Saturday 19 January 2019

Ultra-talented Healy eyeing a medal in showdown with the best of Europe

Sarah Healy. Photo: Sportsfile
Sarah Healy. Photo: Sportsfile

cathal Dennehy

Without question, this will be the biggest test of her fledgling career, a tough and thorough examination of Sarah Healy's class and courage.

In both departments, the 17-year-old Dubliner has never been found wanting, although there's a reason it's been six years since Ireland claimed an individual medal at the European Cross Country Championships - they don't come easy.

The last to do so was Fionnuala McCormack - absent this year after recently giving birth - who struck gold in the senior women's race in 2011 and 2012. But in Healy, they appear to have unearthed a suitable successor, a runner with a rare combination of gifts: a range of gears that can swiftly knife rivals on the track and an endurance engine that can slow-roast them over the longer distances of cross country.

Tomorrow morning in the Netherlands, she will attempt to do the latter to Europe's best teenagers, churning through the mud at the Beekse Bergen Safari Park in Tilburg, which has seen steady rain over the past two days.

She will face an assortment of more experienced athletes in the U-20 women's 4,300m, the first of seven races which will see a total of 40 Irish athletes in action. Healy has the best medal chance.

To succeed, Healy will have to produce a performance that belies her youth, something she has been doing all year.

In June she clocked an astonishing 4:09.25 for 1500m, a time that only one U-18 athlete in the world - Kenya's Edinah Jebitok - has come within five seconds of this year. In February she cruised away from Rio Olympian Kerry O'Flaherty to win the Irish senior indoor 3000m title in 9:10.43, carving 18 seconds off the Irish U-20 indoor record.

Then, in July, she went to Hungary and made a late decision to enter the 3000m in addition to her usual event, the 1500m, at the European U-18 Championships. She won gold in both with breathtaking ease.

But this is an altogether different test, against very different athletes. Her biggest rival will be Switzerland's Delia Sclabas, who won two bronze medals at the World U-20 Championships and has key form on this course, winning the junior race at the Warandeloop Cross Country in recent weeks.

Then there is Jasmijn Lau, the Dutch 19-year-old who was the subject of one of the more bizarre anti-doping cases in recent years. She tested positive for a prohibited substance after winning the European U-20 5000m title last year but was not suspended after proving it was ingested from a tea her friend had given her as a gift after a trip to South America.

Healy was ultra-impressive in winning the Irish U-20 title a fortnight ago, though she will have to go to a place she's never been to do the same to this field. But with two more cracks at the same race in 2019 and 2020, there's really no such thing as failure at this stage of her career.

"I'm going to go out there and race it, give myself a good chance and see what happens," said Healy, who admits it will present a much bigger challenge than the European U-18 Championships she dominated with such ease. "But I think this is less daunting because there's less pressure. The competition is better but it's less scary."

Her race will be streamed live on the European Athletics website at 9:30am, with delayed coverage on RTÉ Two when they go live for the senior races.

The Irish senior teams will be led by Ciara Mageean and Kevin Dooney, though it will come as a huge surprise if either team contends for a medal, particularly with the rule change last year that sees only the top three athletes score in the team event.

The men's U-23 team, which includes promising 20-year-old Brian Fay and two US-based athletes in Ryan Forsyth and Jack O'Leary, looks capable of a medal.

Stephen Scullion was a late withdrawal from the senior men's team after picking up a viral infection while travelling, with Damien Landers drafted in as a worthy replacement.

European Cross Country Championships:

Live, tomorrow, RTE Two 12.0; European-athletics.org 9:30

Timetable (all times Irish) - U-20 Women 9:45. U-20 Men 10:05. U-23 Women 10:35. U-23 Men 11:05. Senior Women 12:35. Senior Men: 1:10. Mixed Relay: 1:55

Irish Independent

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