Wednesday 22 May 2019

'If there's one thing I learned, it's that you don't depend on Athletics Ireland for anything'

Joe Sweeney back on glory trail after two nightmare years of illness cost him his grant

Cliona Foley

HE was a young international who virtually disappeared from his sport for two years, yet few from Irish athletics' officialdom rang to ask why.

There are those who feel that Joe Sweeney (25) could probably have been more vocal himself about his problems and he's quite philosophical about it now.

"If there's one thing I learned from the last two years is that you don't depend on Athletics Ireland for anything, you've got to be self-sufficient," he says.

As if to prove that point, he spent much of this week clearing his college assignments in order to fly out independently to Portugal this weekend, a full week ahead of competing in next weekend's European Cross-Country Championships in Albufeira.

Sweeney had borrowed some money to buy new runners but has decided it will be better spent on training in a more favourable climate, not least after close encounters of a scary kind with a juggernaut on a snowbound motorway early in a week in which the entire nation has come to a standstill.

An Irish schools champion at cross-country and 3,000m, who was eighth in the 5,000m at the European U-23 Championships in 2007, Sweeney had mystifyingly ground to a halt himself 18 months ago.

Last Sunday, on a sub-zero snowfield in Derry, the rangy Dundrum South Dublin star emphatically bounced back, leaving the field trailing as he romped home to his first Irish senior title at the national (inter-county) cross-country.

The last time he'd raced seriously was in the same event two years ago.

From a Blackrock family that has largely produced rugby forwards and Gaelic players, Sweeney initially decided to join the local athletics club "because I was a bit of a podger as a kid!"

Hitching his wagon to Dundrum South Dublin's top athletics nursery meant he wasn't long progressing and scholarship offers came from the US.

But most came from business schools and Sweeney's interests were largely scientific.

He started with a degree in industrial microbiology at UCD and has taken several divergent post-grad tangents since coming to his current masters in computer programming.

Sweeney could certainly have found plenty of academic excuses for his drastic drop in form in 2008 but didn't.

Over-training, the curse of so many distance runners, was the likeliest root of the severe anaemia that knocked him for six.

The worse Sweeney ran, the harder he trained; it was a classic vicious circle.

"I'd probably pride myself on how much I can take but that kind of mentality only made me worse," he admits. "I never stopped training, thought it was just in my head, that I was getting soft.

"Eventually I was so embarrassed at how crap I was that I stopped going to training," he confesses.

"Eddie (McDonagh, his DSD coach) was great, he kept ringing the whole time but I literally couldn't face him. I told him I was burnt out, mentally, which I really thought I was."

The vicious circle quickly descended into a desperate spiral.

He couldn't sleep so was overdosing on coffee until he was sleeping only two hours a night and waking up bathed in sweat.

After avoiding the club for three or four months he eventually sidled into Jerry Kiernan's mixed training group in Belfield.

The straight-talking Olympic marathon runner welcomes all waifs and strays, irrespective of standard, as long as they're passionate and committed, so it seemed like the ideal port in Sweeney's storm.

But after watching him do some work and observing his ghostly pallor, Kiernan quickly told him: "Joe, go home and rest!"

"There were some 40-year-old women marathoners in the group and they were dropping me," Sweeney recalls.

Kieran quickly referred him to Dr Joe Conway (Athletics Ireland's chief medical officer) and blood tests soon confirmed his problem.

"My haemoglobin count was seven and it's 16 now, so my oxygen-carrying capacity was halved," he explains.

But it was his depleted ferritin levels that raised the red flag. Ferritin is the protein that stores and releases iron in the body.

Sweeney's ferritin level was 27 (it's now 120), and though it was immediately boosted by a three-day hospital stay for an intravenous iron infusion, it dropped dramatically again not long afterwards.

While testing continued Sweeney cut out coffee completely and began to turn the corner.

They're still not sure if he's allergic to caffeine but his recovery, to his disgust, has included grimly embracing herbal tea. "I get to have a decaff once a month now, if I'm lucky!"

As the iron coursed back through his system, so too did his strength.

"Jerry called me Lazarus," he laughs. He's now coached by Kiernan, who describes him affectionately as "a middle-class kid with a country boy's mentality."

From the hardy Listowel man that's a real compliment; it indicates Sweeney doesn't look for short-cuts or handouts. He certainly sought none from Athletics Ireland but was shocked, in the throes of his slump, to discover he'd been dropped from the national 'development' squad, which earned him a €5,000 grant in 2008.

"I rang up about the last €1,250 instalment and was told there'd been a meeting three or four weeks earlier and I'd been cut from the scheme," he says.

"I can't imagine any business where they'd drop you, or fire you, and don't actually tell you.

"Don't get me wrong, there's some great people in Athletics Ireland, like Anne Keenan-Buckley, Brother Dooley and Dr Joe Conway but no one else contacted me, or asked what was wrong, and I thought that was a shame.

"It felt like they supported me when I was doing well but what I've learnt is that it's when things are going badly, that's when you really need the support."

Still he's not the type to harbour a grudge and is euphoric after winning his first senior title and reclaiming an Irish vest.

"He's madly enthusiastic, does terrific tempo runs of 10-15 miles at a handy clip, and is clearly in athletics for the long haul," says Kiernan, who believes Sweeney's eventual metier will be the marathon.

"I know loads of lads who gave up this sport so they could go and have fun," Sweeney reflects.

"I could never understand that until I was sick. But now that I'm healthy I could never think that way again. I love running, always have, it's always just been about the running for me."

Irish Independent

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