When the gun fired and she glided over the first hurdle she knew she was back in the zone.
"I was running flat out. No fear. Feeling really good. Thinking my body can still do it. I still love it. I adore these hurdles. I love this track. Thinking it's time for me to go," says Derval O'Rourke.
Six years on, the former world champion is in her office on Cork's South Mall, sipping a flat white, talking into Zoom, recalling the effortless rhythm of hurdles flying past beneath her.
"I ran flat out over the hurdles, felt really good and when I finished I decided I was never going to race again," she says of the day in Santry Stadium in 2014 when she had run her last race.
O'Rourke had overcome major Achilles surgery, but was determined to walk away from athletics on her own terms, into a life that lay beyond.
She had competed at three Olympics, broken national records, won European medals and was the 2006 world indoor champion in 60m hurdles.
But by June 2014 she had decided that Santry, where she had regularly trained, was the place to end one life and begin a new one. "I'd gotten myself back to where it felt as much on my own terms as it was ever going to be. And I had already done other stuff in life. I was ready," she says.
O'Rourke had just written her first cookbook, Food for the Fast Lane. It would later inspire her development of her current much more ambitious online fitness and lifestyle platform, Derval.ie.
"Could I show people a different side of me, deliver value in a different way? I was really excited about the things that were ahead."
Now, six years later, she is so busy building a business alongside co-founder Greg O'Gorman - a member of the family behind the Kilkenny retail group - that she doesn't really have time to think too much about her old life as a top level athlete.
"Outside of winning an Olympic medal - which I would have loved and definitely cared about for a long time but kind of don't really care any more - I had done everything that I wanted to do. There was nothing really left behind."
As an athlete, O'Rourke had to work extremely hard for success, setting almost unattainable targets. She likes to do the same in business.
Derval.ie now has more than 6,000 members paying €7 a month and her company, Digital Health Resource, co-founded with O'Gorman, has big plans for the future.
"I'm very ambitious for it. There's a big market for what we provide with over a million women in Ireland who could benefit from my product. I'd love to get to 10,000 by the end of the year. It's very doable. We're only getting into our stride.
"For me, the big target is to have multiple platforms, all with the same quality and high standard that we've achieved with Derval.ie. Over the next two to three years I think aiming to have 10 different sites would be a massive ambition. That would be our company doing really, really well but I think it is very doable."
The first of those new sites, Kinderama, is a partnership with an already successful offline company specialising in activities for young children. Another site planned for January is at contract negotiation phase with a well-known sports personality. All decisions are data driven.
"I love the creative side of the business, but in our meetings they always start by telling me the numbers. It is like hurdles. It is a form of art to jump a hurdle at that speed, with that technique, that precision, but when you cross the line the first thing you do is look at the time you ran. Likewise the content may be brilliant, but if nobody is subscribing then there's a problem."
She values web analytics the same way she did the stopwatch when she was training.
"I can tell you that 45,000 people clicked on 'dinners' after lockdown. Then came 'snacks'. And because I have the numbers I can tell you exactly how long people want their fitness routine to last. I love the numbers."
O'Rourke was never afraid of hearing the truth and acting on it. "You look absolutely lovely crossing a hurdle, but you're bloody slow," an agent said to her when she was 18. "The clock doesn't know whether you look lovely or not, you have to be fast."
She never thought to be insulted. He ended up as her manager, valued for his bluntness. Six years later she was world indoor champion.
O'Rourke had grown up in Douglas in Cork and joined Leevale Athletics Club when she was 11.
"Seamus Power was hurdles coach. He seemed really sound, so I started jumping hurdles."
Two years later, at 13, she entered the British under-15 championships in both 60m sprint and 60m hurdles, coming fourth in the latter.
"I went to my dad in the stand after and realised somewhere in that conversation that I may not have been the fastest sprinter, but if you put a barrier in front of me then the event becomes about technique and how hard you can work at it.
"Can you be a little bit fearless and run as hard as you can at a barrier and jump it with less than an inch space? That realisation changed my athletics career because I never would have made it as a straight sprinter. No one other than my dad would have had that chat with me. Everyone else would have said aren't you great for coming fourth."
O'Rourke worked hard on her technique and by the time she was doing her Leaving Cert her times weren't far off the Sydney Olympics qualifying time.
"It was four years until the next Olympics and I thought I'd have a crack at it," she says. But neglecting education and career to purely concentrate on athletics was never an option. "You have to get your degree," her dad told her. "You don't get to fail college and go to the Olympics. You have to do both."
Her dad had spent a lifetime working in Ford at a time when jobs in Cork were disappearing and his advice has stood to her.
"My parents insisted I do other things besides athletics and that athletics wouldn't be there forever. I qualified for the Olympics just after doing finals in UCD and was doing my post-grad while preparing for the Athens Olympics."
As her star on the track rose she took a job on the customer service desk in DCU's sports centre, allowing her time to train before and after work.
"I loved people coming up to the desk telling me their gym goals. I would just chat to them and wouldn't really say that I was a serious enough athlete and had already been to an Olympics. When I went back a few days after becoming world champion they were coming up saying, 'We'd no idea you were that serious about running.'
