Sunday 20 October 2019

Pride after the fall as Irish vow to rise again

Sorcha McAlister, Fian Sweeney. Photo: Sportsfile
Sorcha McAlister, Fian Sweeney. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

This wasn't what they came for - far from it - but when a cadre of Irish athletes reflect on this year's European Cross Country Championships, it could prove a critical turning point on the path to somewhere better.

A teachable moment, as they say in education, offered in lieu of the medals they so desperately desired.

Emma O’Brien and Sarah Healy after competing in the European Cross-Country Championships in Tilburg. Photo: Sportsfile
Emma O’Brien and Sarah Healy after competing in the European Cross-Country Championships in Tilburg. Photo: Sportsfile

That was true for Sarah Healy, whose ambitious assault on the U-20 title came unstuck in the Dutch mud, the 17-year-old crashing to the ground midway through the race as she swung a right-hand turn at the Beekse Bergen Safari Park in Tilburg.

At the time Healy had been coasting in third place, keeping her powder dry and planning a late-race move through the forested area near the finish. But everyone has a plan until you get smacked to the floor and, when Healy stumbled back to her feet, she had been demoted to 13th.

She fought, as is her way, to get within shouting distance of the leaders on the final lap, but she had used too much of her artillery by the time the heavy hitters started firing.

She was soon passed by team-mate Emma O'Brien, who had a storming run to lead the Irish in eighth place in 14:01, two seconds clear of Healy in ninth.

Not what she wanted, but perhaps an experience she needed.

"I was proud that I didn't give up," said Healy, who with a maturity beyond her years swiftly put the race into its proper perspective.

"It's been a lot of fun, and apart from the race it's been the championship I've enjoyed the most. It's my first one so I'll learn from it and go again."

The Irish U-20 women had actually led the team event for much of the race, but a fading final lap from Stephanie Cotter (who finished 25th) saw them slip to sixth, just three tantalising points outside the medals.

But near-misses are no harm at this age, especially when Healy, still only 17, will still be eligible for the U-20 race in two years, when the championships are hosted in Dublin.

For the two best Irishmen yesterday, the mud, sweat and spit hadn't started to dry before they looked to 2020.

Ryan Forsyth produced the best performance of all in the green singlet in the U-23 race, which the US-born athlete wore with the pride of one who appreciates his heritage.

Transfers of allegiance may continue to blight athletics - as evidenced by the senior women's race yesterday, which was won by Yasemin Can of Turkey, formerly Vivian Jemutai of Kenya - but few could level the Plastic Paddy argument at Forsyth, who has visited Ireland throughout his life and plans to eventually make his home there.

The 22-year-old - a final-year student at the University of Colorado and a native of Baltimore - is eligible to represent Ireland via his mother Zoe, a native of Comber in Co Down, and he attacked yesterday's race with the ferocity of an Ulster final, taking the lead from the gun.

At halfway he held a medal position, but as the skies unleashed a torrent of rain Forsyth couldn't quite keep pace with French rival Hugo Hay, who held him off for third by just one second, with France's Jimmy Gressier first.

"I wanted to medal, that was my intention and I believed I could do it," said Forsyth, who helped his team to sixth place. "We can only grow as a country if we have a great group of guys who push each other. Believe me, I'll be back and I'll be on the podium. "

At senior level, Sean Tobin was the undoubted star, the Clonmel man funnelling the frustration of a loss at the Irish Championships to produce the performance of his life and finish 10th in 29:22, in a race won by Norway's Filip Ingebrigtsen in 28:49. Kevin Dooney was next home in 26th with Kevin Maunsell in 34th, helping the Irish to seventh as a team.

"It's a step forward," said Tobin, who immediately cast his mind forward to 2020. "Hopefully I can give the home crowd something to cheer about."

No joy for the mixed relay, which finished ninth of 12 teams, or indeed the senior women, who were 11th of 14. But one athlete beaming with pride was Sara Treacy, who bounced back from injury to finish 26th in her 10th appearance at the event.

"There was a whole load of pain but that's normal," said the 29-year-old. "I loved it out there and it's class to be back. This is why I love athletics."

Irish Independent

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