Atheltics: Wicklow star Britton emulates Irish great McKiernan by taking European crown in style
WHEN you become European champion, suddenly everyone wants a piece of you.
As Ireland's latest gold medal winner stood dazed in the mixed zone in a remote park in Slovenia yesterday, desperately trying to satisfy the demands of the media pack swelling around her, the race organiser for the prestigious Lotto Cross Cup in Brussels stepped in to quickly ask, "you will come over to us next week, yes?"
Fionnuala Britton is going to find herself suddenly in demand from all quarters after her sensational senior victory at the 18th European Cross-Country Championships here yesterday.
The tiny Wicklow woman had just matched the achievement of one of her country's legends by becoming only the second Irish athlete to win a senior European Cross-Country title -- following in the footsteps of Catherina McKiernan, who won the inaugural event 17 years ago.
Indeed there were were shades of the Cavan great in the way the petite Kilcoole AC athlete glided over the ground and destroyed the field with a courageous front-running display.
She eventually won by a seven-second margin but with 1,000m of the 8,000m race left that looked like it could be even greater.
This was only Ireland's fourth individual medal in this event and was achieved in a chilly but picturesque setting, alongside a lake and among rolling forested hills 100km north of Ljubljana.
Local folklore has it that a dragon called Pozoj lives at the bottom of that lake, and Britton finally found her own 'inner dragon' yesterday to exorcise the demons that haunted her after she was pipped for bronze at the same event in Portugal a year ago.
Being beaten by a trio that included Turkey's Binnaz Uslu -- who had relegated her to a silver medal in the U-23 grade in 2006, then failed a drug test, served a two-year ban and came back last season to take senior silver -- had cut Britton to the core.
But rather than wallowing in self-pity she immediately resolved to come back stronger, and did so brilliantly yesterday.
"This really has made up for last year and made that all worthwhile. Without last year this wouldn't be as good," she beamed. "I knew what I had to do and I just hoped that what I would do was good enough and it was. I can't really believe it."
There is no doubt that the agony of last year's fourth-place helped the usually shy and reserved 27-year-old find a resolve and aggression not hitherto witnessed.
"Last year I would have been happy to win any medal but this year I only wanted one," she revealed. "All I wanted was to stand on the podium and hear the national anthem."
Britton only stands 5'2" high and weighs about seven and a half stone and she looks a lot younger than her 27 years, but she threw down the gauntlet yesterday like the opening punch of an arrogant heavyweight boxer.
Her coach Chris Jones gave her a very definite race plan -- get away by 2,000m and stay away -- and she stuck to it perfectly, metronomically churning out 4:50 laps to leave her rivals gasping in her wake.
By 3,000m she was in a three-woman leading group along with Italy's Moroccan-born Nadia Ejjafini and last year's Portuguese bronze medallist Ana Dulce Felix.
Last year's silver medallist Uslu tried desperately to go with them but was already flailing and eventually dropped out of contention.
Even Felix, who ran the New York Marathon last month, couldn't keep up with Britton's relentless pace, fading back several places as Gemma Steel came through strongly, though the Portuguese runner would get back up to take silver ahead of the British runner in the final 1,000m.
But no one could reel in Britton, who refused to take her foot off the pedal.
"My strength was always going to be in the distance," Britton said. "From last year, I knew I had to have a gap that people wouldn't be able to come through on.
"The longer I was out in front the more I was determined I was going to win it. I was like 'I'm not going to put in all this work and then let someone come by me.'
"Only with about 500m to go did I think I definitely had it. You know the way people are cheering for you that you're kind of safe.
"But going into the last lap I knew I still wasn't safe. I could hear Una, my sister (who ran in yesterday's U-23 race) and I knew by the way she was shouting that I still had a lot to do."
A switch of coaches to triathlete specialist Jones about 18 months ago has definitely improved her power, but Britton also paid tribute to her former coach Pat Diskin, as well as Jones and everyone at DCU where she recently graduated with a masters degree in sports science.
"I was a lot healthier this year too," she said. "A lot of the time I've got sick in winter but this year I've been healthy and training well the whole way through with no interruptions.
"My biggest supporters are my family -- I wanted to do it for them as much as anyone," added Britton, whose sister Mary, who lives in Spain, was the only family absentee yesterday.
"This is my ninth European Cross-Country. From the beginning this is what you want and this is the build-up of all that work.
"Most people do cross-country because they have to do it for strength training, but I do it because I love to do it."
No overnight sensation
Club: Kilcoole AC, Co Wicklow
Coach: Chris Jones
Ireland's newest European champion from Kilbride, near Brittas Bay, is certainly no overnight sensation.
She came agonisingly close to a European senior medal last year when she finished fourth in Albufeira, when she was given the same finishing time as Portugal's bronze medallist Ana Dulce Felix.
When the U-23 grade was first introduced in this event in 2006, Britton won silver, which was only Ireland's third individual medal, after Catherina McKiernan's senior gold (1994) and Gareth Turnbull's junior bronze (1998).
A year later, in her first year in the senior grade, Britton finished seventh when the European Cross-Country Championships were held on a fast track in Toro, Spain.
She is one of the few Irish athletes capable of mixing it with the all-dominating Africans in this event.
In 2007, despite searing heat in Mombasa, she was 14th at the World Cross-Country Championships -- the second non-African home.
Last year, after she went to Africa and trained with Kenyans at one stage, she was again the second non-African finisher at the World Cross-Country Championships in Spain, finishing in 16th place.
On the track, the 3,000m steeplechase is Britton's speciality.
She was 12th in the steeplechase final in the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan, and qualified in the same event for the Beijing Olympics a year later.
Last summer, among a string of track personal bests, she knocked nearly four seconds off her steeplechase best, and a 9:37.60 lifetime-best run in New York qualified her for the London Olympics.
With the World Cross-Country Championships now only run every other year and not taking place in 2012, the Olympics will be Britton's next major championship.