Saturday 19 October 2019

A long way from Tipperary to Doha in it for long run

Saturday interview

Wexford native Shane McCormack helped out as a sprint coach with Tipp hurlers this year, but he is a more familiar face on the track as coach of Cork sprint star Phil Healy. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Wexford native Shane McCormack helped out as a sprint coach with Tipp hurlers this year, but he is a more familiar face on the track as coach of Cork sprint star Phil Healy. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

From Croke Park to Qatar, the pinnacle of GAA to the high point of athletics, Shane McCormack is getting used to operating at the highest level.

Of course, anyone familiar with his work will know he's been doing that for years. It's just that people are now starting to take notice.

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The Wexford native admits straight off the bat that he didn't make the key difference for the Tipperary hurlers this year - he cringes at any suggestion he did - but his work as their speed trainer certainly didn't do them any harm on the path to that All-Ireland title.

And when it comes to Phil Healy, there's no disputing that his expert guidance has made her what she is: the fastest woman in Irish history.

Juggling the two projects has required immense devotion and dexterity this year. On the day of Tipp's All-Ireland semi-final, McCormack couldn't make it to Croke Park as he was up the road in Santry, watching Healy blitz her opponents at the National Championships.

The 24-year-old sprinter started the season in flying form, clocking 23.04 for 200m on a cold April day in Athlone.

But later that month her season was hanging by a thread when she fractured her fifth metatarsal while walking down steps on a warm-weather training camp in Malta.

"I'd be fairly cool in any situation and that was the first time I was devastated, not for me, but for her," says McCormack. "I knew it was bad and at dinner I was actually f***ing crying. You put so much work in and it's a hard sport as it is."


It was an injury that often requires three months' rest, but a chink of light emerged when specialist Johnny McKenna told them she had fractured it in a good place and it could be healed in six weeks.

McCormack had Healy back in the gym two days later, modifying her programme to do whatever was possible.

"We pushed it as much as we could," he says.

She made it back for July's World University Games in Naples, where she finished sixth in the 200m final in 23.44, and Healy has been improving ever since, the old spark and strength returning ahead of the World Championships in Doha.

When she settles into the blocks in Monday's 200m heats, McCormack will be a nervous onlooker in the stands - it's his first time taking an athlete to this level.

He coaches about a dozen sprinters in all, juggling those voluntary commitments with his family life and a full-time job at Sun Life.

When the inquiry came from Liam Sheedy about working with Tipp back in March, he knew it would stretch him to capacity - so he turned it down.

"A mutual friend asked if I'd take the call (from Sheedy) and I said, 'Yeah but I don't have the time for that craic if it's the Tipperary road.' But when you meet (Sheedy) you want to work with him."

The Tipp manager accepted McCormack had limited time and agreed to have him down to Thurles once a week through the spring and about once a fortnight in the summer. The players already had an excellent strength and conditioning coach in Cairbre Ó Cairealláin, so McCormack's task was to add something small but highly specific.

"It was the way they were putting their feet (when running), to get them thinking a bit differently with co-ordination. They're all very athletic so you could do any running and they'd get quicker, but it was giving them time to do things, neurally, a little quicker than they could with a hurl in a match. I literally just added a little sliver of sharpness."

McCormack had been a promising GAA player and sprinter himself, but a ruptured hamstring in his first year at UL fast-tracked his path into coaching.

David Hynes was one of his first big successes, McCormack guiding the Menapians sprinter below 10.5 for 100m and to a surprise national senior 100m title in 2013.


But it's his work with Healy for which he is best known, having taken the reins from those at Bandon AC after her promising junior career. The road to senior success was rocky, Healy's progress stalling as she juggled nursing studies at UCC with training alone. But her big breakthrough came after she moved to Waterford IT in 2017 to train full-time with McCormack's group.

"She was always getting stronger in the gym and when she moved she got super-strong, (lifting) 170kg squat max - ridiculous stuff. Phil has a great VO2 max (the amount of oxygen a person can utilise) but also fast-twitch fibres which is why the 200 will ultimately be her best event."

It's what she'll contest in Doha against the world's best, Olympic champions like Elaine Thompson and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. For athlete and coach, it's a step to the next level.

While in Doha, McCormack intends to absorb everything he can, watching up close how the world's best operate. "You have to be a sponge," he says.

Given the lack of resources in Irish athletics, coaching has long been a pursuit that actually costs him money, and McCormack worries that if nothing changes then the next Phil Healy may never be discovered - or indeed developed.

Things work a little differently in the GAA, where expertise like his is typically reimbursed for its time, but despite that McCormack has no doubt where his priorities reside.

"You do it for the grá and my grá is athletics," he says. "The buzz you get out of it - the higher the highs, the lower the lows - you can't replicate. I'm sure it's no different to how Liam Sheedy feels about Tipperary."

Irish Independent

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