Thursday 14 December 2017

Athletics: Lionheart O'Rourke desperate to get back on track

With the Cheltenham Festival fast approaching, Meathman Sean Cahill, one half of the husband-and-wife team who have coached Derval O'Rourke back to the top of her game, has an appropriate reference point when you ask him about her medal chances in the European Indoor Championships today.

"I've often heard horse trainers say, 'we'd be travelling more hopeful than confident' and it's a bit like that," he said, ahead of the tough three-races-in-a-day schedule facing O'Rourke in Paris.

Don't get him wrong. Cahill, like few else, knows no one responds better to championship racing than the Leevale Lioness, who will be sporting a new pixie-cut -- "go-faster hair," she jokes -- when she steps into the blocks for the 60m hurdles this morning. The problem is that she arrives to the Palais Omnisports de Bercy severely under-raced.

Everything was going smoothly when she ran an impressive early 'season best' of 8.03 seconds in France four weeks ago.

But she felt a twinge in her groin soon after and when Cahill reviewed the race tape his expert eye detected a slight outward swing of her lead leg, an early warning that she was straining slightly to lift it.


Given what happened this time last year, when a groin strain forced her to pull out of the World Indoors, they took swift action.

She didn't train for 12 days. Her strength and conditioning coach Mark McCabe found a new machine that can ice, compress and manipulate simultaneously and they've followed his rehab advice down to every last, minute detail.

They had hoped she would return two weekends ago to fit in three races over two days -- in Birmingham and at the Irish nationals in Belfast -- to try to replicate today's tough three-race schedule. However, the medical team urged caution and she didn't compete.

Cahill reports that her final three sessions in Santry -- last Friday and Sunday, and Tuesday this week -- went very well.

It is not in O'Rourke's nature to stand on a start-line if she doesn't think she can win, but her lack of race fitness, in such a technical event, is a bit of a gamble, she concedes.

The fact that her opponents have had more races than her "means that many of them will be running fairly comfortable in the heats and semi-finals, whereas I will have to work hard from the first race to ensure I make it through," she said.

O'Rourke reckons Norway's top-ranked Christina Vukicevic (7.90 season best) and Germany's Carolin Nytra (7.92), who lines up next to her in the heats, are the two to beat.

The field includes several more sub-eight-second women, including Russia's Aleksandra Antonova, France's Alice Decaux and, significantly, Spain's Josephine Onyia, who is back after a two-year drug ban.

None match O'Rourke's impressive record: the 2006 world indoor champion, a back-to-back European silver medallist outdoors and fourth in the 2009 World Championships.

After a relative slump in 2007-2008, she went to the 2009 European Indoors in Turin totally unfancied, yet won bronze, marking the start of her resurgence under Sean and Terri Cahill's coaching.

O'Rourke's big focus for 2011 is the World Championships in Korea in late August, but her best summers are always preceded by a good indoor season. Paris is that stepping stone and, despite her lack of races, expect her to pull out all the stops.

Of the other Irish in action today, watch particularly for Darren McBrearty and Brian Gregan.

With David Gillick skipping the indoor season, 400m hopes rests on Gregan (21), an ex-world junior finalist (2008), who is ranked 10th on time, but will need to race smart in the demolition derby that is indoor 400m running just to make the semi-finals.

Letterkenny's McBrearty (19) is an exciting 800m prospect who set a new Irish junior record (1:48.63) in January. Medalling at this summer's European U-23s is his big focus, but he'll benefit from this, his senior debut.

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