Echo Women in Sport awards: Louise Shanahan on the long road to the Olympics

'I won my first cross-country race for Leevale at U10 but I remember being a sub on the ‘C’ team for the 4x100 county championships.' 
Echo Women in Sport awards: Louise Shanahan on the long road to the Olympics

A delighted Louise Shanahan from Leevale celebrates her victory in the U16 800m at the Woodie's DIY All-Ireland Indoor Championships in 2012. Now she's an Olympian. Picture: Der O'Donovan

“THE Olympics was a dream come true, something I’d set out to qualify for since I was nine years old,” were the words of athlete Louise Shanahan who represented Ireland at the games last summer.

A very different one, but still one that Louise was delighted and honoured to have represented her country, gaining experience that she hopes will stand to her in Paris. In Tokyo, she finished seventh in her 800m heat in 2:03.57.

But they are great memories for Louise as she now looks forward to this summer and hopes to qualify for the World University Games in Chengdu, China, in late June and the Europeans in Munich in August.

These two events are her main priorities and because of that Louise will not travel to the World Championships in Oregon in July, even if she qualifies, believing that contending for a final at the other events will be “a much better experience than going to the Worlds and getting knocked out in the first round”.

But Louise added: “The long-term plan is Paris 2024, so everything I do needs to be focused towards making me as good an athlete as I can be in two years and I hope to see progress, year on year.”

Louise Shanahan competing in the women’s 800m heats in Tokyo. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Louise Shanahan competing in the women’s 800m heats in Tokyo. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

That progress is ongoing as Louise recently won the British Universities indoor 800m title recently, another step on the road to Paris for Louise and the reason she was selected as one of the award winners for this quarter. Louise has to beat a strong field of athletes to win the title, with any athlete who is either a graduate of post-graduate able to be selected for their respective colleges.

In the coming weeks, Louise will also be part of the Cambridge team who take on Oxford in their annual tournament, where she will be hoping to win the 800m race to pick up points for her side, in what is a team event. From there, she will race in Belfast in a few weeks time and after that will turn her attention to a number of events across Europe as she continues her build-up to July and August and ultimately to Paris.

But, like all athletes, success takes time and she recalls when she won her first national title

“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 said.

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 at the time and now she is being honoured again for her exploits in the UK and for her performance at the Olympics.

“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 added.

“Even if the Olympics wasn’t on the cards, 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 Shanahan of Leevale AC. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile 
Louise Shanahan of Leevale AC. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile 

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.

FURIOUS

“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.

“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 stand-out 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 800m at the age of 13.

What also helped in her road to the top was the year she swapped studying at UCC for college in 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 UK, where she is currently studying for a PhD 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 PhD in the UK rather than in 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.”

PROBLEMS

Covid-19 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’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 on 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.

“I would not have gone in 2020. 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 800m.

“I now probably have at least 10 times that are below 2:05, roughly. I’ve run 2:01 a number of times, I’ve run European indoor standards so if the Olympics had gone ahead in 2020, 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 made it 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 was ahead of schedule.

“I would really love to qualify for Paris and in many ways to thank all those who have helped me along the way to get me to where I am today. With the Covid restrictions my parents, family, coach, physio, etc couldn’t go to Tokyo so it would be great to qualify as a thank you to them and hopefully for them to get the opportunity to go to an Olympic Games.

“There are a lot of challenges on the road before I get there, but Paris 2024 is the aim and hopefully I will get there.”

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