Athletics: Sweeney blows hot in Derry cold
PROOF positive that there are few tougher athletes in sport than cross-country runners was there for all to see at the winter wonderland that was the Woodies DIY Inter-County Cross-Country Championships in Gransha, Derry yesterday.
While most of the nation was paralysed by the unprecedented arctic spell, athletes from U-12 to senior braved treacherous roads and tough racing conditions to battle it out for some of the most prestigious medals in domestic athletics.
And while there were expected and easy titles for Fionnuala Britton and Ciara Mageean in the women's senior and junior races, the men's equivalents were won by two athletes showing an encouraging return to form after some serious illness setbacks.
Rangey DSD star Joe Sweeney won his first senior cross-country title with an impressive gun-to-tape dash, opening up a 50-metre lead within 4km of the 10,000m race that he easily extended with each subsequent lap.
He came home a full 33 seconds ahead of Mullingar's Mark Christie, who outsprinted young Dubliner Brendan O'Neill in a great tussle for silver.
Sweeney, a UCD post-grad student, was particularly thrilled given what he's been through.
"The last time I ran really was in the inter-counties in 2007 because I became really badly anaemic; this time last year I was in hospital," Sweeney revealed.
Sorting out that problem, and working with Jerry Kiernan now, has obviously done the trick as he confessed that yesterday's victory "felt like a training run".
"When I got going, I just kept motoring and didn't slow down. I really wanted to get a real blow-out because the Europeans will be like that," he added.
All of yesterday's medallists at senior, U-23 and junior level earned automatic selection for those European Championships in Portugal in a fortnight's time.
As O'Neill and fifth-placed John Coghlan are both still U-23, that means Laois' fourth-placed Dan Mulhare will automatically get in and, depending on the selectors and whether or not they look to other athletes based abroad, Seamus Power's seventh place, on his 40th birthday, may yet be enough to earn him a senior team spot.
Just as welcome as Sweeney's return to form was the sight of Waterford teenager Shane Quinn gliding home to the junior title.
Son of former international Brendan, Quinn is a previous winner who had to sit out the event last year as he battled his way back to full fitness after getting hit with glandular fever in 2008.
He came home six seconds clear to take gold.
However, one of the best battles of the day came behind him where Emmet Jennings eventually got up to take silver, just two seconds ahead of fellow Dubliner John Travers, who just edged Kildare's Paul Robinson out of the medals.
In-form Olympian Britton came home well over a minute clear to take her third senior inter-county title -- her first since 2007 -- and behind her came two rising talents taking their first cross-country medals at this level.
Leevale's Lizzie Lee took silver, six seconds ahead of Borrisokane's Siobhan O'Doherty, which exactly matched their placings at 5,000m on the track at the national senior championships last summer.
Teen sensation Mageean (18) unsurprisingly retained her junior title with a typically elegant run, coming home 30 seconds ahead of her training partner Emma Mitchell, with relatively unknown Waterford girl Laura Behan taking bronze.
Mageean, who won 1500m silver at world juniors last summer and subsequently made the 1500m final at the Commonwealth Games, is showing no after-effects of her lengthy track season and, of the upcoming Europeans, said: "I was 19th two years ago and ninth in Santry last year, so hopefully I'll make the same kind of improvement this time."