Wednesday 22 November 2017

Athletics: Still some distance left to run in fighter's Olympic ambition

Family tragedies have made David Rooney even more driven

In the last 18 months David Rooney has endured as much heartbreak as most people will in their entire lives. In the summer of 2011, he lost his 19-year-old brother Colm to a rare form of bone cancer and a few months after that his mother Anne passed away


Yet even though much of Rooney's life was crumbling around him, he stayed strong, taking solace in running. It distracted him, kept him going, and now that he's come out the other side, it has given him focus and direction.

"It wasn't easy so that's why I ran," he says. "It keeps my mind off it. I don't want to get into a state where I'm depressed or feel sorry for myself. You have to keep positive, focus on the good things in life and fight through it. Depression was the reason my mother died and I don't want to go down that road."

So Rooney ran through the pain and at his base in McNeese College in Louisiana, he started to see results. In June, he was selected for the European Athletics Championships in Helsinki – his first major senior race – where he finished a commendable 20th in the 10,000m. After that he continued to train hard, never losing focus, and just a few weeks ago finished an impressive seventh in the USA's National Collegiate Athletic Association championships.

He's in his fifth year in America and puts his seventh-place finish in the Nationals down to four years of hard work. He didn't move over until he was 20, in fact he didn't take running very seriously until he joined Raheny Shamrock Athletic Club when he was 18. Dick Hooper was his coach there and he encouraged him to increase his weekly miles. Prior to that, Rooney only ran to keep fit for soccer and Gaelic football. But he was talented and within a few months of focusing on athletics, he was on the Irish junior team and competing internationally. This put him in the shop window for American colleges and they soon came calling.

However, after his Leaving Cert, Rooney struggled to get the SAT mark needed to gain entry to the American college system, it took four attempts, resulting in many of the colleges losing interest.

But not all of them fell by the wayside and he was offered a scholarship at McNeese College, where Irishman Brendon Gilroy as their athletics coach. It's a small college with approximately 8,000 students but they have good athletics facilities so Rooney took a chance and signed up for a Health Promotion degree.

He was nervous at first as he heard stories of how lonely it can be, but there were plenty of Irish athletes based there so it made the transition easier. They train twice a day, at 6.0am and 3.0pm, and attend lectures in between. His schedule is pretty hectic: he runs 80-90 miles per week when he's not racing, and 70-75 when he is. Over the years his times have improved and so have his finishes in the NCAA. Every year he gets better.

"I was given a scholarship because of my cross-country credentials but I had to work on my track, which I did. I wasn't sure about going there at first but I'm glad I did now. Our coach is great, to him I'm David, not just another number, and there isn't as much pressure on us as there is in the bigger schools.

"It can be tough in the bigger schools. If you aren't running well, coaches don't want to know about you and then it's lonely but it's not the way with us."

Two years ago, Rooney was part of the men's under 23 team which won gold at the European Cross-Country Championships in Portugal. It was a surprise result for team Ireland and one Rooney relished.

"I knew we had a medal, I saw it on the big screen, but when I told the other lads they wouldn't believe me," says Rooney. "I was shocked by the reaction we got, the Late Late Show, papers and radio, we were on everything. Even the reception at the airport was a surprise."

The next step on the road for him is today in Budapest, at the European Cross-Country Championships. Rooney was pre-selected for the team on the back of his performance at the NCAA Championships.

He's hoping for a top 15 finish but isn't sure what to expect. He has minimal experience competing at this level; Helsinki was really the only time he encountered most of today's opponents. The scene in America is different; he knows where he stands when he goes into a race because he's been racing against the same athletes for several years.

And although he wants to do well, the track season is what matters most to him. Rooney needs to start winning titles and mixing it with the big names if he wants to get noticed and ultimately get into a set-up like the Oregon Project where Ciarán ó Lionáird is based.

"I want to do well in Budapest but in America the cross-country season is seen as a warm-up for the track season. If I want to get into the right situation to take me on the road to Rio, I need to do well on the track. Louisiana is great but I need to take it on another step. It's not at altitude and that's what I need."

If Rooney gets picked up by a team he'll still need a part-time job to survive financially. As it stands, he doesn't get any support from Athletics Ireland or the Irish Sports Council but his scholarship and job as a lifeguard enable him to get by. His father Seamus helps him out too; he's an accomplished runner who can complete a marathon in under three hours and has been a constant support to his son.

Rooney's a survivor, he's a fighter and he wants to be a winner. Going on what he's accomplished so far, it's only a matter of time before he makes that happen.

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