Billy Keane: Clonmel's Sergiu Ciobanu living the emigrant's dream after years of pain
It's ten years now since Sergiu Ciobanu from Clonmel last ran in the European Cross Country Championship.
Sergiu came to Ireland with very little money or English. And he left his wife and kid behind in Moldova because there was no work at home.
Serg, as he's called here, suffered his share of the emigrant's heartbreak and loneliness. But he laughs a lot.
"The way things were in Moldova back then we just thought it was another race. It was only after the run that I realised this was the European Cross Country Championship. No-one told us what the race was," he says.
Sergiu was married at 21. His daughter's name is Catalina and he loves her very much.
Sergiu had been studying sport's science in the university but there were no jobs. The plan was he would go to boom-time Ireland, make some money, and use his wages to set himself up in some sort of business back home.
Sergiu stayed with his family friend Dumitru over here. The Moldovans are good to each other. Dumitru loved him like a son. Sergiu was digging holes for a living but there was only two days of work a week. All the while Sergiu sent home most of the money he earned.
Times were when he desperately wanted to go back home to see his wife and kid but he felt duty bound to pay back loans he needed to get set up in dear old but very dear Dublin. Then there was the going back with only the clothes on his back.
Here he was a well-educated international athlete who couldn't tell his story. But running is a universal language.
One day Sergiu was upstairs in the bus and he saw a sign for Clonliffe Harriers. Sergiu jumped off at the next stop. He almost jumped back on. " I have no English," he thought. "Will they send me away?"
But Sergiu met with club secretary Gladys Cooper, who was the only person in Clonliffe Harriers that day. Gladys, a people person, invited Sergiu to come along to training. So it was as, Sergiu puts it, "Clonliffe became my home."
The recession left Sergiu without work, but the Moldovan network brought him to Cahir and the ABP meat plant.
"I was on the line stripping bits of meat, the same pieces every day," he recalls. "It was tough work. I could never get my feet warm from the cold. I was all the time standing still. It was not good for a runner. But they were good to me there and it was a job."
Sergiu took just a couple of weeks off to see if he could make the Moldovan team for the Olympics. He ran the 'B' time but just lost out.
Sergiu went home at last to see his wife and child after two years' absence. But when he arrived his wife told him she had met someone else and he gave his little girl her presents in the street.
Sergiu was devastated. His parents looked after him as parents do but he and his wife were caught up in the old emigrant's storyline of divorce by distance.
Put away the Kleenex. Here's the happy part.
Sergiu met Jerry Kiernan in Clonliffe and Jerry, who was ninth in the Olympic Marathon in 1984, later agreed to coach him.
There's more good news. Sergiu fell in love with Eimear when they met in the gym. She's a lovely, friendly, hard-working physio who as Sergiu puts it "makes huge sacrifices to help me reach my goals."
Sergiu qualified as a physical therapist and the two run the Clonmel Premier Physiotherapy. Sergiu even has an All Ireland medal for Tipperary. In cross country.
Eimear and Sergiu were married earlier this year and just a few months ago Sergiu became an Irish citizen. Kiernan wrote a supporting letter. Sergiu keeps it close by.
Sergiu travels back to Moldova a lot, and he and his ex- wife are friends now. Eimear goes with him. Catalina stays with her dad in his parents' home when he comes over.
Sergiu had big wins in two Cork City Marathons and he was the top Irishman home in Dublin. Then just a few weeks ago in Berlin, there came the big day.
Sergiu from Tipp ran 2:15:14 and so qualified for the Olympics as an Irishman. There are three other Irish qualifiers. Sergiu has to wait and see if he makes the team but it looks good as Sergiu was our second fastest qualifier. He was nearly two minutes inside the 'A' time.
At the start I couldn't get a word out of him. "Did you think I came all the way to Clonmel for tea and biscuits?" I asked. He fell off the seat laughing. Then he opened up. He's a good lad. Very dedicated. Sergiu trains twice a day, every day. He doesn't want to let Eimear or Ireland down.
"You have to be selfish in Olympic year," he says, "and Eimear pays most of the bills. In the new year I will be away for a long time for altitude training in Romania and Eimear will have to run the clinic on her own."
Sergiu asked me not to mention that he didn't have a sponsor but it's a bit late in life for me to start doing what I'm told. He didn't want to be seen to be looking for help just a few months in to his citizenship. It's tough enough on the new Irish.
Sergiu hasn't played the shiny accordion, resting on a shelf in front of us, for over a year. Even though he spent three years studying music, I'm guessing the reason the runner doesn't play is that he's somehow afraid he will be labelled as a foreign accordion player with an alms hat. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sad though if that's why he doesn't play.
After much persuasion, Sergiu pays a haunting melody. It's called Melancolia. Think of the air of Danny Boy. Think tears in the eyes.
The young lad who came here without money or English excuses himself then and back down the stairs he bounds, taking two steps at a time. He's all dressed up in his new Irish running gear. Ten years on from his first international run for Moldova, Sergiu has been picked to run for Ireland in the European Cross Country Championship in France.
He's so proud. He has a kid's Christmas morning smile.
"It's my first cap Billy. My first cap for Ireland." And he looks down at the singlet and grabs it in his fist,as if to prove to himself this isn't all some forlorn emigrant's dream.
Serg, my boy. Dream on. You're one of us now. And you have the jersey to prove it.