Saturday 24 June 2017

Athletics' golden boy Ronnie Delaney: 'I knew I was as good as anyone in the world so my expectation was that I would win'

As a youngster, Ronnie Delany admits he wasn't the hottest athlete in town. But, he tells our reporter, his skills and self-confidence grew over time. After that, there was no stopping this swift-as-the wind Olympian

Olympian Ronnie Delaney. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Olympian Ronnie Delaney. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Joy Orpen

Ronnie Delany is one of the very few Irish people to win an Olympic gold medal. He also happens to be one of the first seven people in the world to run a mile in under four minutes. But at the end of the day, it's his family, and not the achievements or the accolades, that matter a damn to him.

Ronnie was born in Arklow. And even though he has lived in Sandymount since he was six years old, he remains a committed Wicklow man. As a child, he witnessed German and British planes battling it out over Dublin. He remembers being protective of his sister, Colette - who has since passed on. During those war years, his farming relatives in Co Meath dragged whole tree trunks across their fields, to stop the Hun from landing. Ronnie's brothers, Joe and Paddy, were both excellent sportsmen; so, clearly, athleticism is part of the Delany DNA. But another accident of birth played a formative part in Ronnie's eventual success. And that was those very same farming relatives, who kept the Delany pantry well stocked. Food was scarce in post-war Ireland, so having access to good nutrition at a young age would prove fortuitous for a budding athlete like him.

Ronnie attended O'Connell Primary School on North Richmond Street, Dublin, then the Catholic University School. Every other waking moment was spent playing various sports. Luckily, Sandymount provided all the amenities any youngster could want. For example, in his autobiography, Staying the Distance, he says Claremont Railway Lawn Tennis Club was so close, he could lie in his bed on summer evenings, watching players battle it out on court seven. Nearby was the Railway Union Sports Club, which also provided endless attractions. "I played hockey, cricket, lawn bowls and rugby, and I also honed my running skills," says Ronnie.

Referring to his athletic career as a junior, Ronnie says quite candidly, "I was only so-so." He adds that his brother Joe was much more skilful and successful than he was. However, when Ronnie was 17, things started to brighten up for this lanky but physically strong young man. That's when he began to win almost all his races, at college and national levels. In 1953, he was invited to enter an important race and, even though he was only 18, he triumphed over a field of much older, experienced athletes. That victory clearly presaged what was to come. "At that point, I knew I had a talent for running, so I gave up all other sports," he says.

Following his Leaving Certificate, Ronnie got a cadetship with the Irish Army. He had thought a military life would be compatible with his sporting aspirations, but that proved not to be the case. So, having been honourably discharged, he set his sights on a scholarship to the US and then, in late 1954, after a rigorous vetting process, he landed one.

He spent the next five years at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, doing a BA in economics and science. His life was now jam-packed with demanding academic studies, sports training and high-level competition.

He reached a point where his confidence was very strong. "By then, I knew I was as good as anyone in the world," he concedes. "So my expectation was that I would win."

Between February 4 and March 5, in 1955, he competed in Madison Square Garden four times and came first on three occasions. Subsequently, Ronnie ran undefeated for five years, in indoor competition in America. On June 1, 1956, he flew through the finish line at a meeting in Compton, California, to become the seventh man in the world, and the first in Ireland, to crack a mile in under four minutes. (He would do so a further two times.) It was a momentous event for the 21-year-old.

But his year of glory still wasn't over. That December, he competed in the Melbourne Olympics and won gold in the 1,500 metres race. Ronnie sank to his knees and gave thanks to God for the gifts that had allowed him to bring glory to his country. Press photographs illustrate the sheer disbelief and utter joy that Ronnie clearly felt. Upon his return home, thousands lined the streets to salute this astonishing athlete. When the hysteria finally died down, he resumed his studies in the US, while continuing to excel in competition.

In 1962, Ronnie retired from competitive athletics. By then, he had married Joan Mary Riordan, the love of his life, and, in time, they had four children. His first job in Ireland was with Aer Lingus. About seven years later, he joined B&I (now Irish Ferries) and when he eventually left them, he became an independent consultant.

Ronnie, who is president of the Irish Olympians Association, is either on the board or patron of a number of charitable organisations and businesses, including Friends of the Elderly.

This inimitable and absolutely charming and generous 82-year old is more than qualified to act as a role model for those of more mature years. He looks fit and well, and is very much at peace with himself, thanks, no doubt, to the fact that he leads a mentally and physically disciplined life. "Joan is a very good cook, so I eat well," he says, "and I recognise energy lapses."

Breakfast consists of porridge, eggs and fruit. Lunch is often an "excellent" fish chowder at the Talbot Hotel, near his office in Stillorgan. Twice a week, he goes swimming at the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club. "I do lengths and some exercises at the side of the pool," he explains. At home, Ronnie rides a static bike while listening to the radio. And he does a stretching routine on his bed to keep flexible.

This Olympian also believes that keeping the mind fit is equally important. "It's all about attitude," he says. "I integrate fitness into my life, but all that starts in the head. So, I exercise my mind." That is why he continues to be involved in philanthropic causes, and why he keeps abreast of current affairs. But he also does mental exercises, including a lot of crosswords. He scans two newspapers every day, and occasionally he'll read a book recommended by Joan. And if he has trouble sleeping, he doesn't let it worry him. "If I'm horizontal, I feel that I'm resting," he explains.

And concerning his priorities, he says, "When my son was nine, he told me he hadn't known I was a famous athlete. To him, his daddy was just his daddy. That was so special because what was much more important to me [than the fame] was the love of my children, who are very, very good people."

'Staying the Distance' by Ronnie Delany, publised by O'Brien Press, is available from Amazon

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