Another difficult summer lies ahead for the Irish athletes and medals on the world stage are more of a hope than an expectation. There is some degree of transition after last year’s Olympics, a disappointing indoor season will have dampened spirits, and, as ever, the injury list is far longer than anyone would like. Having said that, some athletes are definitely in a position to build on a successful 2016, and the current crop of juniors is as exciting as ever, if not more so. There may even be a slight glimmer of hope in some of the field events!
In addition to the World Championships in London and the European Team Championships in Finland, the younger athletes will be aiming for European Youth Olympic Festival, European Junior Championships, European U23 Championships and World University Games qualification.
Here are just some of the names I’m looking forward to following in the coming months.
Fionnuala McCormack: The queen of cross
It’s on the grass that Fionnuala McCormack, the undisputed queen of Irish Cross Country, is at her most comfortable, and while she has represented Ireland in four different disciplines over three Olympic Games, her summer performances haven’t yet lived up to her winter promise. Fionnuala remains in that uncomfortable position between a competitive force - if not quite a world beater - on the track, and an emerging marathon runner oozing with potential. Despite her notable endurance background, she is remarkably under-raced on the roads and time-wise she hasn’t quite set the tar-mac alight with her rare efforts over the half and full marathon distances to date. What the Wicklow woman lacks in recordings against the clock, however, she more than makes up for with her championship record, and the fact that her best marathon so far came in the heat of Rio, suggests that fast personal bests are not everything.
But they do stand for something, and with that in mind, McCormack’s plan is to aim for the 10,000m qualifying time for London, and have a serious crack at a big city marathon in the Autumn. She, like those of us following her progress, know that faster times lie ahead.
Fionnuala’s 10,000m PB is 31:29.22 from 2012; her best last season was 31:30.74. She needs a time of 32:15.00 for London. However, with four athletes breaking the 30 minute barrier in Rio, much faster will be required from the Wicklow woman if she hopes to feature come August. Her marathon PB of 2:31:22 has already earner her selection for London should she decide to contest the longer distance in the British capital.
Ciara Mageean: Carrying the weight of expectation
You always get the sense that the weight of public expectation rests lightly on Ciara Mageean’s shoulders and that her precocious talent is more of a motivation than a burden. Just as well since, as our one genuine potential female medallist on the world stage, she regularly carries the hopes of a nation.
On paper, the Irish team travelled to Amsterdam for the European Track Championships last summer with zero chances of a medal. They left the Netherlands with silverware thanks to McGeehan’s brilliance and grit. In hindsight, the bronze medal that she won in the 1500m was a disappointing result – a measure of her ability rather than a criticism of her effort. Reaching the semi-final of the Olympics was a further step to fulfilling her potential, but it was the world class time of 4:01.46 which she achieved in Paris at the end of last season that confirmed Mageean’s global medal potential.
The past indoor season didn’t go according to plan, and while images of Ciara hobbling off the track injured in Belgrade brought back memories of the Portaferry woman’s darkest days, it seems that her failure to finish at the European Indoor Championships was but a minor blip on the bumpy road to the top.
The World Championship qualification time in the metric mile is 4:07.50, something which should be but a formality for Ciara. Anything less than a place in the final will be a disappointment – both for Ciara and for those across Ireland willing her on. And once she’s in the final…
Christine McMahon: One lap wonder
Another to excel in Amsterdam last July was Christine McMahon who reached the semi-final of the 400m hurdles. The Ballymena and Antrim athlete chipped away at her personal best throughout a summer which also saw her graduate from Dentistry at Queen’s University Belfast, and she eventually got inside the Olympic qualifying time on 16th July, two days after the date by which performances needed to be recorded.
Unfortunately for McMahon, unlike Olympic qualification periods which cover two track seasons, times from last year won’t count towards London selection, and she must do it all again this year if she is to take her place on the startline in London. Fingers crossed the stars line up for her a little earlier this summer.
The qualifying time for London is 56.10. Christine’s best is 56:07. She is also eligible for the World University Championships where a time in the low 56’s would put her in contention for the medals.
Sarah Buggy: One step at a time
St Abban’s athlete Sarah Buggy hopped, stepped and jumped her way to number two on the Irish all-time list for the triple jump last summer, and the 23 year old’s best of 13.25 metres is within striking distance of Taneisha Scanlon’s Irish record (13.62). Sarah picked up where she left off in 2016 with a stellar indoor campaign. She again leaped to number two on the domestic indoor list, and got within 10 cm of Scanlon’s Irish indoor record.
Buggy is still some way off the standard required to compete on the world’s biggest stage, and the qualification standard for London, at 14.10 metres, may well be a stretch too far at this stage. But other international competition opportunities are well within her reach. The standard for August’s World University Games is 13.35. And there are those two Irish records to target in the near future.
