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Mageean's star rising at speed

MENTION Albufeira to many Irish people and they'll immediately think sand, sunshine and scrumptious seafood.

The popular Algarve resort attracts hordes of tourists, many of whom might be surprised to hear that it has a famous cliff-top cross-country course that hosts a big Santa Claus fun-run annually and is also hosting the European Cross Country championships tomorrow.

The 'Caminhada do Pai Natal' (literally 'the march of Father Christmas') will provide tomorrow's curtain-raiser and less than two hours later in the women's junior race Ciara Mageean, Ireland's hottest young athletics prospect, will step on to the 'Acoteias' course hoping to breach a gap of 16 years.

That's how long it is since Catherina McKiernan won Ireland's one and only European cross-country title.

For all those fabulous memories of legendary Irish mudlarks like McKiernan, John Treacy and Sonia O'Sullivan, most of their big days came in World Championships and before the rising tide of African distance-running elbowed virtually everyone else off that podium.

The European event was started in 1994 because the continent's historic cross-country tradition was being so heavily eclipsed at world level by the Africans.


And since McKiernan's victory in the inaugural event at Alnwick in England, no other Irish athlete has won a title.

Ireland has actually won only six other medals since (three silver, three bronze) and only two of those came from individuals -- Gareth Turnbull and Fionnuala Britton.

Hopes soared this time last year when Ireland had 'home advantage', and yet Santry, despite its organisational success, still didn't produce one medal.

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Mark Kenneally's eighth was Ireland's best finish, while the senior women, in team-medal contention until the last lap, were heartbroken to wind up fourth.

This is why there is so much resting on the slim shoulders of a bubbly teenager from Portaferry tomorrow. Mageean has already been dubbed 'the next Sonia', a terrible burden considering she's still only 18 and hasn't yet started her college career.

However, she has already shown superstar potential. Last summer she was the only non-African (male or female) to medal in the middle and long-distance races at the World Junior Championships in Canada.

She not only split an Ethiopian and Kenyan when she won silver in the 1,500m final, but ran an astonishing 4:09.51 and forced the two Africans to also run personal bests.

American and home universities had already been queuing up for her signature, with interest being immediately sparked after she won an Irish senior indoor 1,500m title when she was just 15 and was 10th at the World Juniors (U-20) the same year.

There were further ripples in 2009 when she won silver at the World Youths and gold at the European Youth Olympics (EYO). She initially broke O'Sullivan's Irish junior 800m and then obliterated her junior 1,500m record when running 4:15.46 in the EYO, which also knocked over five seconds off the long-time championship record of one Gabriela Szabo, who beat Sonia to 5,000m gold in the Sydney Olympics.

A real home-spun ingenue, Mageean's elegant cross-country style, slight frame and modest personality are particularly reminiscent of McKiernan, though she is more outgoing.

McKiernan was the quintessential down-to-earth country girl, who was also a good camogie player and, famously, trained around the local GAA pitch in Cornafean.

Mageean is similarly deeply rooted in her local culture on the Ards peninsula and this year, despite sitting her A-levels and competing across the globe, she was fiercely proud to also win an Ulster Schools camogie All Star at midfield.

Camogie is in her genes as her dad Chris was a highly rated Down and Ulster hurler and mum Catherine also played minor camogie for the county. Not even combining two sports with a hectic school schedule has stopped her gallop.

Just getting to secondary school in Ballynahinch necessitated a daily ferry crossing of Strangford Lough plus a bus ride. One night a week she didn't come home at all, travelling to stay overnight with her aunt in Belfast, so she could do a weekly session on the Mary Peters track with her burgeoning young coach Eamonn Christie.

Christie has deliberately kept her training loads light so far and much of it has been done, like McKiernan before her, on grass around her local GAA pitch. The camogie will likely get knocked on the head soon, but Christie has had no qualms about it, saying the games not only gave her plenty of 30-40m sprints, but provided her with great camaraderie and a release from athletics' huge individual pressures.

Of course, many brilliant teenagers disappear down the gaping chasm between junior and senior athletics and, in an event dominated by Africans, there's a tough road ahead of her.

But Mageean wears the pressures lightly and the world is truly her oyster right now. Before she sat her A-levels, several NCAA coaches -- including Marcus O'Sullivan (of Villanova) -- had visited the family home and flown her to America to showcase their college wares.

In recent weeks an invitation to run in the prestigious Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden next month quietly popped into her email. She has taken a 'gap year' out this season to weigh up her options.

The second of four children whose older sister is studying medicine, she has serious academic aspirations and it looks increasingly likely that she will plump for an Irish or British university.

She also deferred her college start because she wanted to compete in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi last October, where, in her first senior international, she finished 10th in a world-class 1,500m final.

Mageean, typically, was initially disappointed with that, a mark of her ultra-competitive nature which should be to the fore again tomorrow.

Her own expectations in Albufeira?

"I never like to say what I'm going to do, but I was ninth last year and 17th the year before. I've made a good improvement since then, so, hopefully, I'll be able to better last year's finish," she said

A medal then? "Well, I'm gonna try!" Mageean grinned. "I enter every race trying to get on the podium."

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