Sinead Kissane: Romantic rise of Akpe-Moses tied to a love-hate affair
Golden memories from Community Games inspiring Louth woman to European glory
Gina Akpe-Moses remembers the first time sprinting sparked something within her. She was eight years old and was the youngest girl taking part in the U-10 100m at the Community Games in Mosney.
Competing for Louth, she finished second in her heat and semi-final but she wasn't happy with that. She ran in her socks for those races because spikes weren't allowed back then for Under-10s on the grass track. So, for the final, she took off her socks and ran in her bare feet. It worked - she won the final. It was her first national gold medal and it was a day athletics caught her imagination.
Akpe-Moses (Akpe is her dad's surname and Moses was her grandfather's name) is only 18 but she's spent a life-time adapting. She was around two-and-a-half when her parents, Sunday and Tina, decided to move to Ireland from Nigeria with her and her two older sisters, Jennifer and Joi. The family moved in search of better work and education opportunities.
During their four years living in Athlone her brother, Godson, was born and her youngest sister, Precious, was born when the family moved to Dundalk. Three years ago, her family moved again, this time to Birmingham in the UK, where she now lives and studies.
From a distance, Gina's gold medal in the 100m at the European Under-20 Championships last Friday week might seem like a bolt from the blue but her ability to handle the big occasion has been a few years in the making. At the European Juniors two years ago Gina didn't make it past the heats because she struggled with nerves.
Before she flew to Italy for the European Under-20s, she was shaking off injuries in both knees and so wasn't race-sharp but she forced herself to be mentally primed. "I got all my nerves over and done with before I went to Italy. I over-think a lot. So I thought, right get all the thinking done now. I had my little freak-out moment at home and there was a couple of tears.
"After that I was like 'ok, you've done it now don't bring this mindset with you to Italy because you know it's not going to help you'," Gina says. "So when I went to Italy I was so relaxed and so chilled. If you're too hard on yourself, it doesn't work out well".
For the past few years Gina has been unwrapping her talent and figuring out what puts her in a good mindset. And like Usain Bolt, who seems to find distraction a good form of relaxation, she worked out that if you subtract fear from performance then talent will find its form.
She was chosen by British Athletics to do an apprenticeship where she did a few sessions with a sports psychologist. It had a clarifying effect: "She (the psychologist) said to me if you have any negative thoughts, think through them, don't ignore them, don't let them build up."
Gina does an interview in such a style that she tells you what her inner voice has been saying, like when she spoke about how praying has a calming influence on her. On her Twitter bio is a quote: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
"Yeah I am religious. I make sure I pray before a race. Before I even went to Italy I said a little prayer and I was like 'God, everything I do is all down to you. It's in your hands now. Whatever happens I know that you already had it planned for me so I'm just going to go out and fulfil your wishes for me'," Gina recalls.
It's refreshing that Gina doesn't sugar-coat the bargain which comes with loving something - that all kinds of extreme emotions are created in equal measures. "I have a love-hate relationship with athletics. Whenever I speak about athletics to people, I say you can't really love the sport if you don't hate it as well. Because it comes with so many ups and downs."
Sounds like Gina has a lot figured out for someone so young. While she also has that bubbly nature of a teenager, her growing maturity is allied with the kind of innate sprinter's talent that we rarely see in Ireland. Renowned sprints coach John Shields trained Gina for four months before her family moved to Birmingham.
"She's a very powerful girl and she delivers a lot of power to the ground. All her muscles are fast-twitch muscles so basically when she hits the ground she hits it very quickly. She's very receptive and very well co-ordinated so when you teach her something she actually picks it up and does it," Shields says. "She's very special."
Standing on the podium in Grosseto, Italy and listening to Amhrán na bhFiann being played for her was the highlight of her winning the gold medal.
"I think hearing the national anthem that made me so happy. You hardly ever hear the Irish national anthem. So when you do hear it you think I've actually done something for the country. I couldn't stop smiling but I had to hold it in because I thought 'oh my gosh, I'm going to be on camera'," Gina laughs.
When she's in Ireland she runs with Louth club Blackrock AC and with Birchfield Harriers in the UK. It's not hard to imagine that she's on the radar of British Athletics.
"I haven't really thought of moving to British Athletics but I'm just sticking with Ireland," Gina confirms.
"I don't think it's necessary for me to leave unless something drastic happens but I think it's a bit unnecessary for me to leave at the moment anyways."
Gina remembers those moments after she won her first big race at the Under-10 100m in Mosney. The girl who had beaten her in the heat and semis finished second to her in the final and she burst into tears in disappointment after the race.
"I remember thinking to myself, awh, why she is crying? I felt so bad that she was upset that she didn't get to win. I wondered should I give her my medal."
Gina Akpe-Moses has given a lot. And has plenty more to give.