Thursday 17 August 2017

Watching every step of the way

Trust is essential for Derval O'Rourke and her coaching team, writes John O'Brien

A mild, misty morning on Dublin's northside. It's just past 11.0 when she breezes through the door, a smile on her face and an amusing story to impart about a stalled car on her way to training, the new Mitsubishi Lancer they gave her the keys to a while back, a zippy deceptively quick model that is taking her some time to get used to and that makes her feel, she says giddily, like a boy racer.



She likes this part of the morning: not too early, not too late, her body just about ready for the demands of a tough work-out. She likes the mornings because they offer a sense of tranquility that is harder to find on helter-skelter evenings when the indoor strip in Santry is a beehive of activity. Today it's just her and her coaches, Seán and Terrie Cahill. Or as Derval O'Rourke only half-jokingly calls them: "my second family."

When she isn't racing or on a break, this place will be her home for two to three hours six days a week. And there is never a session when at least one of her coaches won't be there by her side, urging and prompting, sharing the tears and the laughter. For the Cahills, running an electrical business at their home in Co Meath, raising three kids and shepherding the career of Ireland's best athlete is all in a day's work.

The racing season brings respite from the hardcore work of the winter months. Before the National Indoor championships last weekend, Terrie checked her schedule and realised she'd worked 21 days solid without a break, a statement of fact rather than a complaint. Even the hardest, most stressful days never feel like a chore. "If we didn't love being with our athletes, it wouldn't work," says Seán. "I know I wouldn't be coming up anyway."

The trick is to be able to work flat out without even realising it. "People see us sometimes," says Terrie, "and they see how relaxed we are and think we're a bit blasé." "We're like a weird family," says Derval smiling. "Terrie says Derval is like my sister. My weird sister."

"I think people are surprised when they see the dynamics of our training group," agrees Seán. "Because a lot of what we do is quite technical and complicated people expect everything to be measured and very serious. And it's pretty much the opposite."

Over the years, O'Rourke has often found herself explaining the athlete's life to people who imagined it consisted of nothing more than the daily drudgery of turning up at a track and pounding out lap after lap. She explains what it takes to be among the best in the world at your chosen discipline. How she found the perfect husband and wife team who had transformed her career, the hours they spent planning in search of the tiny fractions that could be the difference between a place in the final and a medal come London in August.

"So Seán and Terrie are like your running consultants?" a friend asked recently, before gasping when O'Rourke pointed out that they weren't actually paid for their troubles. All that work for nothing more than sheer love and passion and the privilege of working with a world-class athlete. To the uninitiated how could you even begin to explain?

* * * * *

THE call, when it came before Christmas in 2005, arrived completely out of the blue. Nearly a decade had passed since the Atlanta Olympics when Seán Cahill had made his peace with athletics at the tender age of 29 and he was far too busy developing his business in his native Skryne and starting a family with his wife, Terrie, to entertain any stray notions of regret about it.

Yet there was something about the voice on the other end of the line, a subtle nagging persistence perhaps, a plaintive cry he couldn't easily ignore. As an athlete, Cahill had earned a reputation for plain speaking, offering opinions to those who sought them without a mind for delicate sensibilities. And if Derval O'Rourke was in the market for a few sober truths about her future prospects, then he'd have no problem obliging.

So he drove down to Santry one evening. They talked, he watched her jump a few hurdles and then he dashed home, eager to relate what he'd just witnessed. "I was just stunned really. I couldn't believe how raw she was, how little she knew about hurdling. I remember saying to Terrie, 'you have to come up and see this athlete. She hasn't a clue basically and she can run this quick'. If you could show her anything, it was going to make a massive difference."

Three months after their initial meeting, O'Rourke was World Indoor 60m champion. Another six months later, she was a European silver medallist. They hadn't worked miracles. From a low base they set to work on her technique and the response was instant. She started winning races, her confidence soared and, gradually, they set the bar higher and higher until she felt comfortable taking on the best in the world.

From the beginning O'Rourke had a notion that they might commit to her full-time, but they couldn't envisage it happening. It wasn't that they lacked belief or the knowledge to do the job, simply a question of being in a position to promise her the time a world-class athlete needed. "I remember saying no way," says Terrie. "We'd too much going on. She'd won the World Indoors, a European silver medal. How could we do that to her?" In the end it felt too right not to. With their blessing O'Rourke had relocated to Bath at the end of 2007, but she failed to settle there and she left the Beijing Olympics at the end of the season feeling empty and deflated. Terrie remembers Seán calling home from China to inform her that O'Rourke was coming home and they'd be taking full control of her training programme. The news daunted and thrilled her in equal measure.

In a way it was as if their lives had been leading up to that moment. They'd met at a training camp in Pula, in the former Yugoslavia, in 1990. They clicked easily and would lean heavily on each other through the peaks and troughs of their running careers. You want hard-luck stories and they'll cheerfully rattle them off. The torn achilles tendon that destroyed Seán's Olympics in 1996. Or the political shenanigans that deprived Terrie of a place in the long jump in Barcelona in 1992. Or the 5cm that stood between her and a top-five place at the 1993 World Championships.

Or how about the slipped disc she'd suffered in her back at 23 and the two choices the surgeon laid before her: keep jumping and end up with a limp or retire and have the disc fused at 40? She stayed jumping and held the Irish record for 20 years. Even back then athletes would approach them for advice and they'd end up helping out, barely realising that a large part of their future lives was already taking shape.

