Friday 30 September 2016

Mageean shows her Olympic class

Cathal Dennehy

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

Sara Treacy clears the water jump during her Women's 3000m Steeplechase heat at the Olympic Stadium in Rio. Photo: Reuters
Sara Treacy clears the water jump during her Women's 3000m Steeplechase heat at the Olympic Stadium in Rio. Photo: Reuters

There was a moment, midway through the women's 1500m heat when Ciara Mageean was given an almighty barge by one of her rivals.

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It was the kind of incident which would derail the momentum and mindset of many an athlete, particularly one stepping into the competitive cauldron of an Olympics for the first time. But the 24-year-old from Portaferry was unbowed.

Mageean stumbled for a moment, pushed back, then stepped to the side, changing gears in a flicker as she accelerated away.

"I've had a few physical races this year, but God gave you elbows for a reason," she said afterwards. "I didn't grow up playing camogie to be pushed around on an athletics track. I'm well able for it."

That much was clear, and Mageean's fleet of foot on the final lap - she came home a clear second in 4:11.51 behind world record holder Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia - provided ample evidence that she is an Olympic finalist in waiting.

There were nerves, sure, but that was only natural. As Mageean stood on the start line, she puffed her cheeks anxiously, looking like this was the last place she wanted to be. The truth, of course, was exactly the opposite.

"I'm nervous for every race, be it a district, All-­Irelands or an Olympic Games," she said.

"Nerves are good, once you make them work to your advantage."

At several points during Friday's race, she found herself hemmed in, but she remained calm, emerging into the light with 300 metres to run. And knowing a top-six finish would secure qualification, Mageean didn't fall into the trap of trying to go with the Ethiopian.

"There was no point busting your guts in the first round and not having anything left for the semi-final," she said. "Once Dibaba went, I thought: 'I'm not racing you now, I'll leave that for the next round', so I let her go off. I knew if I held my form no one was going to pass me."

No one got close, not even Angelika Cichocka, the European champion who defeated Mageean in Amsterdam last month. As the Pole strained for the line several metres behind, the Irishwoman coasted to the finish, looking like she had more gears in reserve if they were needed, which they will be later tonight.

"Amsterdam brought me on leaps and bounds," said Mageean. "Every race I'm getting stronger."

Mageean will race in the first of two semi-finals at 1.30am, needing a top-five finish to book her spot in Tuesday's final, so does she think that's on the cards?

"If I didn't think I had it in me," she said ominously, "I wouldn't be here."

Before then, the women's marathon trio of Fionnuala McCormack, Lizzie Lee and Breege Connolly will take to the Rio streets around the Sambodromo area of the city (1.30pm Irish time).

McCormack bypassed ­Friday night's 10,000m final to concentrate solely on the marathon, and though the Kilcoole native has been in impressive form of late, a top-20 finish may represent the height of her ambition.

Thomas Barr opens his Olympic campaign tomorrow night in the heats of the men's 400m hurdles, though after struggling with injury for much of the year, Barr will be hoping that's not where it ends.

"I want to give it whatever I have," said Barr, who missed 11 weeks of training with a hip injury in the spring. "I finally have a clean bill of health and my coach has noticed I'm running more comfortably again, so that's given me a boost of confidence.

"I'm not expected to do well because of the injury problems. It's disappointing I'm not going to be at the same level I was last year, but I'm going into this on a wing and a prayer. It's an honour to go and represent the country, so I'm going to go out there and leave everything on the track. This is the top of the top, so every race is like a final."

Also tomorrow, Sara Treacy will compete in the final of the 3,000m steeplechase after successfully appealing the result of her heat.

Ethiopia's Etenesh Diro suffered a crashing fall during yesterday's third heat, bringing down a number of athletes in the process including Treacy who was travelling well at the time.

The Meath native picked herself back up and ended up finishing a gallant 12th in 9:46.24. She would have come very close to posting a personal best had she managed to avoid the unfortunate incident. Both Treacy and Diro appealed to officials after the race and the pair were subsequently added to the final line-up.

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