Emotions running high for Crowley ahead of Euro test
When Caroline Crowley pulls on the Irish vest for at the European Cross Country Championships in Hyères, France, tomorrow, one person will be foremost in her mind.
"This is really his dream," she says of her late father, Vincent, who died after suffering a heart attack in November last year.
"My dad always thought I could make it on the Irish team even though I never did. He saw potential and talent in me long before anyone else."
For the 27-year-old Dubliner, who has risen from relative obscurity this year to take her place on an Irish team which is expected to contend for medals tomorrow, this all feels a bit surreal.
It's the nice kind of surreal, though, the antithesis of the gut-wrenching nightmare she endured last year, when Crowley lost both of her parents in unrelated - and completely unexpected - circumstances.
Early in the year, her mother Fidelma died suddenly after collapsing from a brain haemorrhage, - a traumatic thunderbolt which left Crowley, her six siblings, and her father struggling to pick up the pieces.
"We were in crumbles," she says. "It was just horrific because none of us expected it."
At the time, Crowley worked alongside her parents in their solicitors firm, and afterwards she could see on a daily basis the effect of her mother's passing.
"It was very hard on my dad," she says. "He couldn't see light at the end of the tunnel and was a shell of himself."
As the family slowly got back on their feet, they were dealt another cruel hand, with Vincent suffering a fatal heart attack in November 2014.
"I miss him all the time," says Crowley, who first got involved in competitive running three years ago as a result of her father's repeated insistence that she had an innate talent for the sport.
"I've got quite emotional the last few days because I've been thinking of my Dad in particular. He loved when I picked up the sport and was always heartbroken when I was injured. I loved running because it made him so happy."
Unfortunately, Vincent wasn't around to witness his daughter's proudest day in the sport last month, when Crowley finished an entirely unexpected third place in the National Inter-Club Cross-Country Championships in Santry, behind only established internationals Fionnuala McCormack (nee-Britton) and Lizzie Lee.
Indeed, both McCormack and Lee were part of the victorious Irish senior women's team at the European Cross Country Championships in 2012, on a day where Crowley - who had taken up the sport just months beforehand - was busy finishing a distant second in the National Novice Cross Country Championships in Wexford.
Since then there had been little - aside perhaps from her father's astute prediction - to suggest Crowley could ever mix it with such seasoned internationals, whose training loads dwarf the 40 to 50 miles a week she usually racks up.
However, there is a reason for her conservative approach; it is primarily down to her relative inexperience in the sport - Crowley was primarily a swimmer and Gaelic footballer in her youth - but she also has an injury history which has given her a harsh education in the laws of diminishing returns when it comes to training.
Last month in Santry, Crowley could only envision a finish in the mid-teens, so had to be convinced by her coaches at Crusaders AC that it was worth re-arranging her planned trip to Lanzarote to enable her participation. "On days like the inter-clubs," she says, "that would have been one of the happiest days of my dad's life. He was so mad about running, loved it and loved me running. When I finished third, the only person I wanted to tell was my dad, but at the same time I could feel his presence. He got me to here and he was there in spirit."
Crowley knows that as proud as her parents would have been that day, it would be even more pronounced if they could see her don the Irish vest for the first time tomorrow afternoon.
The idea of lining up alongside McCormack as a crucial member of a team which ranks among the medal contenders is all a bit surreal - the nice kind of surreal.
The overwhelming feeling, though, is not one of nervous apprehension but of giddy anticipation.
"I got my Irish kit earlier in the week and I couldn't stop smiling," she says. "It's all excitement; that's all I feel at the moment. I can't wait to put on the Irish vest, go out there and try my heart out."
Though the senior women's team represents Ireland's best chance of a medal, Kevin Mulcaire has the potential to make the podium as an individual in the junior men's race.
The 18-year-old from Clare finished a close fourth over 5000m at the European Junior Championships in July and won the Irish junior title in impressive style last month.
The senior men's team will be led by Mick Clohisey, who won the national title last month in Santry and secured the Olympic qualifying time for the men's marathon by running 2:15:35 in Berlin in September. He will be joined by Paul Pollock, John Coghlan, Ryan Creech, Joe Sweeney and Sergiu Ciobanu, who will make his Irish debut, having previously represented Moldova.
European Cross Country Championships, tomorrow, RTE Two, 11:45am.
Highlights: BBC Two, 4:15pm