Athletics: Back to school for Euro champs
THERE was little time yesterday for Ireland's new European U-23 team cross-country champions to celebrate as many of them faced straight back into third-level exams.
David McCarthy, who finished first of the Irish contingent home in 11th place in Albufeira in Portugal on Sunday after being in medal contention for a long period, faced the toughest challenge of all as he had to complete a quick turnaround and fly back to Providence College, Rhode Island, to sit term papers before the Christmas holidays.
Yet even that couldn't dim the West Waterford lad's delight, or that of team-mates Brendan O'Neill (DSD), Mick Mulhare (North Laois), David Rooney (Raheny), John Coghlan (Metro St Brigids) and Ciaran O Lionaird (Leevale) after waking up as the European champions.
Irish team manager Anne Keenan-Buckley stressed that the title is a rare achievement for any Irish sport, and said that the nation's track-and-field athletes don't get enough acclaim for their international achievements.
"You wonder at times do we get the recognition and appreciation for the standard of our athletes," Keenan-Buckley said. "At times it has been a struggle against other sports, but we should realise that these are seriously talented athletes and the U-23 grade is now being taken very seriously internationally."
She said that getting four athletes in the top 20 to clinch gold "should be a fantastic encouragement to younger -- and club -- athletes, that we are well able to compete at the European Championships and bring home medals.
"Having come through the association myself in the past 35 years, I definitely feel that our underage system is good now and is still progressing," said Keenan-Buckley, who was on the Irish women's team that won a European cross-country team silver in 2003.
"Our junior men finished fifth out of 17 teams in Albufeira too, which was a great result. Athletics Ireland has definitely made progress and will now be looking to fund and support more of these athletes and get them to this level of competition.
"Michael (Mulhare) and David (Rooney) are still U-23 next year but the rest of the team will all be seniors next year and have already shown, at national championships, that they are well able to compete at that standard."
Five of the new champions are still in college, with O'Neill the only one already graduated. Like McCarthy, Rooney (McNeese) and O Lionaird (who was 18th for Florida State at this year's NCAA cross-country) are also on US scholarships. Mulhare attends the University of Limerick and Coghlan is at DCU.
Their attentions will quickly turn to the upcoming track season and the next big target for the team's younger members will be the European U-23 championships in Ostrava in July. Those who are overage for that will only be dipping their toes into senior competition next summer.
They may have a tilt at the European Indoors in Paris next March but then the World University Games (WSG) in Shenzhen, China, in August and not the World Championships in Korea will likely be their focus.
With lower qualifying standards but a scale and schedule that mimics the Olympics, the WSG provides a useful stepping stone to future senior majors, and Irish senior stars like Sonia O'Sullivan, Derval O'Rourke and Paul Hession have all won WSG medals.
The last Irish WSG athletics team in 2009 was managed by Br John Dooley, who was also in charge of the U-23s last Sunday, so his continued involvement in WSG would certainly provide them with continuity of leadership.