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Healy: You have to come out the other end stronger

Coach McCormack had already put a plan together in order for his sprinters' to programme their way out of pandemic


Irish sprinter Phil Healy goes through her training routine on Curracloe Beach, Wexford yesterday. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Irish sprinter Phil Healy goes through her training routine on Curracloe Beach, Wexford yesterday. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Irish sprinter Phil Healy goes through her training routine on Curracloe Beach, Wexford yesterday. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

In a world of madness, it's best to seek refuge in the method. Simple, humdrum, monotonous acts that define a sportsperson's existence. Run, rest, repeat. Run, rest, repeat.

On the beach in Curracloe, Wexford, that's exactly what Phil Healy was doing yesterday. Nine sprints in all, 60 to 100 metres in length, Ireland's fastest woman ripping down the strand like a greyhound unleashed from the self-isolation of the traps. Once she was finished the25-year-old took to a nearby sand dune, powering up it three times before venturing into the local forest for another three, torturous hill runs.

She was finishing up right around the time the news broke that the Tokyo Olympics would be postponed until 2021. Want to know the truth? It changed nothing for Healy. For weeks she had known the Olympics were kaput, and she'd have been here no matter what was decided. Running, resting, repeating. Breaking herself down to build herself back up. Stronger. Fitter. Faster.

"Why would we throw in the towel?" asks her coach, Shane McCormack. "Yeah, training is more relaxed and you might have more rest days now, but the goal is to run your way through this."

When it came to the coronavirus, McCormack had been well ahead of the curve. In his day job he analyses reams of data and as far back as January, he'd been studying the situation in China, warning Healy that they'd need to make major changes when - not if - the virus landed in Ireland.

Before the Irish Indoor Championships in Abbotstown last month, he didn't mince his words. "This could be your last race of the year," he told Healy. "Make it a good one."

Healy did just that, winning the 200 metres in a blazing 23.16 seconds and finishing third in the 60 metres in 7.36. After that it was back into training for an event that she and her coach knew, deep down, would not take place.

"It wasn't hard to figure out what would happen," says McCormack. "I went through my grieving process a couple of weeks ago. Since then it's not about training for the Olympics, it's just about training."

Before Ireland had its first case, McCormack had Healy relocate from Waterford to Curracloe, where he arranged accommodation for her through a friend who had a holiday villa near the beach. For many years they'd gone there for a training camp over the October Bank Holiday weekend, and it seemed the ideal place to put in the base training which would become her new staple. They built a make-shift gym in Healy's new home, adapting before her fitness became extinct.

"You're either going to waste this time now or you're going to use it and come out the other end better," says Healy. "Nothing is ever going to be smooth so you adapt. I'm not going to be one (who asks), 'What am I training for?' It's an opportunity to grow. If you show that weakness you're letting other people get the upper hand."

Healy is well used to uncertainty, which comes with the territory of being an elite athlete. Last year her season was turned on its head in an instant when she broke her foot in a freak accident while warm-weather training in Malta. It was the same deal then as it is now: adjust, move on, do what you can with whatever you have.

"I see this is as opportunity," says McCormack, who plans to train Healy more like a 400m runner in the months ahead. "You take the intensity out, you're not trying to run as fast and you can build a bigger engine."


McCormack coaches eight sprinters and they've mostly been training alone in recent weeks. In times like this, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

"This is now an unstable world, but athletes crave stability so as coaches we need to give that as best we can, even if it's over WhatsApp, so we have some sense of routine," he says. "The lesson is not to be over-reliant on your luxuries. We've been making it up any way we could, having fun, adapting."

On Monday evening, McCormack joined a dozen Irish coaches on an online video call where they shared ideas - his presentation was titled 'How to programme your way out of a pandemic' - and he's keen to use this time to make Healy even stronger for 2021.

"We have to make what's not normal, normal," he says.

"Why would we throw in the towel? Whether it's a rowing machine or treadmill or out on the street, you have repeatability in training so they see improvement over time."

Down in Limerick, meanwhile, Thomas Barr has been following a similar approach, running speed sessions on the green of a local business park after the track at UL was closed earlier this week.

The 2016 Olympic finalist cleared the couches out of his living room and turned it into a home gym, where he continues to train even without a specific goal in mind. He has no doubts the right was decision was made yesterday.

"There was still talk of (the Olympics) going ahead and that the decision might take four weeks, but that would have been four weeks of awkwardly trying to train and putting ourselves, our squad, our coaches at risk," he says.

"To hear it's been pushed on a full year really does take the pressure off us. In a way the announcement is a relief."

Yesterday afternoon he called his coach, Hayley Harrison, and they decided the best approach would be to keep on keeping on, to ease back on the throttle but to stay primed to go again when things are back to normal.

"We'll tip away, keep on top of rehab and gym work and do whatever bit of running we can to tick over. If we have to come out and get fit and fast again for a couple of races at the end of the season, we can do that."

The European Championships are scheduled for late August in Paris and so Barr and Healy will continue to train, with both already looking ahead to 2021 and an Olympics that will mean even more then than they would this summer.

"You need to showcase the athletes' ability when they're at their best, when they can train properly," said Healy. "Pushing it out will make it the biggest celebration in 2021. It will be a momentous Olympics."


What does postponement of Games mean for athletes and Japan?

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have become the first Games in modern history to be postponed for anything other than a World War.

Here is what the decision will mean for the city, the athletes, and the enormous financial and logistical implications on the sporting calendar.

Didn’t the IOC say it would delay any decision?

Whilst International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach and the Japanese government maintained the Games would go ahead as scheduled, others suggested they would be forced to make a decision by the end of May. However, the unimpeded spread of the virus, coupled with the crucial interventions of athletes and national federations who stressed the need for clarity, finally prompted them to act.


When will the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics take place?

Officials have already indicated they will be re-arranged for “no later” than the summer of 2021. This does not rule out the intriguing prospect of staging the Games in the midst of Japan’s enormously popular cherry blossom season, next March or April. However, it remains much more likely that the Games will be pushed back more or less exactly a year, to take place over an equivalent period in July/August.


What are the financial and logistical implications of the decision?

The total cost of the Tokyo Olympics has been put at almost €11 billion, and there were projections that an outright cancellation could cause the shrinking of Japan’s GDP by 1.5 per cent. Clearly, this potential impact has been mitigated by the postponement, but it will still cause major disruption to finances and planning.


Is there a precedent for postponement?

Only three summer Olympics have been cancelled outright, all due to World Wars. Berlin did not take place in 1916, and Tokyo relinquished its right to host the 1940 Games, which was temporarily moved to Helsinki before it was cancelled outright. The 1944 Games, due to take place in London, were also called off.


How will it affect the sporting calendar?

It will cause chaos. Assuming the rearranged Games take place in July/August, they will clash with – among many others – the 2021 World Athletics Championships, scheduled for Eugene in the United States, and the World Swimming Championships, set for Fukuoka. The subsequent knock-on effect could be huge.