Athletics: 'Dream come true' as Team Ireland storms to gold
FIONNUALA BRITTON wasn't the only Irish athlete celebrating in Budapest yesterday as the senior women's squad also made history by winning the European cross-country team title for the first time.
Britton's victory run played a massive part in their shock win, but so too did the performances of the next three women home – Linda Byrne in eighth place, Ava Hutchinson (20th) and Lizzie Lee (23rd).
Sarah McCormack was 36th and Sarah Treacy 42nd but it is the placings of the first four finishers who count and though Ireland finished level with France (52 points apiece), they pipped them on 'count-back', which is based on where the fourth runner finishes.
Byrne's eighth was no surprise as she has been a regular top-10 finisher and fourth as a junior (2006) but she hadn't raced cross-countries for two years to concentrate on the marathon which, like her Dundrum South Dublin clubmate Hutchinson, she raced in the London Olympics.
Both Hutchinson and Lee (Leevale) made up a couple of vital places over the final 100m to improve their positions and the latter, vitally, finished four places higher than France's fourth woman (28th), which ultimately tipped the scales for Ireland's unexpected and unprecedented team gold.
Lee, an IT project manager from Cork and the joker in the pack, quipped "that's it, I'm retiring now" as wild scenes of jubilation erupted around her.
The athletes secretly felt they had a decent shot at a medal and had resolved to try to make up for one particularly heartbreaking previous disappointment, but none of them dreamt it would be gold.
"We wanted to put Dublin right," revealed Byrne (26), a reference to the fourth place for many of them in 2009, when they narrowly failed despite home advantage in Santry.
"As a team we've had so many fourths over the years, we really wanted to do it. We had said not to race each other, to work off each other and race as a team and that's what happened. It's unbelievable," Byrne exclaimed.
Loughborough-based Hutchinson (29) was equally shocked and delighted.
"This is a dream come true," she said, paying tribute to team manager Teresa McDaid and her predecessor Anne Keenan-Buckley, who surprised many by resigning from the post this winter.
"I'd give anything for Anne to be here today," Hutchinson said. "Last summer she was making phone calls and sending emails to us and putting training camps together. She really drove this team to get here and there's so much thanks owed to her."
Britain usually dominate this event and their inexperienced side did manage to nick a bronze (60 points) but the big shock was that Spain were only fourth (73 points) and Portugal sixth (91 points).
Lee (32), a late bloomer with a triathlon background, said the arctic conditions, minus three degrees during the race and minus six earlier in the day, didn't bother her.
"I wasn't scared of the snow," she laughed. "Someone said you need more layers but sure I'm used to whipping off a wetsuit and then hopping on a bike. I think the conditions actually suited us."
Only the Irish U-23 men, in 2010, had ever won team gold before. Ireland's previous best for senior women was silver in 2003 and they included Sonia O'Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan.
The women's double gold was badly needed as the rest of Ireland's admittedly inexperienced team struggled badly.
DSD's Brendan O'Neill, now a post-grad in Florida, was the best of the rest, finishing 22nd in senior men, ahead of national champion Joe Sweeney (27th) and David Rooney (38th).
Italy's Andrea Lalli added senior gold to his previous junior and U-23 victories, becoming the first to win all three as he came home 10 seconds ahead of France's Hassan Chahdi and compatriot Daniele Meucci.
Spain's pre-race favourite Ayad Lamdassem was only sixth, while Norway's rising talent and European 1500m champion Henrik Ingebrigtsen romped to the U-23 title.