Saturday 19 October 2019

Sinéad Kissane: 'Meteoric rise of Smith-Walsh is still remembered in the record books'

Susan Smith-Walsh with her husband Ryan and children Conor, Claire, Sally and Sean in the United States
Susan Smith-Walsh with her husband Ryan and children Conor, Claire, Sally and Sean in the United States

Sinéad Kissane

It was the final few hours of the year 2000 and Susan Smith-Walsh and her husband were getting ready to celebrate on New Year's Eve when drug-testers turned up at the door of their home in Athens, Georgia.

At the National Track and Field Championships the previous August in Santry, Smith-Walsh made the announcement that she would end her athletics career after the Sydney Olympics the following month. Overall, she estimates she was drug-tested at least 12 times that year. And then there was the visit on New Year's Eve.

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"I got drug-tested in my home after I had retired. Isn't that funny?" Smith-Walsh said this week from her home in Atlanta, Georgia. "I think there's always a question - you know, people retiring and if they come back. I mean, I had no intention of coming back."

She says she never heard the outcome of that test, which was the way it was done back then unless there was a problem. Twenty-two years ago, in Athens, Greece, Smith-Walsh became the first Irish athlete to qualify for a sprint final at a major championship, finishing seventh in the 400m hurdles final at the 1997 World Championships.

She ran her fastest time in the heat, setting a new national record of 54.61 as she was pipped for first place by defending champion and world record holder, Kim Batten.

"I really felt so good and so confident going in. I felt like I could do anything," Smith-Walsh said with her American accent having long got the better of her Waterford one. "After running the heat, I remember saying to my agent: 'I'm going to the final'. I remember on the line in the final - I think I was in lane seven - I was like: 'I don't care what lane I'm in, this is anyone's race'."

In the era of Sonia O'Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan - athletes who've appeared shy and sometimes awkward in front of cameras - Smith-Walsh ran off a different riff. She was assured and self-confident. In an interview in the RTÉ studio after the '97 World Championships, she told the late Bill O'Herlihy about her approach to opponents: "I know they're vulnerable. They can't win every day and I felt just as good as anyone. I knew I belonged."

As O'Herlihy put it at the time, Smith-Walsh had "a meteoric rise". During a successful time on scholarship at Browne University in Rhode Ireland, she reckons her fastest time during college in the 400m hurdles was 58.31.

In the space of a year, she went from no official placing on the IAAF list in 1995 to the 17th fastest athlete in the world in the 400m hurdles by the end of '96. She was ranked the ninth fastest athlete in the world in 1997 and kept that place the following year when she ran 54.31 at a Grand Prix meet in Zurich in August '98.

How did this meteoric rise happen? "I had never really focused on just the one event. In college, I ran everything - the 100m, the 200m, the 4x100m, the 4x400m, 100m hurdles, 400m hurdles, long jump. After my last race in college I went to the Europa Cup. I was running around a bend and I broke my foot because I think it was just over-use.

"I had a broken foot on and off after college in 1993, '94 and '95. I was finally healed in September of 1995 and I found this new coach in Atlanta. The stars kind of aligned."

The name of her new coach was Loren Seagrave, whose stable of athletes in recent years has included Justin Gatlin. After linking up with him in the autumn of '95, the impact of a new training regime was immediate. Between March and July 1996 she broke the Irish 400m hurdles record six times.

"Yeah, it was just crazy. It was weird, I think I was just learning the race at that time. And I was learning how to run better and learning stride patterns."

In her first ever major championship in her first year of concentrating solely on the 400m hurdles, Smith-Walsh, at the age of 25, qualified for the semi-finals of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and missed out on a place in the final by just one spot. The following year she made the final in Athens.

Before her swansong race in the 2000 Sydney Olympics she "pulled her hamstring" and while she still ran, she didn't get out of her heat. After that, she retired. "It was time for me to retire. I wasn't enjoying it as much, the last year. If the Olympics had come a year earlier, I think it would have been better for me."

When her fellow Waterford native Thomas Barr finished a surprise fourth in the 400m hurdles final in the Rio Olympics, he faced questions over whether he was clean. Did Smith-Walsh face similar questions with her fast rise?

"I don't think anyone ever said that to me," she says. "When I was running, if I believed that everybody around me was on drugs then I couldn't compete. That would be just heartbreaking to think you're the only one not cheating.

"I always felt like I just needed to go out there and do what I could and know I was clean. I couldn't train any more than I was training. I felt like it was a very personal journey and I did everything I could do for myself and I know I'm honest."

Since retiring in 2000, Smith has been living in Atlanta with her husband, Ryan, and their four children - Conor, Claire and twins Sally and Sean. Besides jogging the odd half-marathon with friends, she says she doesn't run much.

Her legacy is still here in the record books - her personal best of 54.31 from 1998 remains the Irish record today. She says she hopes it gets overtaken soon.

"You know it's time, it's time for it to be broken. I hope somebody out there could break it."

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