Monday 16 September 2019

Pain turns to pride for medal heroes Healy and McElhinney

Sarah Healy and Darragh McElhinney pose with their medals at the European U-20 Championships in Sweden yesterday
Sarah Healy and Darragh McElhinney pose with their medals at the European U-20 Championships in Sweden yesterday

Cathal Dennehy

The tears told you everything, illustrating something about Sarah Healy and Darragh McElhinney that their performances never could. A window into the world of two of the best young distance runners Ireland has ever had.

Eighteen years old, gifted with sublime speed and outstanding endurance, and both of them already standing on a podium at a major championship.

When they crossed the line in Boras, Sweden at the European U-20 Championships yesterday - Healy second in the 15,00m final, McElhinney third in the 5,000m - they tried their best to play pretend, did the thing all medal-winners have to do. They held the Irish tricolour and smiled for the cameras, the crowds, but gnawing away inside was the unmistakeable realisation that they didn't win.

Someone else did.

Once Healy drifted out of the cameras' glare and found a quiet, reflective solitude in a trackside tent, some tears began to flow, a volcanic build-up of hope and expectation finally erupting.

It was inevitable, inescapable, but also unwarranted. For here was an athlete who had achieved something only one other Irish woman (Ciara Mageean) had in the half-century of this event.

Accomplishments

In winning 1,500m silver, she had just pulled off the biggest of all the accomplishments packed into her 18 years, and only an hour later - after she stood on that podium, laid her hands on the shiny silver embodiment of all her work - could she take a step back and see it. The vista looked a whole lot brighter.

"It wasn't the medal I was hoping for but I know that a medal at these championships is such an amazing achievement," she said. "I'm so happy that I can win another one for Ireland. I'm really grateful for everyone who helped me get here."

It was to her coach, Eoghan Marnell, she first gravitated when she stepped off the track, a reminder quickly offered that she had done everything she possibly could. There would be no regrets.

Healy knew going in she would have to make every right move to win gold, pitched into a contest of extreme pressure and astonishing depth, one in which her rivals were happy to dawdle through some pedestrian early laps.

Healy is a runner possessed of excellent speed but truly outstanding endurance. She knew that the later she left it, the more the dice began to roll on the result.

And so she did what winners do: made her own luck. She swept to the lead on the penultimate lap and cranked through the gears. As she powered down the back straight for the final time, only one athlete could cope: Switzerland's Delia Sclabas.

The Dubliner went for broke on the final turn, forging a two-metre advantage, but there was no resisting the final attack from Sclabas who powered by to win gold in 4:25.95. Healy took the silver in 4:27.14.

An hour or so later, Healy ran into Darragh McElhinney, the medal-winners sharing stories on their dissatisfaction, and by then it was something they could laugh about.

McElhinney went into the men's 5,000m final as favourite, a tag of exactly zero value once the gun goes. He played a patient game, the Glengarriff teenager nestling in the pack as the field reeled off laps at a swift tempo. He moved to the front with 1,000m to run, looking to control the pace, but had no answer to the vicious turn of speed by Spain's Aaron Las Heras, who took gold in 14:02.76.

McElhinney had to search deep within to find the will - and speed - to hold on for bronze, crossing the line in 14:06.05 to claim his first major championship medal.

"It is a bit of an anti-climax," he admitted. "When you know with 200 to go you're not going to win it it's hard to keep plugging away but I'm happy to at least have got a bronze and bring something home for Ireland. At the start of the year I'd have taken this."

He emerged from the mixed zone with his hood up, his face dark, and it took many words of counselling from his coach David McCarthy to eventually raise a smile out of the 18-year-old. When McElhinney soon greeted his family and friends - a legion of Rebels had made the trip to lend their support - the dam finally burst on his emotions and he, like Healy, simply couldn't hold back the tears.

This, of course, was a long way from Royal Portrush in both size and sporting stage, but the scenes playing out in a pocket of a small Swedish town illustrated just the same in glorious technicolour the potency of sport.

Anger had given way to acceptance, which soon morphed into pride - families and friends and athletes and coaches luxuriating in a moment that, when all is said and done, will be reflected upon with a realisation of its priceless value.

Affinity

We had seen all weekend how high-level sport has no particular affinity for fairness. If it did, Aaron Sexton would have signed off his athletics career with a 200m medal - instead the Bangor athlete takes his talent to the Ulster Rugby Academy with a fourth-place finish, denied gold in Saturday's 200 final by a tenth of a second, a medal by less than a hundredth.

So too Davicia Patterson, who was fourth in the 400m final; or Sommer Lecky, fifth in the high jump; or the Irish women's 4x400m team of Simone Lalor, Miriam Daly, Davicia Patterson and Rachel McCann who ran an Irish U-20 record but missed a medal by a mere fraction.

A special generation, the strength and depth or which Irish athletics has never seen. A graduating class with a boundless ability to dream.

Irish Independent

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