundrum South Dublin A.C, Jenna Bromell of Emerald AC. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

HER expression after she crossed the finish line said it all.

A smile as wide as the River Lee and both arms raised aloft in triumph. Louise Shanahan had just won her first national senior 800 metre title, but she knew it was coming.

“I had pictured myself winning that race for two weeks before I ran it but when it happened... it was just the most amazing feeling,” she tells the Echo.

After a couple of near misses over the last few years, this time she controlled the race throughout before kicking for home in the final straight to secure the victory in a time of 2:03.62.

It was a performance that deservedly earned her one of the Echo’s prestigious Women in Sports awards for Spring and Summer, but more importantly for the runner, it secured her a place at the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“I came second once and third twice, maybe, over the past six or so years but I had never won the outdoor national title until then,” she continues.

“Even if the Olympics wasn’t on the card, just to get that national was a goal for me and I was so happy to win it.

I had been in quarantine in Ireland before the race and I had basically sat still for two weeks imagining this race.

“It was a weird nationals though because there were reduced crowds. My dad, who has coached me for most of my juvenile career, was in the stands but I wasn’t allowed anywhere near him because he was in the spectator zone.”

Louise’s love of the sport largely comes from her dad Ray, who is well known on the Irish athletics scene as a top-level competitor and former Irish endurance coach.

Her first national title last year in the Irish Indoor Championships 1,500m saw her emulate Ray’s victories in 1988 and 1989, to make them the first father and daughter duo to achieve the honour.

“I went to my first race when I was six days old on the back of a carrycot,” adds Louise.

“It was the intervarsity cross country and dad was coaching the UCC team. I’m not sure whether my mom really wanted to but either way all three of us went to it.

“I have always grown up around running but my dad never forced me into it. It was actually in school in Douglas when we did the Cork school sports.

“What are they? 100 metre, 80 metre sprints? I was quite small when I was younger and I wasn’t that fast so I kept missing the team.

“When I was in third class I finally got out of the first round - our school was pretty big, lots of girls - but it probably meant I went from the top 80 to the top 20 or something like that but it was the first time I made any progress.

“Then, unfortunately, my family went on holiday so I missed the next round of the trials and didn’t make the team again.

“I was absolutely furious with my parents. I finally found a sport I was good at.

“Apparently, I was an absolute disaster on the holiday because I was so annoyed with them.

“Dad turned to my mom and said ‘We better do something about this’ and when we got back they brought me down to Leevale Athletic Club. From there I made sure I made the school team the following year.” 

Picture: Bryan Keane
Picture: Bryan Keane

Shanahan would forgive her parents, eventually, and enjoy the rest of their visit to her Aunt in Melbourne, Australia. On her return, she officially joined Leevale Athletics Club but she knew she had to begin working hard to improve if she was going to achieve her lofty ambitions.

LATE DEVELOPER

“I wasn’t always good at running,” she admits.

“I won my first cross country race for the club but I remember being a sub on the ‘C’ team for the 4x100 county championships.

“So that meant I was probably the 15th best runner in the U10 category in the club at the time. I wasn’t always a standout athlete by any means but when I was young I decided that I wanted to go to the Olympics.

“I decided I was going to be one of the best athletes Ireland has ever seen.

“I’m fully aware it was a pipe dream, there wasn’t actually that much proof that was going to happen at the time but I wanted it, I wanted it so badly.

“I was determined, I believed I was going to be the best and sure that’s all you really need.” Shanahan continued to grow and improve which included a win at the European Youth Championship in the 800 metre at the age of 13.

But then years later, shortly after completing her Leaving Certificate Examinations, she suffered a serious injury that stopped her in her tracks.

“A week after the Leaving Cert, I went over to the U.K and ran a P.B (personal best) and ran a qualification standard for the European Juniors.

“When I went into the National Juniors the following weekend, all I had to do was finish the race and I would have been selected for the Euros.

“I’m still not exactly sure what happened. With 100 to go, I went to do my trademark kick to sprint to the finish and my foot was just incredibly sore.

