Tuesday 23 July 2019

Back to her best, hurdle star Lavin sounds warning for young talent

Sarah Lavin in action at the European Games in Minsk yesterday, where she finished second in her heat of the 100m hurdles in 13.46. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Sarah Lavin in action at the European Games in Minsk yesterday, where she finished second in her heat of the 100m hurdles in 13.46. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

She's seen the abyss, looked right into it in her early 20s, wondering how in the hell she could get back to where she was.

In 2013, Sarah Lavin was a sprint hurdler destined for stardom, a European U-20 silver medallist, Irish U-20 record holder - faster than Derval O'Rourke was at the same age. But three years later she was virtually washed up, her progression not so much stalling as headed in reverse. The latest young star to burn out or fade away.

"I wasn't the first junior to make the mistake and how is no one passing on what to do?" she asks. "Saying it's a hard transition isn't good enough because we keep making the same mistakes over and over again - why?"

She can only tell her story, and hope it holds some lessons for either ambitious young sportspeople or those in charge of them.

Go back to 2014, the Europeans in Zurich. Lavin went there as a wide-eyed 20-year-old, her first major senior championship. She was flying that summer, lowering her personal best to 13.23, but she finished eighth in her heat in 13.35. Eighth and last.

Sense

On the bus back to the hotel, she remembers talking to Athletics Ireland high-performance director Kevin Ankrom and him pointing out how the Swiss athlete who beat her to gold the previous year had made the semi-final. What was Lavin going to do to close the gap?

Her answer made sense at the time, not so much now. "That winter I was like, I'm being 110 per cent on my diet, 110 per cent on my sleep - no moment will be anything but athletics," she says.

You'll have an idea how that turned out. Lavin self-destructed, pushing her body to breaking point. "My weight dropped to 57kg, and I was never that kind of slight girl, I was always strong," she says. "But it was purely because I thought I needed to be race weight all the time. I was so intense."

Over-working, under-fuelling, her body "stopped working as a female" for almost a year. "I never thought I was going to be that person. You read these stories and think: what the hell."

She was studying physiotherapy in UCD at the time, but because of the college's bright idea to dig up their running track to build a car park, she had to spend three hours a day commuting to Santry to train.

She was trying harder, but running slower, and people weren't long passing comments, thinking she must be enjoying college life a little too much.

"Adults can have no filter, they can talk to 19-year-olds and forget they have insecurities like any teenage girl. You meet people and they say, 'Jesus, you really went off the boil as soon as you went to college' and you're like: 'If only you knew.' The reality couldn't have been further from that. My parents would say, 'Sarah, would you just go out and have fun, relax?' but I probably went out two times in college, and I was never a drinker."

In a metabolic sense, her body was broken - and soon something else would break. She can remember the date: June 8, 2016. Lavin was running on the track when she felt a piercing pain in her ankle: it was a stress fracture in her navicular.

"I knew straight away," she says. "I went to drive home and couldn't push the accelerator. But it wasn't what I'd done in 2016; it was that I did to myself 12 months prior."

She reached a key crossroads. "It was a time to decide: am I in or am I out? Because it's one hell of a rehab if you want to get back."

She was still in. Over the previous year she had begun working with nutritionist Sharon Madigan at the Sport Ireland Institute, who had her eating almost 3,000 calories a day to reverse the changes she had caused in her menstrual cycle.

"It was a huge amount of food and I was like, 'I don't know, this seems a bit mad,' but I got my body back working in 2016," she says.

The broken navicular meant she had to wear a protective boot for 16 weeks, during which time Lavin did non-weight-bearing work in the gym, hundreds of reps of monotonous exercises to correct her imbalances. "The psychosis of it," she says with a laugh. "But I got so mentally strong in that time and I worked on weaknesses."

In 2017, she got back racing, narrowly missing the final at the World University Games in Taiwan. As a junior she had run 13.34 to win that silver medal, but she was still well off that.

In 2018, all signs were that her best form was returning, but Lavin was trying to keep too many plates spinning at once: final-year-studies at UCD, 37 hours of physiotherapy placements a week, part-time work to fund training camps abroad, and trying to absorb the training of a full-time athlete.

She'd been flying in training but when she got to races, 13.5 was as much as she could manage.

That changed this year, Lavin now based back home under the watchful eye of long-time coach Noelle Morrissey. "I'm so much more recovered this year and I'm happy again in Limerick," she says.

She fits her physiotherapy work around her training, doing enough of it to fund trips abroad for races and training camps. "You have to do it yourself," she says, speaking the harsh reality for most Irish athletes.

Over time, she has learned the value of caution. During the indoor season Lavin was carrying a hamstring niggle, but instead of ploughing ahead with it she took time off. "Five years ago I would have kept going," she says. Her patience was rewarded outdoors, Lavin clocking 13.26 in Geneva earlier this month, her fastest time in five years.

It was a run that propelled her back to international class, and she looked right at home on that stage yesterday at the European Games in Minsk, Belarus, running 13.46 to finish second in Ireland's match behind European champion Elvira Herman.

Another race awaits tomorrow, then she has a summer of racing to enjoy the fruits of her persistence.

When she reflects on the past five years, she sees with crystal clarity the mistakes she made, but regret is not a word she'll reach for: she could never know then what she does now.

But given how hard it was to stay the course, was it ever an option to walk away? "No," she says. "I was never going to give up."

Irish Independent

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