Family support, dedication and hard work have guided Olympic hopeful to first major championship
Back in June 1997, Dr Abdullahi El-Tom was interviewed by RTÉ presenter Mary Kennedy on her Saturday night chat show to talk about why he decided to learn Irish.
Dr Abdullahi was born in Darfur and moved from Sudan to Ireland seven years previously to work as a lecturer in anthropology in Maynooth University.
He was in Ballyferriter, Co Kerry when he first heard Irish spoken and he was so taken by the language that he returned to the Gaeltacht village on the Dingle peninsula a few times to learn Irish.
He told Kennedy that to understand Irish culture he wanted to understand the language and he’s been dipping in and out of learning Irish ever since.
It so happened that it was TG4 that broadcast the race meet that included his daughter on Wednesday afternoon. He sat down with his wife, Sheila Power, in their home in Templeogue to watch Nadia run in the World Indoor Tour event in Madrid. He understood most of the Irish commentary. “I won’t say I’m fluent but táim go maith,” he smiles.
Their daughter is doing more than ‘go maith’ these days. Such is the public buzz around Power (who turned 23 last month) that when she didn’t set a new national record for the third time in 25 days in Madrid on Wednesday there was almost a whiff of disappointment – unfair, of course – but that’s the kind of adrenaline that Power and co have us hooked into these days (her 2:01.55 for third place was still the second-fastest indoor time she’s run).
It’s been the most sensational month ever for Irish 800m female athletes. A recap: Power broke Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner’s 800m indoor record from 2018 on January 30 with a time of 2:02.44 in her first race of 2021 in Vienna. Eighteen days later, Power lowered it again with a 2:00.98 run in Torun, Poland.
In pure grip-lit fashion, Buttner responded four days later with 2:00.58 in a race in Arkansas, USA to reclaim the record. There are four Irish women inside the top 20 fastest times in the world this year – Buttner (7th), Power (10th), Georgie Hartigan (17th) and Louise Shanahan (19th) and there’s also Iseult O’Donnell (27th). The pity is that only three – Buttner, Power and Hartigan – can compete in next weekend’s European Indoors.
What helped put the strength into Power was a three-week training stint in Monte Gordo, Portugal last month. Enda Fitzpatrick has coached Power since 2017 but he’s had to make do with talking to her by the usual Zoom and phone. He’s a maths teacher so he wasn’t with her in Portugal but he organised for her to link in with a training group led by Swiss distance coach Louis Heyer.
On the track in Vile Real de San Antonio, Power trained with the likes of former European Indoor champion Selina Buchel, Sweden’s Lovisa Lindh and Joanna Jozwik of Poland. Fitzpatrick cross-checked his training programme for Power with Heyer’s and discovered only one real difference – for his 4x500m with eight minutes recovery session, Heyer had a 4x400m off six minutes recovery session.
“I told Nadia we continue to do the strength work on my training, but you are going to do every other session with his athletes. She went out on January 3 and she was there for three weeks. You sense from talking to her at the end of every day at training camp: ‘You know what, I’m well able to be with these girls. I think deep down I deserve to be here now’,” Fitzpatrick says. “Louis was reporting back to me every second or third session and he was even getting excited because he was telling me: ‘My God, that Irish girl is very strong’.”
There’s another layer of conviction in the family. Before they retired from their respective jobs two years ago, Sheila worked to provide cross-cultural programmes and services for non-nationals visiting Ireland. Dr Abdullahi never lost his ties with Sudan.
“Yes, I am an activist in the sense that I have been part of the political movements against the dictatorship in Sudan which fortunately succeeded and now Sudan is a democratic state. I was actually banned from going to Sudan for several years,” he says. “So yes, I am an activist when you take it from that side of my life. I committed to the struggle for democracy and human rights and justice in Sudan”.
He’s also proud of how his daughter spoke out about racism last year. “I think what Nadia talked about Black Lives Matter, this is a very forceful movement and I was delighted that Nadia was part of it and she spoke out also because this is perhaps going to influence her future. But the future is bright, the world is going in the right direction.”
Sheila says she used to try and manage Nadia’s expectations with races but she’s let that go. While Dr Abdullahi is only interested in athletics to watch her daughter, her mother would have a good idea of detail like what her race-plan will be.
On Wednesday, they were “nervous wrecks” waiting for Nadia to run. Sheila double-dipped and had TG4 on the TV and also the live stream of the event on her laptop to ensure nothing would be missed. If you’re wondering where the sport gene comes from, than look no further than Sheila.
“They see Nadia and they assume Abdullahi is the one with all the sporting genes but actually I come from Kilkenny, so sport is part of the make-up with specific reference to hurling!” says Sheila, who regrets not being able to travel to support their daughter.
“It’s killing us (to miss out), we’re both retired now since 2019,” Sheila says. “We have the time and we’re both healthy enough to travel but, unfortunately, Covid has stalled all of that. Hopefully, there’ll be many more opportunities”.
You only need to talk to her coach to get a read of how much potential Power has. But Fitzpatrick also talks with admiration of how well Power – who is the same age as his daughter, Eimear – has handled the last few months.
Not just the times Power ran and the records she broke, but everything around it as she zig-zagged around Europe to various race meets. The booking of flights, the Covid tests, the trains, the car-rentals, the Covid tests, the training, her DCU college work done online from abroad, the Covid tests, the bus journeys, the booking of Santry for training today, the Covid tests. Rinse, repeat.
The reward is the ranking points which have her well inside the top 48 to qualify for the Olympics. It seems only a matter of time before she joins Ciara Mageean in breaking two minutes.
“As soon as we run our first outdoor race in May/first two weeks in June, we’re going to run fast, we’re going to run very fast,” Fitzpatrick promises. “While the goal is to go to the Olympic Games, I don’t mind saying that it’s not just to go there.”
There are things Power already has: strength, discipline, focus. There are a few things Fitzpatrick wants to help improve: her speed, finishing kick, some biomechanics. And there are a few things Power doesn’t have, yet: super plate spikes or state funding.
Her sponsor, adidas, could have their new prototype spike out before the Olympics but Power’s been producing all these fast times with regular spikes.
Power isn’t a Sport Ireland-carded athlete. She is due an allocation of €8,000 from Athletics Ireland for 2021 but she may not receive that until next month or the month after, who knows.
But Nadia still has a power of support behind her. Her mother says none of them realised that she would take it to this level, as she prepares for her first major indoor championship next weekend. Like the words in a frame in her dad’s former office in Maynooth said: ‘People are all the same, except when they are different’.