“Now looking back at it, pretty stupidly, I still ran to the finish and I just managed to win the race. But then I couldn’t put weight on it and when I got the result of my scan a few days later it came back broken.

“Safe to say I did not go to the European Junior Championships,” she laughs.

“It was a freak accident, I didn’t have any symptoms going into the competition. My foot was pretty bad though, I had to have surgery and they put a screw through it.

“At the time they were telling me ‘you need to take this seriously, you have done a lot of damage and if you don’t come back in a sensible manner, you are not going to get back.’ “I got back training eight or nine months after it but it probably took me about three years before I was back at the standard I was before I broke it.

“In the end, it was actually one of the better things that has happened to me. I wouldn’t have thought it at the time but it really made me appreciate running again.

“I had been putting myself under a lot of pressure for races - anything less than perfect was not acceptable - whereas when my world fell apart it made me re-evaluate the situation and I grew so much from that experience.

“It was a tough year but it has made me into the athlete that I am now.” What also helped in her road to the top was the year she swapped studying in U.C.C for college in Berkeley, California where she worked with renowned coach Tony Sandoval.

There she learned a lot about recovery in terms of sports but also a lot about her physics course which allowed her to make the move to the United Kingdom, where she is currently two years away from earning a Ph.D. in quantum physics.

“I like having the two,” she confirms. “If things in the lab are going badly, I can tell myself ‘I’m a runner and the running is going well and everything is fine’.

“And if running is going badly, I tell myself ‘well, you’re a quantum physicist so the running is just an extra’.

“You’d miss so much if you are only coming home once, maybe twice a year, so I decided to do my Ph.D. in the UK rather than America.

“I wasn’t willing to miss my life in Cork that much.

“The UK was supposed to be a nice compromise, I could fly home for someone’s birthday or national championships quite easily but with Covid, it hasn’t worked out like that.” Covid has caused problems for plenty of Irish people living abroad but Shanahan has been fortunate that her sport has given her the chance to return home.

“I am really lucky running has allowed me to see my parents every three or four months.

“In normal times it would have been easier to do all this travelling but with Covid, it has been a complete nightmare.

“I didn’t really want to travel because it is quite high risk but the races I had to run to qualify were all in mainland Europe so I didn’t really have a choice in the matter.

“I’m really privileged to even get the chance to travel but if anyone thinks ‘oh you get to go around Europe on a nice holiday’ it wasn’t like that.

“I was inside hotel rooms in quarantine for almost the entire time and doing Covid tests every two or three days.

At the start, I was in Prague for a week and one of the days I went to central Prague for about three hours, that was the extent of the tours. It was stressful.” 

Amidst all the issues brought along by the pandemic, there was one huge silver lining for the Rochestown native.

Had the Olympics gone ahead as planned in 2020, Shanahan would have been watching from her home in Cork or her dorm in Cambridge where she sits to do this interview.

But the extra year has given her the chance to fulfill her childhood dream and now she intends to make the most of it all the while knowing that her best is yet to come.

UPPING THE GEARS

“I would not have gone last year. At the point the Olympics were supposed to be on, I had only run 2:04 once and that was the only time in my whole career that I had broken two minutes and eight seconds for 800 metres.

“A year later, I probably have ten times that are below 2:05, roughly. I’ve run 2:01 three times, I’ve run European indoor standards so if the Olympics had gone ahead a year ago, not only would I not have gone, I wouldn’t have been in contention and nobody would have thought anything of it.

“I think it’s a big shock to people that I have made it this year so the best thing for me to come out of Covid is the Olympic qualification.

“I’m not going to lie, I was aiming for Paris 2024 so getting selected for Tokyo is ahead of schedule. When I get to the Olympics the main aim will be just to run as good a race as possible.

“If the race suits me, if it is a little bit more tactical then there is a chance I will get out of the meet. But to be honest, getting to the Olympics this year is just a bonus for me.

“I will have another winter getting stronger and hopefully then next year and the year after I will be more competitive.”

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