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Joy and agony for Irish pair

THERE was heartbreak and delight in equal measure for two more Irish sprinters at Barcelona's Olympic Stadium last night.

While Paul Hession finally clinched that 200m championship final place that has so long eluded him, despite running the fastest time ever by an Irishwoman (11.32 seconds), Leevale's Ailis McSweeney missed a place in the women's 100m final by just one hundredth of a second.

The Cork solicitor, sixth in her semi-final won by Germany's Verena Sailer in 11.06, ran 0.8 seconds faster than her recent Irish record of 11.40 but the illegal +2.2 wind ruled it out for record purposes.

But what really killed her was that Russia's Ann Gurova, who beat her on the dip, made the final with 11.31.

"It's devastating, I can't believe it," she said. "I think I let myself down in the last 10 metres, I dipped but I felt I tensed up knowing it was so tight."

In five previous championships, Hession has missed out on final places by fractions of a second, including Olympics and World Championships, but he finally got some luck.

He was only fourth in his semi-final, won by Norway's Jaysuma Saidy Ndure (20.50) and had to wait nervously to see if his time (20.67) would get him through as one of the two fastest losers, which it did with a place to spare.

He was subsequently boosted by getting lane two, from which he ran his 20.30 Irish record.

"If I can just get in the mix off the bend I've a shot (at bronze) but I've got to trust my strength in the straight," Hession said.

Alistair Cragg (32) qualified for his second consecutive European 5,000m final, but Mullingar's Mark Christie could not do better than 11th in the second semi-final, won well by double-chasing Mo Farah. And after his dramatic qualification to the 800m semis, Kildare PE teacher David McCarthy could only manage sixth.

Meanwhile, excitement is building ahead of Dubliner David Gillick's 400m final tonight (8.25pm).

Ireland's two-time European indoor champion finished sixth in last year's World Championships, but no one was expecting him to collect a medal then.

Here, the pressure on him is immense to produce a first medal for the 33-strong Irish team.

Belgian Jonathan Borlee is undoubtedly Gillick's biggest threat. And tonight all the Irishman's trials, tribulation and sacrifices are on the line, but the DSD star is also hoping they'll also now stand to him.

"I have been through a lot of ups and downs and you learn so much over the years. One of the (main) things you learn is that you just need to stay relaxed," he says.

According to the Belgian media, the Borlee camp believe they'll have to run 44.60 to beat DSD's green machine, who himself says simply: "I have worked too hard to let it slip by. I have punched that bag so many times, it's just a case now of letting it flow."

Whatever happens, Ireland's medal hopes won't die tonight because Derval O'Rourke, who took European silver in 2006, slips in from the wings in this morning's 100m hurdles heats from which she should comfortably qualify.

After his heartbreaking fourth in the 20km walk, Robert Heffernan has decided to also race today's 50km final, despite having raced the distance only once. His time (3:50.08), ranks him third in Europe, so it's worth a gamble.

Today's other Irish finalist is Wicklow steeplechaser Fionnuala Britton (Sli Cualann).