Thursday 23 March 2017

Athletics: Loughnane's unbreakable spirit helps her go the distance

Olive Loughnane will be a marked woman in the European Championships this week in Barcelona.
Olive Loughnane will be a marked woman in the European Championships this week in Barcelona.

SHE is a marked woman now alright. In race walking, like marathons or cycling road races, the television cameras buzz like hornets around the main medal contenders.

When she finished second in La Coruna last month, she couldn't help notice that the IAAF cameras hovered around her every move, from warm-up to finish line.

But like every other distraction in her life, Olive Loughnane's finely-tuned mental aperture shut them out because "television cameras don't make me go faster or slower unless I let them".

They'll be surrounding her again at the European Championships in Barcelona on Wednesday morning, but in her full, lockdown championship racing mode, she will not even notice.

In Berlin last summer, in 30 degree heat and 40pc humidity, every fibre of her seven-and-a half-stone frame was so focused that she only heard afterwards that three guys on bicycles with gold, silver and bronze helmets were cycling alongside to indicate the medal contenders.

The Olympic silver and bronze medallists had long since crumbled before the World Championships silver medal came down to her awesome physical and mental tussle, over the last six kilometres, with China's Liu Hong, who was fourth in Beijing.

Only much later did she realise that it was Liu Hong with whom she'd had a similar duel in the 2007 World Championships in Osaka. Well adrift from the leaders, they still slugged it ferociously -- for 17th place. The result was a mere footnote to many, yet it was that performance that convinced Loughnane (12th in the 2003 Worlds) that she was good enough to emulate her great friend Gillian O'Sullivan and win a medal.

A year earlier, after she had just given birth to daughter Eimear, Derval O'Rourke rocked up to her hospital bed, bearing a gift called 'Gold In the Water'.

"It's a really good swimming book actually, but I was, literally, three days after a section and I was like, 'Derval, going for gold? I can't even go to the toilet!'"

Eight days later, she was back in the pool. A year later, she toed the line in Osaka, despite suffering from a chronic iron deficiency.

STRONG

"I was in such poor shape physically that to finish 17th, from where I had come, I realised there and then that, if I could get things right physically, I was mentally strong," Loughnane reveals.

Twelve months later, she knocked 93 seconds off her PB while finishing seventh, in biblical rainfall, at the Olympics.

After her Brandenburg Gate breakthrough, you'd imagine she was swamped with sponsorship offers.

She has "a lovely car", courtesy of Kavanaghs and Ford in Cork, but that's it. Economically, 2009 was the worst time to make hay from a medal, though her Sports Council grant, crucially, shot up to €40,000.

"That's made a difference because I can do what's best for me now," Loughnane explains. "I forfeited the World Cup (in Mexico this season). There was money on offer there but my priority was the European Championships and because I'm on 40 grand now, I can make those decisions.

"I can get the most suitable flight now, not the cheapest, so having that commitment there from the Sports Council takes that little bit of pressure off me. She's not interested in sponsorship anyway, because "it's not something I target. I target medals and whatever comes, comes".

Focusing on medals echoes her high-achieving mate O'Rourke, who also has a gift for producing her best performances at major championships, irrespective of how good her preparations have been. Loughnane's 2010 has almost spookily mirrored her build-up to Berlin.

At IAAF Grand Prix races in Rio Maior (Portugal) and San Giovanni (Italy) last year she failed to finish and was disqualified.

At the exact same races she registered a DNF (after a fall) and a DQ this season and the possibility of the latter is certainly now increased because race leaders inevitably attract most scrutiny from the judges.

Still, her runner-up time in La Coruna last month (1:28.36) was her second-fastest ever and sitting out the recent national championships, with a tummy bug, was just a temporary blip.

Loughnane (34) hooked up with a new coach in Germany last winter and eyebrows were raised when she subsequently ditched him, deciding that their training philosophies were too disparate.

Less single-minded or mature athletes would probably have been afraid to bail out, but she points out that she's been self-coached since 2004 and it just makes her do "more video analysis".

Did becoming a mum make her stronger?

"Physically yes, but mentally especially. If you're going to leave your child at 7.0 in the morning to go out training, you're going to make sure you take full advantage of it."

Six weeks after Eimear's birth she also started working with a sports psychologist. Canice Kennedy was doing his Masters in Waterford IT, she was his research student and has consulted with him since. It's hard to see how she could make that side of her game any stronger. Apart from her physique, technique and dedication, it is her tungsten-like self-belief that helps make Loughnane world class.

Medalling in Berlin has further increased her confidence. "That's the positive. The negative is that everyone's trying to shoot you down," she notes. "The Russians don't really race much outside championships so I was the next best thing (all season), but it's not personal or anything and it's nothing I can control."

These Europeans will be her ninth major championships in a row, which adds to her composure. "In La Coruna, they all went off crazy, really fast, and I was like, 'where are you going? If you're going to go that fast you're going to kill yourselves for Barcelona!'"

Like the rest of her busy life, every move is plotted with military precision.

Russia's Olympic champion Olga Kaniskina was the only one who beat her in Berlin, but Europe remains the stronghold of women's race-walking so she'll get nothing easy again.

But no one else will either, from this tiny, teak-tough Galway woman.

"There will come a point where I will just push it, and there'll be nothing I can do about the people around me.

"But like I say, 'come with me if you're hard enough!'" she laughs. "When it comes to championships I'm there to die; to kill or be killed!"

Irish Independent

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