"That process of going from no one really knowing you to being a world champion and being on The Late Late Show within the space of a few days is a mad experience. But I was young and took it in my stride. I never felt the definition of whether I was good or bad came from being in the press or having sponsors. Each season I'd set my own targets. If I hit them I know I'm doing really well, if I don't we review and we figure out why."
But even early on - perhaps because of career- ending injuries to friends - O'Rourke knew that some day she would have to set new targets.
"I didn't ever have that lightbulb moment where I thought, 'oh my God, I've to find another career'. I always knew that and did plenty of work experience and education.
"What did happen later in my career was the realisation that I was disposable. There'll be someone younger, more interesting, with more potential, that everyone wants to talk about and invest in. Once I realised that was happening in my early 30s I started looking towards my exit strategy. I wanted to walk on my own terms and not feel I was being pushed."
Financial realities meant she needed a plan.
"I definitely didn't make a huge amount [of money], but I made enough to come out and not feel panicked. I could make decisions about what actually made me want to get out of bed in the morning and not feel like it was work. But I knew I really only had 12 months - two years maybe - to figure out what I was going to do."
A best-selling cookbook series, pitched at the growing fitness and healthy lifestyle market, as well as a prominent role in TV show Ireland's Fittest Family had established O'Rourke as a prominent voice in an ever-increasing health advice market.
For fun, she had started simple training routines for two friends in her garage. Like her, they were busy mothers in their 30s. O'Rourke realised social media could give her ideas on health, wellness and fitness a powerful platform.
"I could put up a recipe or workout and get instant feedback as opposed to when I was writing cookbooks and I might bump into someone who bought the cookbook and enjoyed it two years previously. I knew I could deliver something in the tech digital space that had value but I didn't know what or how to do it."
She built a rudimentary website to test the water. "Parts of it worked, parts of it didn't work and I was backwards and forwards trying to figure it out."
Through a mentoring programme she met former Kilkenny Group marketing director Greg O'Gorman: "Talking to people with knowledge is always a good thing. At the start of my running career, when I was absolutely useless, I used to sit down with really good people and say I want to be one of the best in the world and I need to figure out how to get from useless to that - any ideas?
"I explained the whole thing to Greg, and very quickly he was able to see the flaws." The pair began working together, both investing "a little".
"That's when it started going from concept to viable, usable product. The key thing was identifying a recurring revenue subscription model as our business model. It's very different selling membership to a community as opposed to a four-week plan. It has an immediate impact on quality and it needs to be a really good experience."
Derval.ie launched just before Christmas 2018. The night it launched, after four months of endless testing, O'Rourke, O'Gorman and their partners went for a drink to celebrate.
"I sat there endlessly refreshing my phone waiting for the first paying customer. For ages nothing happened. And then someone joined. We were so thrilled. It was an amazing feeling."
Sometimes sports stars find themselves lost and adrift at the end of their career, wondering, still in their 30s, whether their best days are behind them. Not so O'Rourke. She took the lessons of sport and applied them to a business career now only getting into its stride.
"I was fortunate I was in an individual sport," she says. "For better or for worse, you're the only one standing on the start line. Nobody's coming to save you. You've no team-mates to help you out. The start line in high-end athletics is the most lonely place but also the most full of opportunity."
But as O'Rourke has proved, there is plenty of opportunity at the finish line too.
Biggest achievement on the track?
On paper, it’s probably the world indoor title in 2006. But I was fourth at a world outdoors in 2009 after I’d had a really terrible 2008 Olympics and I was way prouder of that. I had to be really resilient to come back in 2009. I guess 2006 was more my announcement on the world stage.
What goes through your head on the start line?
You have to have the capacity to park fear and doubt. There’s very little margin for error. I’d say to myself ‘I’m going to nail it and others will make mistakes’. I always felt that if the faster girls made mistakes then I could come through and win medals.
How often did you make a mistake and fall?
Just once in 12 years in 2010, the year I ran my fastest time ever. I fell because I was going so fast. I went down hard, really, really hard. I was lucky I didn’t break anything.
How many medals were you cheated out of by drug cheats?
Just one. A European gold in 2010. I know, of course, people did stuff. I’m not naive. But you can’t sit there and think you’re hard done by because of something someone else is doing. But you just have to look at what is happening in your lane and deal with that. If I thought I left loads of medals behind because of drugs cheats I’d be really sad but I just don’t because hurdles is a very technical event and I know how talented the girls who beat me were. The fact I could mix it with them and some days beat them was unreal.
Co-founder of Digital Health Resource and creator of Derval.ie
Married to former Irish Olympic sailor Peter O'Leary with two children, Dafne (5) and Archie (1)
BA honours degree from UCD, a diploma in business studies and an MA in business management from Smurfit Business School
60m hurdles world indoor champion 2006; silver medals in European Championships 100m hurdles in 2006 and 2010; bronze medals in European Indoor Championships 60m hurdles in 2009 and 2013
Listening to podcasts while walking, fishing for - but often not catching - mackerel with husband Peter
Walking on Cars
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