Nenagh Olympic’s Seán Finn, Tiarnan O’Donnell, and Kevin Finn didn’t let the rain impact their enjoyment of the National Track & Field Championships.

Riding the crest of the Athletics wave

By Thomas Conway

Aside from Nowlan Park, there was only one place on Earth to be last weekend: Dublin. For those few days, our capital city became the epicentre of a national and international earthquake of entertainment, playing host to a plethora of events across the sporting and musical worlds. Taylor Swift was in town, banging out familiar lyrics to her legions of devoted fans in the Aviva, the world’s biggest superstar drawing a crowd of over 150,000 people to Lansdowne Road over three sparkling nights. Just up the road, in Croker, it was All-Ireland quarter-final time. Eight teams, four games, David Clifford, Con O’Callaghan, Conor Glass - Gaelic football’s finest characters shaping the narrative on Jones’ Road.

And then, even further north, at Morton Stadium in Santry, the National Athletics Championships were in full swing, set against the dazzling backdrop of the Paris Olympic Games, just weeks after Team Ireland had set the world on fire at the European Championships in Rome.

It was there, in Santry, that this writer was stationed, and boy was there one hell of an atmosphere! The weather, on Saturday at least, was utterly miserable, but that didn’t dampen spirits.

The National Athletics Championships are the country’s flagship annual track & field showcase, a space where the very best compete alongside ambitious challengers from clubs across the country. Truth be told, they were never much of a spectacle. But this year was different.

Irish athletics is riding the crest of a wave. Several of our athletes, including Newport’s own superstar, Sharlene Mawdsley, are preparing to roar into Paris for this year’s Olympic Games. For the first time in what seems like an age, there are genuine medal prospects in the Irish team - both the mixed and the women’s 4x400 metre relay teams are targeting a medal; Rhasidat Adeleke has similar aspirations, as does Ciara Mageean, who wasn’t visible last weekend but will be very much in contention once that 1500 metre starting gun shoots off in Paris in a few weeks’ time.

The feel-good factor was palpable in Santry. But it wasn’t all about the stars. Irish athletics is in a good place generally. The all-round standard at these Championships looked and felt a touch higher than in previous editions, and Nenagh Olympic is playing its part too. Club stalwart Seán Finn was there to drink it all in.

“It’s absolutely fantastic,” he said.

“Irish athletics is on the up, and we’re part of it, Nenagh Olympic is part of it. We’ve got two athletes here today who have qualified for the European under-18s in a few weeks’ time, so needless to say we’re very excited about that.

“But it’s great to just come out and compete against the seniors, who are the heroes at this moment, the athletes we’ve been watching on TV for the past couple of weeks.”

Seán has been involved with Nenagh for decades. He’s coached at more or less every level, every age-group, and he knows the Irish athletics scene intimately, from grassroots to elite-level. He means it when he says that Irish athletics is thriving, from top to bottom.

“You just look at the size of the team that went to the Europeans, the size of the team that’s going to the Olympics, even the size of the team that is going to the European under-18s - we’ve over thirty athletes headed to that event alone. And medals are expected there as well. So yes, indeed, Irish athletics is on a high,” Finn added.

Strong Nenagh presence

There was a strong Nenagh presence in Santry over the weekend. The club was represented by numerous athletes, one of which was 23 year-old UL student Jack Hickey. He brushed shoulders with the elite in the 200 metres, and ultimately felt satisfied with his display.

“When you’re coming up here, to a National Championships, it’s a very competitive environment so for me I was kind of concentrating on just getting the best out of myself,” he said.

“I’m currently studying a Masters in UL, so that’s obviously taking up a lot of time, but look I just wanted to come up here and test myself. And I’m happy enough - I managed a season’s best so that was great.”

Jack has witnessed first-hand the transformation that Irish athletics has experienced in recent years. He feels the sport is flourishing, at every level, but particularly on the international stage, where our elite competitors are now soaring above the pack and acting as genuine medal contenders in a range of events. Jack is revelling in it. He’s an athletics man, who’s also involved with the Templederry hurlers as part of his degree in sports science. Irish athletics has waited for long enough, in his opinion. Now its golden moment has finally arrived.

“I’m around long enough to know that athletics has kind of reached the masses now,” he revealed.

“I was talking to a few officials earlier and they’re hoping that we’ll have two or three thousand people here tomorrow (Sunday) (it was actually six thousand), which just shows the level of popularity that the sport now has.

“Athletics seems to be at the peak of its powers at the moment and it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue, so that’s great for us because I think for a long time, we were reliant on maybe one or two performers internationally. But now you have names like Sharlene Mawdsley and Rhasidat Adeleke and Thomas Barr that are known in people’s living rooms - everyone knows who they are, which is brilliant.”

Dedicated member

Emily Davidson wasn’t competing in Santry on Saturday but remains a keen athletics enthusiast and a dedicated member of Nenagh Olympic.

As she sat in the warm-up hall with friend Ronan Ryan, another Nenagh Olympic member, watching Sarah Lavin (who would later cruise to a national title in the 100 metre hurdles, setting a new championship record in the process), carefully rehearse her warm-up routine, Emily reflected on the familial atmosphere which Irish athletics is now home to.

“It’s like a big family, Irish athletics,” she said.

“Everyone pushes each other. And everyone here is so close to one another as well - there are genuine bonds of friendship. And I actually think that plays a big part as well in terms of how the sport has improved across the country. If you have someone to push you on, and if you’re pushing others on, that’s what brings up the standard across the board.”

For those few athletes who have reached the Olympic standard, and will be competing in Paris later this month, the next few weeks could be career-defining. Expectations are sky-high, and the pressure level is intense.

Never before has an Irish team travelled to an Olympic Games with such lofty ambitions. There’s a real chance that they could emerge with silverware, that history could be written beneath the Eiffel Tower, in the city of love, by the banks of the Seine. It’s set to be a bumper couple of weeks. Buckle up. Success is a distinct possibility.