Wednesday 19 June 2019

How Ulster have won the race to sign Europe's fastest teenager

Breaking new ground: Aaron Sexton on the way to setting the Senior Boys 100m record at the All-Ireland Schools Track and Field Championships on Sunday. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Breaking new ground: Aaron Sexton on the way to setting the Senior Boys 100m record at the All-Ireland Schools Track and Field Championships on Sunday. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

He knew it would come to this, a fork in the road that's long been on the horizon. That doesn't make it any easier, not when his is a sporting talent that runs as wide as it does deep.

Aaron Sexton is the fastest teenager in Europe over 200m, the seventh-fastest U-20 in the world, but his speed is a weapon that won't ultimately be utilised on the track, but the rugby pitch.

The clock is now ticking on one of the most promising careers in Irish athletics, the 18-year-old set to enter the Ulster Rugby Academy full-time next month to pursue his first love - his sprinting career about to become a thing of the past.

"It'll be a sad time to see the athletics go," he admits. "Both sports have been brilliant and without doing both, I wouldn't be anywhere near the level I am in either field."

There's no easy way to say goodbye, but in Boras, Sweden, next month, he'll have the chance to sign off from athletics in style. No Irishman has won a sprint medal at the European U-20 Championships, but Sexton appears poised to kick that record deep into touch.

The 20.69 he ran to win the Irish schools' 200m title last weekend puts him top of the European U-20 rankings, 0.27 (or three metres) clear of the next fastest. It's a time that would have won gold at five of the last 10 editions of the European U-20 championships.

The Brandon Grammar school student celebrating with his gold medal last weekend. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
The Brandon Grammar school student celebrating with his gold medal last weekend. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

"That'll be my last big target from an athletics perspective so hopefully I'll get selection and I can go out and compare myself to the best in Europe," he says. "After the Europeans it'll be full-time (in rugby). I can't wait for it."

In an age of early specialisation, when the tug-of-war for talent sees most sports unwilling to share, his is a refreshing tale of co-operation for mutual gain.

"My strength side comes from the rugby, which shows on the athletics track, and my speed comes from the track and it shows on the rugby pitch," he says. "They work really well together so, to anyone, I'd say keep doing them both as long as you can."

He trains primarily for rugby for most of the year, but since late April Sexton has been hitting the track four times a week to prepare for his swansong as a sprinter.

Aaron Sexton in action for Ulster ‘A’ against Jack Kelly of Leinster ‘A’ during last year’s Celtic Cup. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Aaron Sexton in action for Ulster ‘A’ against Jack Kelly of Leinster ‘A’ during last year’s Celtic Cup. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Sexton's father Roger was also a dual star back in the day, playing an Ulster Schools Cup final for Bangor Grammar and setting a string of sprint records for the school - which have all been smashed to pieces by his son.

"He's my coach so I'm allowed to," laughs Aaron.

Last year Sexton got his first game for Ulster in a pre-season friendly against Gloucester, and last month he was named Ulster 'A' Player of the Year after scoring seven tries in the British and Irish Cup.

On the pitch he brings the ultimate threat to the wing: track speed. It was on full display last October when he clocked 37.8 kmh in a game against Connacht 'A', the fastest recorded by an Ulster player.

"I think there's a lot more expectation (in rugby) from being on the track but doing it on grass is a bit different," he says. "Everyone expects big things from you but it's a good pressure to have."

Love

Rugby was his first love, the sport he took up in primary school while still "a wee baby" and, given the support and structures at Ulster, he was never likely to go down any other path.

"With the academy system it's great, feeding you through and each day you're getting better and better. Training with the seniors, the knowledge they bring, it's hard not to improve."

The same professional structures, of course, are simply non-existent in Irish athletics. Though some of the brightest minds in Irish sport populate its coaching ranks, the vast majority dedicate their time on a voluntary basis, meaning it actually costs them money to dispense their knowledge.

Then there is the disparity in financial rewards: while a six-figure salary is the norm in senior professional rugby, the number of Irish athletes earning a full-time living from athletics can be counted on one hand.

One agent I spoke to estimates that even if Sexton won gold next month, the professional shoe contract he would be offered would be roughly €20,000 per year.

In short, there's every incentive for him to hang up his spikes and lace up his boots.

Once his A-levels are out of the way at Bangor Grammar, Sexton will go full-time with the Ulster Academy, though his new employers have granted him freedom to chase gold at the European U-20 Championships from July 18-21. After that he will have a singular focus: preparing his body for the bruising demands of senior rugby.

Will that mean adding bulk to his 6ft 2in,90kg frame?

"It will," he says. "It's one of my goals for the next few months, to become physically stronger. It's a whole different ball game when you're playing against the big boys."

While on hiatus from rugby last summer, Sexton returned to the track to reach the semi-final at the World U-20 Championships in Finland, clocking 21.06 for 200m at just 17 years of age.

"I learned a lot from that and it was another championship under the belt. I was a bit disappointed in the end but I bounced back a lot stronger."

At this year's Irish Schools Championships that was clear, Sexton rocketing up the track to smash the 100m and 200m records, clocking 10.43 and 20.69 - the latter also an Irish U-20 record. "I'm completely speechless," he said, and so were those watching.

But amid the joy on his face as he exited the track in Tullamore, there was a slight nostalgic sadness: one door opening, and all the excitement that brings, while another prepares to swing shut.

"I do really enjoy athletics," he said. "It'll be a sad day to see it go."

Irish Independent

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