Mageean in elite company with surge to bronze
‘When I was told I might never run again, I thought, no, I’m coming back, I’m not going to be a has-been’
She had dreamed of a day like this. All through her injury struggles, in those years when her career seemed to fizzle into obscurity, Ciara Mageean would grit her teeth and remind herself that at some point, she would have her day.
Yesterday afternoon in Amsterdam, she had it, the 24-year-old sprinting to a bronze medal in the European 1500m final. It was a measure of both Mageean's absurd talent and ruthless ambition that when she walked off the track, becoming just the third Irish female after Sonia O'Sullivan and Derval O'Rourke to win a European medal, she wasn't satisfied.
"If I had a clean run I might have a different coloured medal," she said. "I wish I had an extra 10 metres in that home straight. Me being me, I'm a little bit disappointed, but I'll take everybody's advice and just enjoy it."
The race played out in perfect fashion for Mageean. The early pace was slow, abysmally so, the 12 finalists dawdling through 800m in 2:46.05.
At that point, Mageean was content to nestle behind the leaders, aware that at any moment the decisive surge was coming.
"I thought: 'fantastic, girls, keep running this slow because I'm happy to try outsprint you at the end'. I have the kick. I know I've had that since my junior career."
With just over 600 metres to run, race favourite Sifan Hassan charged to the lead, the entire field changing gears in an instant behind her and jostling for position, which left Mageean nursing two deep scrapes down the front of her leg afterwards.
Having not competed at a championships for four years, Mageean appeared to show hints of inexperience when she became trapped in a group with a lap to run, forcing her into a daring run up the inside on the final turn.
As she surged from fourth to third, the door was quickly shut by Norway's Ingvill Makestad, so Mageean checked her stride, moved wide and finally hit full throttle with just 80 metres to run.
As Poland's Angelika Cichocka surged clear to win in 4:33.00, Hassan found herself bankrupt back in second and was run down by Mageean, who she edged at the line to leave Mageean with bronze, 4:33.76 to 4:33.78.
Mageean's initial reaction was one of frustration, but as time went on she reflected just how far she had climbed to reach this particular summit.
After all, just three years ago she was sitting in a café in Dublin, tears rolling down her cheeks as she discussed career-threatening surgery with her coach Jerry Kiernan, it being seen as last resort to fix a bone spur in her heel.
The surgeon told her she had an 80pc chance of returning to running, the inference being that there was a 20pc chance she would never run again.
"When I was going through my injury, at no point did I think I was going to stop being a runner even through other people probably did," she said.
"It was disheartening going to events and hearing people say 'she used to be a good runner'.
"I never took time off from my gym work and rehab because I thought: 'no, I'm coming back. I'm not going to be a has-been'."
Far from being a has-been, Mageean is now occupying rarefied air.
Race winner Cichocka was a world indoor silver medallist at 800m and winner over 1500m on the Diamond League circuit already this year, while runner-up Hassan was a bronze medallist over 1500m at last year's World Championships in Beijing.
There are better athletes out there, for sure, but not much better, and Mageean will go to next month's Olympic Games holding every reason to believe a place in the final is possible.
"I'll go back and analyse this race and see what I could have done different," she said. "I might be 24 but I'm like a 20-year-old again off the back of all my injuries. I've a lot of learning to do.
"Hopefully this puts to bed any thoughts that I was just a good junior. This is my first medal for Ireland as a senior, and hopefully it'll be the first of many."