Friday 26 May 2017

Pressure off as prodigy Neville makes step up

athletics

Seventeen year old Ciara Neville makes her senior international debut at the Kombank Arena in Belgrade today. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Seventeen year old Ciara Neville makes her senior international debut at the Kombank Arena in Belgrade today. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

It will start with an explosion - a sudden crack of the starter's gun that fires her to life, sling-shotting her off down the track for seven seconds that will forever feel like a blur.

At 17, senior international debuts can be loaded with as much anxiety as anticipation, but Ciara Neville hopes that won't be the case when she settles into the blocks at the Kombank Arena in Belgrade today.

Last month, the Limerick schoolgirl equalled the national senior 60m record with a time of 7.30, a game-changing run that smashed her personal best and offered up the tempting, if slightly daunting, proposition of competing at this weekend's European Indoor Championships.

Neville soon sat down with her coach at Emerald AC, Noelle Morrissey, herself a former elite hurdler who was denied a place at the 1992 Olympics due to injury.

Closeted

Some would have suggested to opt out, to stick to the closeted world of underage competition, but then again ships weren't built to sit in the harbour.

"I could break my leg next year and never get there again so I might as well take the opportunity while it's coming around," says Neville. "It was a really hard decision, but the experience of senior will definitely stand to me and help me this summer - the ability to deal with the pressure."

Neville has been on the radar of all those in Irish athletics for the past two years, ever since the day in Tullamore when, as a 15-year-old student at Castletroy College, she ran faster than any Irish schoolgirl in history: 11.64 for 100m.

Last year, however, she was dealt a timely reminder that the road walked by prodigies is littered with land mines.

A severe bout of tonsillitis, shin problems, a strained quadriceps muscle - they all conspired to leave her off her best, although Neville still managed to anchor the Irish 4x100m team to a superb fifth place at the World Junior Championships.

In the winter, she went back to work harder than ever. Neville trains six times a week - four days of running, either on the track or hills, one day of weights and one circuit session - and watching every movement is Morrissey, the coach who is determined to nurture her talent to senior success. "We get on great, but she says it as she sees it," says Neville. "She's straight out."

Here's the problem with prodigies: it's not just the hope, but so often the expectation, that ends up killing them. The beauty of Neville's decision to compete in Belgrade, however, is that she will run unhindered by that, knowing anything beyond championship experience is a bonus.

She is ranked 16th out of 40 competitors, so a berth in tomorrow's semi-finals looks possible, even if the 60m doesn't play to her strengths. For much the same reason Usain Bolt wouldn't be seen dead on an indoor track, taller sprinters like Neville typically struggle with the blink-of-an-eye nature of the race.

"The 100m would be my better event," says Neville. "My start can definitely improve. It's not quite up to scratch at the moment."

By the time she gets to the European Junior Championships in July, she hopes to be the finished product.

Right now it's all still a work in progress, a journey that should take one giant leap forward this weekend.

Irish Independent

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