Thursday 22 June 2017

Athletics: Gordon Kennedy's race for his life

Gordon Kennedy's pursuit of sprint glory has taken him to hell and back, but he is eager to make every yard count, writes Cliona Foley

A TRIP to race near Dusseldorf had just cost him the guts of €500 and the hole in the wall spat out a nasty surprise on his return. A large phone bill had just emptied his bank account, so Gordon Kennedy sat in his car, facing two serious problems.

A quick phone call to a mate yielded the €20 needed to get out of the airport car park.

But he had already booked a night in a nearby hotel. How the hell was he going to pay for that one?

"Book yourself in, get some kip Gordon, we'll sort it," replied the calm voice of Tullamore Harriers chairman John Cronin, which allowed him grab two hours sleep before running in the heats of the 2010 Irish T&F Championships.

Next day the 29-year-old veteran became Irish 400m champion.

It was his second title, but three years ago he was disqualified in the final for false-starting and last year he didn't even get that far.

So when he won, with his second-fastest time ever (46.57 seconds), which also qualified him for his first major championships in 10 years, he reckons they heard his victory roar out in Dublin Airport.

Afterwards, Kennedy simply said: "I've been to hell and back to get here."

Before you ask, the answer is: No.

Gordon Kennedy has no hope of winning a medal at the European Championships in Barcelona next week.

Making the semi-finals in one of the most competitive races in Europe is the summit of his dreams.

After busting a gut and emptying his bank accounts to get here, he may even have shot his bolt and flop, which would likely prompt someone to phone Joe Duffy fulminating about why we wasted public money even sending "people like him".

Only we didn't; not a sausage.

Anything Kennedy has achieved has been due to his own efforts.

He will be racing in the Barcelona Olympic stadium where, in 1992, people were overcome with emotion when Britain's Derek Redmond was helped off the track by his father after his hamstring snapped in the 400m Olympic semi-finals.

Kennedy is another 400m man whose story is also a bit of a tear-jerker and testament to the remarkable endurance of the human spirit in pursuit of the sporting dream.

Santiago de Chile is a long way from Ballyskenach Athletics Club, founded by one of the local Franks family of Offaly hurling fame, who are his first cousins.

On the Kennedy's large farm in Shinrone, the stock were inclined to wander.

"Myself and my brothers were the family sheepdogs," Kennedy said.

All that herding turned his older brother Philip into a decent distance runner and as his plaques multiplied, Gordon's reaction was an early indication of his independent streak: "No way was I going to be compared to Philip so that was it; I was going to be a sprinter." At 19, he showed massive promise.

Just 19 teenagers qualified for the 400m in the World Juniors in Chile in 2000 and Kennedy was good enough to reach the semi-finals.

Having run 21.35 and 47.70 for 200m and 400m, he was also good enough to have been selected for Ireland's Olympic relay squad two months earlier.

You might remember him as the eejit who forgot his passport -- an incident captured and bled for all its worth by a Heathrow-based reality television programme.

That incident overshadowed the fact that, when he got to Sydney, he never got to race, a particularly sore point, which is greeted still with: "Don't even go there!"

Particularly annoying was: "some wise-arse reporter writing afterwards that my €700 grant was wasted on me."

He got €3,000 the following year but, stung by his Sydney experience, his form stalled and he hasn't received one penny in grant aid since.

circuitous

That means his career has often taken as circuitous a route as his running.

He did electronics in Athlone IT, ran his own sports shop and worked as an auctioneer.

He is just finishing up his work as a rep with Diageo -- while studying business part-time in UCD -- and starts a new job with organic food suppliers 'Simply Wild' after the Europeans.

This June alone he worked 300 hours with Diageo yet still raced every weekend.

Every penny he can afford goes to pursuing his athletics dreams: €15,000 alone this year, Kennedy estimates.

Each spring he self-funds at least three weeks warm-weather training in the Algarve, which usually coincides with Athletics Ireland's elite training camp at the same track.

