English embraces the nerves to play it cool and book semi-final spot
An Olympic debut, by its nature, is not meant to be entirely comfortable experience, so when Mark English felt the surge of adrenaline and the vice-grip of nerves yesterday morning, he embraced them.
For so long, English thought he might not even make it to Rio - at least not in any respectable shape - so to be here, back in form, meant he walked to the line welcoming that slightly terrified feeling within.
"There were definitely nerves," he said. "It was easy to not get nervous when it wasn't a full stadium, but I kept telling myself this is the Olympics, because I wanted that adrenaline rush."
When the gun fired for heat six of the men's 800m, English started in a controlled, composed rhythm, settling to the rear of the field as Canada's Brandon McBride led through 400m in 51.83.
It was the same approach he adopted on his most recent outing at the London Diamond League, and though English knew it would spark concern among his followers, trailing 20 metres behind the leaders, the 23-year-old is experienced enough now to know what works best.
"I knew at 500 metres people would be worried about where I was, but you just have to worry about yourself," he said. "Run to your own strength and trust the race plan. My coach said to go out and run the same race as London."
English tracked Poland's Marcin Lewandowski throughout the second lap, coasting his way into the top three automatic qualifying spots as the field turned for home. With 50 metres to run, the Letterkenny man had enough time and energy to take a casual look around, confirming that there were no threats remaining.
He crossed the line a close third in 1:46.40, narrowly behind Lewandowski (1:46.35) and McBride, who won in 1:45.99.
"I treated that heat as a final," said English. "I knew I'd have to. I'm definitely a lot stronger to 600 metres than I was a month ago. The last 200 felt really good. You know when you're passing guys like Jeff Riseley (who finished fourth in 1:46.93) you're in good shape."
That's a point no one could argue. As English walked off the track, with barely a shred of fatigue to be found in his expression, it was clear he was now a very different athlete to the one we saw return to action at the Irish Championships in June, labouring to victory after missing almost three months with a metatarsal stress fracture.
"I knew I'd get back running, but it was just a case of whether it was going to be quick enough to get to the semi-final," he said.
Now, of course, English has a date with an Olympic semi-final, a destination his talent always seemed likely to take him, even if his health often threatened to thwart him.
In the early hours of tomorrow morning - 2.26am Irish time to be precise - he will line up alongside world record holder David Rudisha, former world indoor 1500m champion Ayanleh Souleiman and European champion Adam Kszczot.
Only the top two advance automatically to Monday's final, which means English will be hoping for a fast race to stand a chance of taking his place on the ultimate sporting stage.
"I'll recover as much as I can, run my own race again and do what I've got to do to run 1.44," he said. "It usually takes that to make a final.
"The pressure is off a bit now, but I'll still go out and run my own race, leave everything on the track and walk away with no regrets."
There was no such joy yesterday for race walker Alex Wright, who finished 46th in the men's 20km race walk in 1:25:25, a race won by China's Zhen Wang in 1:19:14.
"I was hoping for a little bit better, but all my focus has been on the 50K," said Wright. "From the start I found it hard to get into the race, but I feel more comfortable now for next week's race."
There is no shortage of Irish in action this weekend.
Kerry O'Flaherty, Michelle Finn and Sara Treacy will get their Olympic campaign under way in the heats of the women's 3,000m steeplechase at 2.05pm Irish time today, while tomorrow at 1.30pm, Fionnuala McCormack, Lizzie Lee and Breege Connolly will compete in the marathon.