Tuesday 22 January 2019

Irish chiefs left to rue standards call as Diver makes a splash Down Under

Mayo-born Sinéad Diver smashed her 10,000m personal best to win the Australian title last week.
Mayo-born Sinéad Diver smashed her 10,000m personal best to win the Australian title last week.

Cathal Dennehy

From the far side of the world, a message - a regretful reminder to those at Athletics Ireland that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. Until she's gone, that is.

At the Zatopek 10,000m in Melbourne last week, Mayo's Sinéad Diver smashed her personal best to win the Australian title in 31:50.98, closing out a year in which the 41-year-old Belmullet native joined the world-class ranks.

But here's the kicker: while Diver is by far the best Irish female marathoner today, whatever she achieves in the coming years will be in an Australian vest, owing to a decision by Athletics Ireland's high performance branch in 2015 that left her with little option but to jump ship to Australia.

But we'll get to that. First, a few stats to illustrate her class: the 2:25:19 Diver ran to win the Melbourne Marathon in October was not just a course record, a six-minute personal best and the second-fastest marathon ever by an Irishwoman (behind Catherina McKiernan's 2:22:23, set in 1998), it was also faster than all but one European this year (Kenyan-born Lonah Chemtai Salpeter ran 2:24:17). In the past decade, no Irishwoman has come within six minutes of Diver's time.

Major

However, if that causes your brow to furrow in suspicion, it's worth hearing Diver's story; how it took until her early 40s for this software developer with the west-of-Ireland accent to become a major player on the marathon scene and why, for Irish athletics, she'll always be the one that got away.

In distance running, it's not so much the years that count as the mileage, and in that sense Diver remains a relative novice. Having studied PE at the University of Limerick, she had always been the sporty type, but running the length of a basketball court was as close as she came to logging mileage in her teenage years.

One day, out of sheer curiosity, she joined a classmate on a training run in UL, but distance running proved an acquired taste.

"I nearly died," she recalls. "I thought, 'God, this is awful'."

In 2002 Diver and her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Colin upped sticks to Australia, where she has lived ever since, but only in 2010, at the age of 33, did she take up running, accepting an invitation from her sister to try the 3.8km loop in Melbourne known as The Tan.

"I got a pretty good time and someone said I should join a group. It was then I met Tim Crosbie, my coach, and I just ran from there."

Her progress was rapid, the 2:34:15 she ran at the Melbourne Marathon in 2014 almost 10 minutes below the qualifying standard for the 2015 World Championships in Beijing.

"I presumed I'd run for Ireland - like, I'm Irish," she says.

"But then Athletics Ireland changed their standard and it was a bit of a curveball. It was upsetting."

Athletics Ireland set their own revised standard at 2:33:30, 45 seconds below Diver's best, and as a dual citizen she knew the only way to run in Beijing would be in an Australian vest. Given the IAAF has since introduced rules mandating a three-year wait before changing allegiance, it only makes sense for Diver to run for Australia for the rest of her career.

"When they changed the time I took it a bit personally," she admits.

"On reflection I know it wasn't a personal thing, but at 38 and not having been to a World Champs it would have been madness not to accept (running for Australia)."

With the Irish tricolour painted on her fingernails - which she sports for every international race - Diver finished 21st in the World Championships marathon, and shortly after finishing her priority was to find an Irish bar in Beijing to watch her county in the All-Ireland football semi-final.

But the following year she was the Mayo native feeling most cursed, a knee injury arriving like a belligerent visitor and refusing to leave for five months, until the day a podiatrist realised the problem was coming from the cuboid bone in her foot.

After inserting a corrective pad into her running shoe, Diver was suddenly pain-free, but by then her chance to qualify for the Rio Olympics was gone.

"That was a bit devastating, I was really upset about it," she says.

"I still watched the Olympics but it was really hard to stomach."

In 2017 she was back in action for Australia at the World Championships in London, hordes of Irish friends and family cheering her to a 20th-place finish in the marathon, far below Diver's expectations after she picked up an illness before the race.

She knew she was better than that, and in 2018 she planned to prove it.

At the start of the year she joined the Melbourne Track Club, working out three times a week alongside Australia's best distance runners, still coached by Crosbie but advised and mentored by Nic Bideau and Sonia O'Sullivan.

On the build-up to Melbourne in October she upped her workload to 100-115 miles a week, the bulk of it done at 5:30am before work. On race day, the weather wasn't conducive to fast times - a little too warm, much too windy - but Diver still routed the field to win in 2:25:19, her nearest rival 22 minutes behind.

Her two sons, Eddie and Dara, were there sprinting around the course in support, and if all goes well over the coming year the family will be pricing flights to Tokyo for 2020.

Her next major race will be a half marathon in Japan in February and after that all roads lead to the London Marathon in April, where she hopes to make a mark against the world's best.

Slowly, the air she occupies is becoming familiar.

Times may mean little in championship marathons, but Diver's time in Melbourne would have put her in the top eight in every Olympic marathon in history, something her manager Bideau, who has taken over coaching duties, is keen to stress.

"I do need to start thinking like that because I can definitely go faster," says Diver, before her mind starts running ahead, 20 months up the road, to the idea of her putting an emerald tint on the green and gold at the Tokyo Olympics.

"Oh my god," she says. "That'd be massive."

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