As he wasn't officially part of that camp last May, he says AAI's physio cover was not extended to him but, no bother; didn't his mate Gorky, the Slovenian team physio, sort him out.

Like most athletes trying to make the breakthrough, Kennedy suffers the classic catch-22: to get qualifying times for major events you need to race regularly but to get invited into races you need to have run good times.

So you hump yourself and your spikes around the backwaters of Europe, begging for lanes and praying to the patron saint of hamstrings.

Far from Oslo, Zurich and Rome, Kennedy and his ilk pursue their dreams in unknown outposts like Copenhagen, Leiden and Bottrop and he has a quip about most.

Palafrugell in Spain? "I call that place 'Pala Frug Hell!'"

Lugano in Switzerland? "I swear that track has corners on it. I came around the bend and ended up in the next lane!"

That bloody credit card bill of €6,000 won't shrink no matter what he throws at it and he cheerfully declares: "Sure I'd need someone like JP McManus to give me about €40,000 to clear all my debts!"

But he has no athletics fairy godfather and it doesn't bother him a whit.

Still, even Kennedy's indefatigable positivity sometimes wanes, like in 2008, when he was one of the prime movers behind 'Project 400' -- a self-organised effort by Ireland's top 400m runners to qualify a relay team for the Beijing Olympics.

"I took 56 flights that year between training and racing, did 15 races in Europe and, at one stage, ran four in 10 days," he said.

To qualify they needed to make the world's top 16 on an average of two results.

Based on one result they ended up 15th but on aggregate they were 18th, missing out by two-tenths of a second.

Like a lot of Kennedy's dreams, 'Project 400' ended with heartbreak.

"Crucifying!" he murmurs.

How did he handle that?

"An entire bottle of vodka."

He credits a switch of coaches to local man Nick Hannon with this summer's rebirth, though isn't afraid to admit: "my last coach dropped me."

And through it all he's remained fiercely loyal to his club.

Most of the Irish team have been in a warm-weather training camp in Murcia for the past fortnight, but the first round of the All-Ireland club leagues were on and there was no way Kennedy was going to let Tullamore Harriers down, not after all the times they've supported and bailed him out. They probably didn't raise an eyebrow when he told them he intended "going on a suicide mission" around Europe to chase the qualifying standard.

Somehow "his second family" -- all unpaid volunteers -- would have found small ways to help him.

So he paid them back last weekend, running individually and in the relay.

His training has continued, as usual, down in the Harriers with Nick's training group that includes his sons, Fergus and Eoin (Irish long-jump champion), and local Masters athlete Ger Hensey.

But don't mistake the chirpiness for lack of application. Facing early morning heats in Barcelona, he has been acclimatising by getting up at 5.0 for the past fortnight.

He has delayed his departure until today, not just to maintain his usual routine, but to avoid the high-altitude atmosphere that pervades major championships and paralyses some with self-doubt.

SELFISH

"I'm not a selfish person but when it comes to racing you have to be," Kennedy admitted.

"When I get to the call-room, it's shades on, headphones on, towel over the head and f**k the rest of you!"

He stays focused with his coach's catchphrases like: "Run fast and turn left!" and, his personal favourite: "Go race and don't f**k it up!"

He will live and die by his own effort, which is what he loves about his sport. The opportunity to prove himself was all he desired.

Few understand the lung-bursting demands of sprinting 400m, or how mind-boggling it is that David Gillick was sixth in the event at the World Championships last year.

But that's cool.

Kennedy knows the costs but wears them lightly, even when they have been more than monetary.

It's a rare woman, he's discovered, who can put up with an obsession that makes you say: "Listen love, it's May now, I'll be back in September."

Athletics has long been his mistress, a sporting seductress who has given him years of physical agony, financial headaches and emotional trauma just to get to second base.

For 10 years, he has fallen in and out of love with her but now, finally, he has got his long-awaited chance to try to make it to third.

Irish Independent

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