Wednesday 24 July 2019

After long road back, English takes Euro goal in his stride

Mark English competing in the 800m event at the National Indoor Championships. Photo: Sportsfile
Mark English competing in the 800m event at the National Indoor Championships. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

After a while, it's easy to tune out the voices of dissent. Whether it's a potato-shaped expert on the couch or an Olympian orating from a pundit's chair, Mark English knows their frequency doesn't change.

Never has. As a teenager he was the peerless prodigy who barely trained, a half-truth that became affixed to his reputation with the poisonous permanence of a classic urban myth. Talented, gifted, a class act - the adjectives he attracted were explicit in their praise, but had a sinister second meaning that implied it all came easy.

If English were to mount a defence, Exhibit A would be his two European medals. Talent may take you to underage success, but trying to survive off it as a senior has the deluded smack of ordering a diet Coke with your happy meal. You can fool a lot of people, but not yourself.

In a newspaper interview last week, he was blunt about his critics: "You're always going to have people who'll talk shit. It doesn't really bother me." But he admits now, after taking a step back, that the support outweighs the cynicism.

Majority

"I don't know if I have to prove anything to anyone because the only people who say things are a very small minority. The vast majority have supported me through all the hard times and the good times."

Trace the arc of English's career, though, and you'll spot an apex in the distant past. He was 20 when he ran his personal best of 1:44.84, 21 when he won his two major medals. He's 25 now, and the intervening years have seen him travel to the Olympics and World Championships without ever truly making a dent.

Yet, what people see is the struggle to match his teenage self, those trackside interviews where he refuses to seek refuge in excuses. They don't see the broken foot, badly-timed illnesses, the chronic nerve problem that sends pain shooting down his left leg, the exhaustion of hospital placements for his medical degree, the changes in coaches, managers - his frustration at trying to operate at a world-class level with faulty machinery.

After being eliminated in the first round at last year's European Championships, he knew something had to change. It wouldn't be his coach - English is fully content with Steve Magness, who lives in Houston, Texas - but with his own body.

Most injuries derive from errors in movement, and last October English travelled to Manchester for a rigorous biomechanical analysis. "I went to see what adjustments I had to make to my form and I've worked a lot in the gym," he says. "I lost a lot of power in my left rear-chain which fed into the whole nerve issue and I had plantar flexion issues in my ankle."

The key, he found, was improved extension of his thoracic spine, and he has since had no major issues.

"The injury has stayed away thankfully and it does show in terms of efficiency at top speed."

He has also focused on strengthening his biggest weakness: endurance. Every weekend he completes a 10-to-12-mile long run at just over six minutes a mile - the kind of work he once avoided at all costs. The effect has been pronounced.

In Athlone last week he powered to victory in 1:46.92, a time that ranks him fifth for next week's European Indoors in Glasgow, for which he was announced yesterday among an Irish team of 16. Getting back on the podium would be nice, but he won't become obsessed by such feats.

"Medals aren't the be-all-and-end-all," he says. "My sister had a baby boy recently so I'm an uncle now - there's things in life that take over and put the whole athletics thing into perspective."

All the same, it'd be a great place to return to. Now, at 25, with his road ahead still filled with so much promise.

Irish Independent

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