Tuesday 23 October 2018

Talent-spotting efforts unearth future stars of Irish sprinting

McDermott wants athletics to keep up

Dermot McDermott and fiancee Caoimhe Ni Mhurchu with a triumphant Bernard Ibirogba from Kildare at last year’s Millrose Games
Dermot McDermott and fiancee Caoimhe Ni Mhurchu with a triumphant Bernard Ibirogba from Kildare at last year’s Millrose Games

Cathal Dennehy

It all started with a chat. It was late 2015 and Sligo's Dermot McDermott - an athlete, coach and athletics anorak - was shooting the breeze with Ray Flynn, the retired Irish miler who is now one of the world's leading agents.

Since 2013 Flynn had been director of the Millrose Games, the most famous indoor track meeting in the world, and McDermott was a long-time friend whose obsessive devotion to athletics bordered on derangement.

Dermot McDermott putting pupils of Colaiste Mhuire through their paces in Ballymote, Co Sligo
Dermot McDermott putting pupils of Colaiste Mhuire through their paces in Ballymote, Co Sligo

Flynn's event was set to host the finale of Fastest Kid on the Block, a competition run on the streets of New York that introduced kids to athletics in a fun environment, and then whittled them down to the fastest child in each of the five boroughs.

Wouldn't it be great, said McDermott, to run a similar programme in Ireland and reward the winners with a trip to New York to run at the Millrose Games? The seed was sown, and McDermott began negotiating with schools around Ireland to allow him in for a day to test what untapped talent was out there for Irish athletics.

He'd set up two speed gates 10 metres apart in school corridors and ask kids to sprint through them at full pelt, then later they'd do a standing long-jump - a simple way to gauge speed and power, the two key components of sprinting.

Those who recorded the best numbers were invited to a national final where they raced over 60m for the trip to New York. That first year, McDermott visited 24 counties, tested 5,500 kids, and did it all at his own expense.

Many years ago he was an employee of Athletics Ireland, but McDermott's free-spirited approach was never at home in such an environment, where change often occurs at a glacial rate.

Even now, when he observes the tug-of-war for talent in towns and villages around Ireland, he believes the association is being out-muscled by rival sports.

"They think having 60,000 members is good but it's not, it's sh**e," he says.

"What I find in schools is we don't even have the 10th-fastest kid in the class in our sport. It all comes back to talent."

In 2016 McDermott took a three-month hiatus from work and with the backing of fiancée Caoimhe, he'd load up his car and visit as many schools as possible.

"She said go ahead and do it," he recalls. "I'd do the schools during the week and she'd come with me at weekends when we'd visit clubs. We'd drive to Waterford or Cork and turn it into a bit of a road trip."

In total 20,000 kids ran through his speed gates that year and Bernard Ibirogba, an eight-year-old from Kildare, ended up beating New York's fastest kids at the Millrose Games last February with his proud parents watching trackside.

Investment

That was made possible through the investment of Richard Donovan, an Irish ultra-runner who organises the Antarctic Ice Marathon each year. But McDermott also burnt a hole deep in his own pocket, which forced him to scale things back considerably this year.

He ran the programme again in Sligo, Galway and parts of Roscommon, whittling more than thousand kids down to the fastest two - Mila Clancy and Tiernan Cooke - who will compete at the Millrose Games in Manhattan on Saturday along with four teenagers from Sligo, who will run the high school girls' 4x200m relay.

In his work with various clubs, McDermott knows the methods needed to bring kids to athletics and he's long tried to convince Athletics Ireland to adopt his system.

In recent months he secured funding to set up new clubs in Roscommon, a sign their relationship is thawing out.

"I keep saying it to (Athletics Ireland CEO) John Foley: in order for the sport to benefit we have to work together. I have a model that works and gets kids into the sport. The three clubs I have are booming. But if you want to get kids into running, you have to gift-wrap it in a certain way to compete with other sports."

If McDermott can get financial support next year, he'd love to go bigger than ever, but at 36 he knows he can't always do it the way he has been - for just the love of the sport.

"I say every year this will be the last, but it's an addiction, a buzz," he says. "I can't not do it."

Irish Independent

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