Ciara Mageean had flagged it. It’s the fittest she’s ever been. Her coach Steve Vernon was certain it was coming. Now everyone else was going to see the shape Mageean is in.
Last Thursday week a party of four – Mageean, Vernon, Mageean’s boyfriend Thomas Moran and her fellow Team New Balance athlete Jonas Reass – drove to Bern in Switzerland from their high-altitude training camp in the Swiss Alps for the Citius Athletics meet the following day.
As soon as the 800m race was won, the Irish record broken and the race meeting wrapped at the Wankdorf Stadium, the party of four hopped back in the car and made the four-hour return trip back up the mountains, travelling around 1,800 metres above sea-level to the heady heights of St Moritz.
When they got back they saw that one of Mageean’s training partners had pinned a sheet of paper on her bedroom door with the magic number written on it – 1:59.69.
No need for any other entries, even at this early point, as we can reveal that the virtual award for best exit out of lockdown goes to Mageean.
Doing something no Irish female athlete has ever done before and running under two minutes in an 800m in your first race since February because of a lockdown due to a global pandemic which kept you away for months from your family (with family members also working on the frontline as healthcare workers) with the pandemic wrecking your dream of competing in an Olympic Games this year and in a European Championships in Paris is – pause for breath and unnecessary dramatic effect – pretty damn impressive.
For sure, the making of this Irish 800m record comes with its own unconventionality. When the lockdown happened in the UK (Mageean lives in Manchester as a full-time athlete), Vernon kept saying to his athletes that he wanted a ‘B+’ standard in training. No ‘A’ standards because they didn’t have access to services like physios during the height of lockdown so staying healthy was an absolute priority.
“I just said the whole of lockdown all that I want from you guys is B+,” Vernon said over the phone from St Moritz this week. “Everything we do can’t be excellent. The training just needs to be B+, walk away knowing that you could do that little bit more so we’re not risking injury and illness.”
Once Vernon and Mageean managed the disappointment of the postponed Olympics and Europeans, they repurposed 2020. Since Vernon began coaching Mageean at the end of 2017, they had focused on strength. Now it was time for speed.
“The last few years have been about trying to help make Ciara a more aerobic monster – to be able to cope with heats and finals. Last year making the (World Championship) final in Doha – her first global final – was because she was so much stronger than she used to be,” Vernon says.
“We neglected her pure speed for the first year or two. Now that she’s stronger, we’ve been able to work a bit more on her speed and I always knew that Ciara could break two minutes in the 800m but we didn’t really have the chance to train for it specifically or race it. We knew that there would be a couple of 800 metres at this stage of the season so it was a goal of Ciara’s to break that national record.”
Challenge accepted. Vernon told Mageean not to concentrate on time in the 800m last Friday night. He knew the calibre of the opponents and of the pacemaker. Winning this race, Vernon told Mageean, would likely require breaking the Irish 800m record.
As there were only a few hundred allowed inside the stadium, Vernon says he could hear the roar of delight from Mageean when she saw she had run under two minutes and he roared back at her from the other side of the stadium. Expectation can also do strange things. “It’s funny because it was a bit of an anti-climax because I knew that she was going to do it!” Vernon laughs. “She came off the track and said to me: ‘I can run faster!’”
It‘s 10 years since Mageean won a silver medal in the 1,500m at the World Junior Championships in a new Irish Junior record time of 4:09.51. Since then, she’s been popping up on our TV screens usually when she’s competing in the most unforgiving of environments against the best in the world and in Europe.
When Sonia O’Sullivan was competing, we never compared her to anyone else because there was no-one like her. Coming after Sonia, there were constant comparisons at the start of Mageean’s career. She’s endured injuries, setbacks, comebacks and we’ve seen her in varying shades of excitement, frustration, vulnerability.
Mageean won her first major outdoor senior medal a month before the 2016 Rio Olympics with bronze at the European Championships. She finished 11th in her semi-final in Rio. There was the DNF in the 1,500m final at the 2017 European Indoors in Belgrade when she had to step off the track with an Achilles injury. There was the change of coach from Jerry Kiernan to Vernon. There was her gutting fourth place finish at the 2018 European Outdoor Championships, her bronze medal at the 2019 European Indoor Championships, her 10th-place finish in the crazy 1,500m final at the World Championships in Doha last October when she set a personal best time of 4:00.15.
Mageean came into 2020 like this was going to be her year. She set a new Irish indoor 1,500m record in Boston. Little fires everywhere. The year was quenched before she a lit a fire again last Friday night in Bern.
It’s not just her performances but the honesty in interviews that appeals to the good instincts in an audience watching. In an individual sport, she knows the deal with no teammate, no-one else to blame or protect. We know what it takes for her to perform because we’ve seen how she’s had to get sick after a race. She’s cogent and articulate yet we’ve also witnessed her struggle to understand a race when she couldn’t find an answer for herself, not to mind the rest of us, in her RTÉ interview after she had to drop out of that 2017 European Indoors final.
She finished that post-race interview with David Gillick saying she was “very sorry for that performance there today”. You wouldn’t hear that unprompted from an elected official and there was Mageean feeling the need to apologise to the nation.
It’s easy to forget that no-one is making Mageean do what she does. She gets a €40,000 grant from Sport Ireland and is sponsored by New Balance and Lidl. This career doesn’t earn you big cash. And you don’t need to look too hard to wonder just how level the playing field is for Mageean.
As she said after Doha, she’s “busting a gut, trying my best as a clean athlete and dedicating my life to my sport”. So imagine if Mageean decided to cash out, that the risk of little return wasn’t worth it for her? What we’d lose is someone who shows us the value of pursuing a dream and running and risking it all for their country. It’s too easy to take that for granted.
Mageean is more than a singular-focused athlete. She calls herself a feminist and she’s advocate for the 20x20 movement. She’s a big supporter of other female sports – she was in Tallaght for Ireland’s European qualifier the week after Doha. She’s not afraid to talk about her faith or speak out against drugs.
She puts her faith in her coach and Vernon believes she will run under four minutes for the 1,500m and that’s this year’s next big aim. Like Sonia, there’s no need to compare Mageean to anyone else because there’s no-one else like her.