Saturday 10 December 2016

A triumph of grit and perseverance

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 18/12/2011 | 05:00

The democratic nature of athletics is what makes it so special. There aren't many sports where a 5' 2" woman who weighs seven and a half stone can be a giant.

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But that's exactly what Fionnuala Britton, Wicklow's answer to Zola Budd, was this day last week when she took the European Cross-Country title in Slovenia in what was perhaps the most heart-warming Irish sporting triumph of the year.

Heart-warming because there is always something stirring about Fionnuala Britton, an athlete who looks like a stray puff of wind might blow her over but who proves to be as gritty and courageous as a heavyweight boxing champion when the going gets tough.

Adding extra sweetness to this victory was the memory of past disappointments. Just four months ago, Britton missed out on qualifying for the World Championships 3,000m steeplechase final by a single place.

This time last year she was fourth in the European Cross-Country, clocking the same time as the bronze medallist. And three years ago she was the leading member of a highly-rated Irish women's team which went into the last lap at Santry in silver medal position but faded to fourth.

This time around Britton took no chances, leading for most of the race and finishing a comfortable seven seconds clear of Dulce Felix of Portugal to become the first Irish winner of the title since Catherina McKiernan in 1994. She hasn't been a slouch on the track, reaching both European and World finals in the steeplechase but there should be more to come from her in this department as new coach Chris Jones, who Britton credits with making a huge contribution to her win in Slovenia, feels her future lies over 5,000m and 10,000m.

There may well be further European glory to come for her over those distances.

The Wicklow woman seems to have been around a long time, winning a European Cross-Country silver back in 2006, but she's still only 27.

Fionnuala Britton has come a long way since taking her first running steps at the age of seven with the Kilcoole club. Hers is a wonderful story of perseverance and pluck rewarded and one which teaches us a couple of valuable lessons.

The first is that there's no substitute for family support. All six members of the Britton family, including her father Eoin and mother Ellen, did the Great Ireland Run in the Phoenix Park together this year and last Sunday when her rivals started closing in the last couple of kilometres, Fionnuala was spurred on by her sister Una shouting, 'You want this more than the rest of them'.

"That was what kept me going for the first half of the last lap," said our half-pint heroine.

And the second lesson?

You're never too small if your heart is big enough.

Sunday Indo Sport

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