Officially, Ciarán McDonagh was their first fully signed-up athlete. Terrie still shivers at the memory of a magical 8.09m leap on a wet and miserable night in Switzerland in 2005. A few months later, a broken toe brought the curtain down on McDonagh's career at the age of 29. Next came the 100m sprinter, Ailis McSweeney, whom they guided to a remarkable breakthrough year in 2010.

A few years before that, when she was struggling to make progress, McSweeney was asked why she remained in Ireland with its second-rate sporting facilities and inhospitable climate. Sure, she replied, she could have all those things if she went abroad but it still wouldn't be enough. "No facilities would be worth leaving [the Cahills]," she said.

What they have is carefully nurtured and precious. A core group of five athletes, beyond which they wouldn't feel comfortable. Alongside O'Rourke and McSweeney, there is Ian McDonald, a promising sprint hurdler, and Paul Oppermann, a former Olympian trying to find his way again after serious injury. The mix of experience and youthful talent is the vital ingredient. Each of the athletes brings something unique to the mix and they are loath to tinker with the formula.

"It's hard sometimes," explains Seán. "You see athletes you know you could help but you're thinking if I spend an hour with this athlete that's one hour less with Derval or Ailis. Your heart goes out to them, you'd really like to help but the whole time you're locked into that struggle. If somebody else comes into the group are we going to take our eye off the ball as regards the other athletes? The ones we've invested in."

A few months ago, he took a call from Meath football manager Seamus McEnaney wondering if he'd come down to training for a chat. Cahill knew where the conversation was leading and demurred. As a kid, he'd been a talented and keen footballer until, as the story goes, the car taking him to trials for the Meath minor team failed to show and it gently shoved him down the path of athletics instead.

Football was in his blood, but he had to be firm now. He didn't have the time. Banty would have to look elsewhere for his man. And that, he reckoned, was that until maybe a week later he watched a car pull up outside his shop and out stepped a man he vaguely recognised as the Meath manager. "Just happened to be passing," Banty fibbed. "Any chance of a cup of tea?" And with the same quiet persistence he'd seen in O'Rourke a few years before, Banty eventually wore him down.

So he climbed on board as Meath trainer, though with agreed limits to his input. "I made it clear nothing would change as regards our athletes. I'd give as much as I could but there's only one of me. I offer support to Marty [McElkennon] who has 16 years of inter-county experience and is a brilliant coach. What I do wouldn't work without him. He's bought in to what I'm trying to do and most importantly the players have too."

And that's the key, he thinks. The best programmes he and Terrie can devise are useless unless the athlete buys into them. From the start, they all did. They think back to manic evenings when they'd arrive in Santry, three kids hanging out of them, never once hearing O'Rourke or any other athlete complain. They never promised anything they couldn't deliver and, for O'Rourke, just to be at home, around people she trusts and adores, is ample compensation.

"In an ideal world, of course Derval would like someone where she's their work basically," says Seán. "She's not our work. We try to be as professional as we can. We put in a massive amount of work. But ultimately, like this morning, I'd a meeting and I was going to it. If that meant training an hour later then so be it."

"She's bought into that," says Terrie. "That might sound a bit negative but it's not meant to be. She knows what it is and she never complains."

* * * * *

SHE knows too that, on Saturday, the 4th of August, she'll wake up in her own bed in her own house in Santry and, after breakfast, she'll skip across to the track for her final work-out before the Olympics. At 9.20am two days later, she'll face the starter's gun in

the first round of the 100m hurdles. Scale that nervy peak and the semi-final beckons at 7.09 the following evening. The dates and times are seared into her brain.

Last September they sat down together, as they do at the end of every season, and spoke candidly about the year just past and threw a few shapes over the season to come. And, naturally, the huge peak that towered over the whole year was the London Olympics. Everything they did, each residual target they might set, would work back from that point.

She wasn't unhappy at how 2011 unfolded, but it was complicated. Outside of championship she'd run faster than she ever had in her life, but a pulled calf muscle at the Worlds in Daegu had robbed her of the chance to find out how that might translate on the big stage. "Because of that it was sort of perceived that she'd had a bad year," says Seán, "when in fact she hadn't. That irked us a bit, but in a way it's want we want too. We want to slide into London under the radar if we can."

In the search for tiny fractions they've made subtle changes to her programme. She visits a functional movement coach in DCU now and, through the help of the Institute of Sport, they've incorporated video analysis into the mix. And the 15 hours a week she spends as a volunteer for the DSPCA is all part of the masterplan too. For O'Rourke, the holistic approach has always helped her to be a better athlete.

The secret of their success is partly hidden there. The privilege of having O'Rourke as an athlete, the joy of knowing her as a person. And because they sense she won't be one of those athletes hawking herself around the Grand Prix circuit in her mid-30s -- as if money was ever the motivation -- they figure that if this is to be her last Olympics then they'd best be making the most of it. Not that it brings any added sense of pressure. The dynamic between them doesn't work that way.

"I always tell friends I love being around her," says Terrie. "Because she's just so confident. She doesn't tolerate negativity. She'll give out about something if she feels she has to, but then it's gone. She moves on. Where sometimes you see this moan and moan tendency in an athlete. She just gets on with it. She exudes confidence."

They know the task at hand now. To keep her healthy and happy and get her to the starting line on August 6. "Historically, the only athletes who beat her are the best in the world," says Seán. "Very few Europeans do it consistently and certainly not at a major championships. Providing she's healthy. And that's our challenge. To get her stronger and faster and to keep her in one piece."

Fulfill their part of the bargain, they know, and Derval O'Rourke, more often than not, will deliver the rest.

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