She had to be brave, and she was.
She had to be brilliant, and she was. For Ciara Mageean to get on an ultra-exclusive list, and join Sonia O’Sullivan and Derval O’Rourke as the only Irish athletes to win medals at multiple European Championships, she had to produce something truly magnificent at Munich’s Olympic Stadium tonight. She did.
Mageean’s silver medal in the 1500m was the best performance of the 30-year-old’s career, a run filled with the kind of confidence that was for so long missing, the kind of health, vitality and fitness that was for so long lacking, the kind of pace, power and tactical precision that was sometimes so painfully absent.
This was an athlete competing at her absolute peak, a point Mageean reached later than most due to two reasons. The first is the injuries that kept her ambition shackled in her early 20s. The second was the occasional glitches in race-day psychology that sometimes saw her fall short of the huge expectations demanded of an athlete of her class.
But this was her best, and it was good enough to beat everyone besides the Olympic silver medallist, and one of the best 1500m runners of all time – Britain’s Laura Muir. The results may show that Muir had more than a second to spare over Mageean at the line, 4:01.08 to 4:02.56, but that belies just how close a battle this had been for so long.
On the start line, Mageean had never looked more at home. “Hearing the crowd roar and being able to smile, it’s taken me a long time to figure that out,” she said. “It has taken me a long time to get to where I am today.”
Mageean came into the race as one of the chief medal contenders and she ran with controlled confidence from the outset, leading the field through the first 700 metres at a swift but steady pace.
“I don’t why I keep doing that, being the one to take out the race,” she laughed. “I’m not planning that at all but I knew (Claudia) Bobocea would want to go hard and she was there so I was like, ‘I’m not going to give anyone the jump.’”
After that Muir swung wide and moved to the lead, cranking up the pace over the penultimate lap before injecting a vicious surge with 400 metres to run. Mageean knew it was coming. She had visualised exactly this during her warm-up. She was ready. At this point she could have sat in the pack, stalking her chief threat in the race for silver, Poland’s Sofia Ennaoui. Instead she went for it, following Muir’s slipstream, willing to get rich with gold or die trying. In the end that wasn’t to be, with Muir proving too strong and pulling away up the home straight.
“I thought going up the home straight, ‘maybe this would be my day,’” said Mageean. “It’s what I wrote in my training diary today. I fell a little short of gold but I can’t be disappointed, I laid it all bare on the track. My time will come. I sure as hell tried.”
There was no regret, nothing else she could have done, just a contented smile, knowing she had produced her best when it mattered most.
“I gave it everything I could, I stuck to her heels and she just had the better of me at the finish, but I tip my hat to a phenomenal athlete.”
Mageean’s silver adds to her bronze at the 2019 European Indoors and 2016 European Outdoors, and with her 2019 world final and Commonwealth Games silver, she has put together quite the athletic CV. Not that she’s done yet.
“I see so many younger athletes coming through and it makes me realise I’m getting older and you start to come to terms with the fact that your athletics career doesn’t last forever,” she said. “So I am going to make the most of every year.”
What did it mean to join O’Rourke and O’Sullivan as the only Irish athletes to win medals at multiple Europeans? “It’s good company, being in with those two fantastic ladies. To think that I am up there in a similar realm is very humbling.”
On Sunday night, Mark English has the chance to join Mageean on that list, the Donegal native looking to add to the medal he won at the 2014 Europeans. He turned in another composed, classy performance to advance through tonight’s 800m semi-final in third, clocking 1:46.66.
“It was a tough race because there was a lot of surging, but I’d like to give those guys another shot in the final,” he said. “Everyone has a chance.”