The problem with talented field eventers in Ireland is not that they don’t exist, but that they exist in isolation. Buggy is a metre and a half ahead of everyone else at the moment. Wouldn’t now be a nice time to see the return of the long-injured Caoimhe King who has a best of 12.96m from 2014?
Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner: Barriers to be broken
Each year the hopes of an Irish woman finally breaking the two-minute barrier for the 800m are pinned on a different athlete. Rose-Anne Galligan, Laura Crowe, Ciara Everard and Ciara Mageean have all been pretenders to the throne, and while all these will be looking to continue the quest, Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner more than has her name pencilled in as Ireland’s next sub-2 challenger. The Villanova student has a current PB of 2:01.98 and improved her indoor best to 2:02.97 earlier this year. It would be nice, too, to see what the Dublin native can run for 1500m. Her best of 4:22.37 dates back to May 2013 and is surly due a major revision.
The all-important qualification times required for this summer’s championships are 2:01.00 for World Championships in London; 2:04.80 for European U23s and 2:04.30 for World University Games.
Shona Heaslip: Dancing her way into contension
Former Irish dancing champion Shona Heaslip must surely be the most exciting prospect on the domestic distance running scene. She recently glided her way to the Irish University 5000m title, and knocked a whopping 29 seconds from her personal best in the process. Given her relative youth in the sport, the big PB is not a surprise, but the ease and manner of her victory were particularly noteworthy. With the World University Games qualification already in the bag, the Kerry woman will look to get into some fast races in the coming months. Once she gets under the 16 minute mark - which must surely be but a formality - Shona can start to concentrate on adding senior track representation to her cross country cap from December.
The qualifying time for London - at 15:22.00 - is still some way off, and chasing it down is unlikely to be Heaslip’s priority this year, but by 2018 the 15:30 or thereabouts that’ll be required to make the European Championships should be well within her reach. Like all distance runners, remaining injury free will be her main challenge.
Phil Healey: From the depths of hell
The epic finale to the women’s 4 x 400m relay at last summer’s IUAA Intervarsity Championships catapulted Phil Healey into the public consciousness. Only her second ever run over 400m, the UCC graduate’s heroics not only earner her recognition thanks to that now legendary footage, but accelerated her transition to the longer sprint. Given her undoubted speed and the fact that her opening foray over 400m places her just outside the Irish all-time top 10, Healey could well be a future international star in the one-lap event.
Fully expect Healey to smash the 53.49 personal best she set indoors in February when the outdoor season gets into full swing. The target for World University Games is 53.30, though she already has the 23.70 qualifying time for the 200m in Taipei. The London qualifying times of 52.10 and 23.10 will be on her radar, but probably just out of reach.
Michaela Walsh: Throwing down the gauntlet
Michaela Walsh, a 2016 World Junior shot put finalist and a hammer finalist from the 2015 World Youth Championships, is Ireland’s most promising thrower since Elaine O’Keeffe. Walsh’s National Junior Record of 59.64 – set in March this year – may well be distant history by the time the 18 year old fully graduates to the senior ranks, and the Swinford AC athlete will surely have O’Keeffe’s impressive senior hammer record (73.21 metres) in her mind as she continues to rise through the ranks.
The European Junior Championships A qualifying standards are 60.00 metres for the hammer and 15.30 metres for the shot put, though Michaela already has the two required B standards in the latter event and a B standard in the hammer.
Elsewhere, I’m hoping that the rivalry between our three Olympic steeplechasers – injuries permitting – can put Roisin McGettigan’s nine-year-old Irish record under threat; I’m looking forward to seeing what the ever-improving Emma Mitchell can achieve as she aims for Commonwealth Games qualification; I’m excited about the prospects of the young sprinting trio of Ciara Neville, Gina Akpe-Moses and Sharlene Mawdsley, and I’m curious as to how Sommer Lecky – the future of Irish high jumping - and Elizabeth Morland – emerging multi-event starlet - can progress.
All in all, there’s lots of reason for hope. But imagine the sense of optimism there would be if Mary Cullen, Sarah Lavin, Ciara Everard, Jessie Barr, Laura Crowe, Rose-Anne Galligan, Claire Tarplee – to name just a few – had an injury-free season, and if more of our talented juniors stayed in the sport long enough to fulfil their senior potential.
As always, predictions like this can be woefully off the mark. The most memorable performances of the summer will, no doubt, be the ones that nobody could have seen coming.
And hopefully those omitted will be even more inspired to make their mark!
For those interested, the full selection criteria for this summer's championships can be found on the High Performance section of the Athletics Ireland website.