Monday 18 December 2017

Athletics: Mageean shows she can mix it with the very best

A special talent has emerged in Co Down star Ciara Mageean, says Eamonn Sweeney

The World Junior Athletics Championships in Moncton, Canada, which finished this day last week, showed yet again that European athletes haven't a hope of challenging the Africans at middle and long distance.

Just look at the 1-2-3s. Men's 3,000m Steeplechase: Kenya, Kenya, Uganda. Men's 5,000m: Kenya, Kenya, Morocco. Women's 3,000m Steeplechase: Kenya, Ethiopia. Kenya. Men's 1,500m: Kenya, Algeria, Qatar (but originally from Morocco). Women's 5,000m: Ethiopia, Kenya, Kenya. Men's 10,000m: Kenya, Ethiopia, Kenya. Women's 3,000m: Kenya, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan (but originally from Ethiopia). No point even trying to take them on, is there? Women's 1,500m: Ethiopia, Ireland, Kenya.

Hang on a second. Could you roll that by me again. Ireland?

Of the 24 medals awarded at middle and long distance, 23 went to African athletes. The other went to an 18-year-old girl from Portaferry, Co Down named Ciara Mageean who caused a huge shock last Sunday by finishing second in the 1,500m to Ethiopia's Tizita Bogale with Kenya's Nancy Chepkwemoi in third.

Her ability to take on the Africans marks Mageean as not just a phenomenon by Irish standards but something special in European terms too.

There was nothing in the least fluky about this result because this is the second year running that Mageean has medalled at a world championships.

Last year in the World Youth Championships in Italy, she took silver in the 800m behind Cherono Koech of Kenya. And, significantly, in both world finals she produced a big personal best. This day last week, she smashed her own, already impressive, national junior record, lowering it from 4.15.46 to 4.09.51. Mageean had entered the final ranked just ninth out of the 12 starters in a field which included two athletes who had run well under 4.10, and was discounted as a medal prospect by all except those in Irish athletics aware of her extraordinary ability to always rise to the challenge on the biggest occasions.

She opted to stay off the pace as Chepkwemoi put in a blistering 61-second last lap but stormed through the field in the last lap in a race where the top three runners all set personal bests.

It's another measure of her achievement that Mageean is the first Irish track athlete to win a world junior medal, (high jumper Antoine Burke took silver in 1994). Last year, she was the first Irish runner to win a World Youth medal (walker Ann Loughnane took silver in 2003). We have never had anyone who has been so good at this age.

Yet the Assumption, Ballynahinch student remains a strikingly level-headed individual. At the start of the year she set out two goals, one was to run well at the World Juniors, the other was to make the Ulster Schools camogie All Stars team. Camogie remains a big part of Mageean's life, which isn't surprising when you consider that her father Chris played hurling for both Down and Ulster.

It's often remarked that it takes a special kind of determination to keep the game going in its isolated stronghold on the Ards Peninsula and perhaps some of that determination is present in the Mageean make-up. Maybe it's her version of being born at altitude. She did make that All Star team by the way.

There's no guarantee that gifted teenage athletes will make it at senior level. But the portents are good. The Mageeans are very aware of the dangers of over-training and burn-out; last year's world medal was achieved on the back of just one track session a week.

And Eamonn Coghlan hit the nail on the head on RTE last week when he noted that while talent and determination are essentials for a budding world-class athlete, a "racing brain", is also necessary. That racing brain was in evidence this day last week.

There is a steeliness about the City of Lisburn AC runner. It took rare self-belief to move up from the 800m this year to what looked a far more difficult event with a stronger field. Mageean was richly rewarded for her courage.

It has not, to be honest, been a good week for Irish athletics. But I have a feeling that in a few years many Irish sports fans will think of it not as the week when we fell short in Barcelona but as the week they first heard the name of Ciara Mageean.

Watch her go.

Sunday Independent

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