Sunday 27 May 2018

O’Rourke out to prove age is no barrier

Derval O’Rourke is convinced that she can still compete at the highest level
Derval O’Rourke is convinced that she can still compete at the highest level
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

ANY faint hope Derval O'Rourke might have had that the life she leads might get a little easier with age were promptly dashed by a sharp rap on her hotel room door at 8.0 yesterday morning.

She didn't arrive in Gothenburg until Wednesday so being disturbed by drug testers at stupid o'clock the next morning was hardly the ideal start to these European Indoor Championships for her.

O'Rourke wasn't the only one inconvenienced, as Irish team-mates Brian Gregan and Ciaran O'Lionaird were also among those asked to do blood tests. But for the Leevale star, it was the last thing she needed ahead of the single toughest racing schedule of her stellar career.

In the entire time O'Rourke has been competing, never has the former World Indoor champion and two-time European silver medallist been asked to run heats, semi-finals and a final in the same day, which is what she's faced with today.

It is an outrageous championship schedule for all the athletes involved, and only time will tell whether O'Rourke's age (she turns 32 in May) will be a help or hindrance in such a slap-dash schedule.

SENSATIONAL

Her sensational World Indoor triumph in 2006 may have catapulted her into the big time but it was her silver medal in the European outdoors, in this very city, later that year that confirmed her class, so she has fond memories of Gothenburg.

O'Rourke is fully aware of the jungle drums. After failing to make the World Indoor and London Olympic finals last year she knows there are those who glance at her DOB and reckon she's freewheeling down the wrong side of the hill now.

Yet, anyone writing off the feisty Cork sprint hurdler should take a look at the wallpaper on her iPhone.

It is a snapshot of her in action in last summer's Olympic semi-final, attacking the third hurdle at a point in the race when she is only trailing one person – eventual Olympic champion Sally Pearson.

Given everything that happened in London – Athletics Ireland's high performance boss Kevin Ankrom questioned the timing of her arrival to competition and a betting controversy surrounded her boyfriend, Olympic sailor Peter O'Leary – no one would have been surprised if she'd fired her spikes into the Thames and had a complete meltdown.

But O'Rourke doesn't do tantrums and has never been a quitter. That freeze-frame on her phone, and subsequent reviews of her semi-final performance, have absolutely convinced her that only the fatal error of leaning back on the sixth hurdle stopped her from having the run of her life in London.

"My last three hurdles were phenomenal, my first five were the fastest I've ever run in my life, if I could just pull it all together it would be lovely."

As usual, she pulled out a season best (12.91) in that Olympic semi-final and 12.71 actually made the final.

Success in her game is measured in fractions of a second but she is convinced she can still improve and still bring home more medals.

She was similarly written off after the Beijing Olympics only to bounce back and finish fourth in the 2008 World Championships (outdoors) before winning her second European silver the following summer.

That was preceded by a European bronze indoors in Turin in 2009, and even two years ago, when she was far from flying, she missed a bronze medal in the European Indoors in Paris by just 0.13 of a second, confirming that championship racing inevitably draws the best from her.

Convinced that she has still more to find and more to give, she is full of hope again, with London firmly consigned to history, undoubtedly helped by her happy and eclectic personal life.

She and O'Leary exorcised their Olympic demons by holidaying and fishing in west Cork and are now engaged and will marry next September. An avid cook and blogger on food, O'Rourke did a stint in cookery school last autumn and loved it.

Most remarkably, perhaps, she lined out for her club Leevale in the national league finals in Tullamore just 12 days after that Olympic semi-final but, in typical forthright fashion, she underlined that was mutually beneficial.

"It was just so refreshing, just what I needed, because it's just so pure at that level," he said. "Everyone involved in it is there for the right reasons, they just love it and just want to see you doing well."

NEMESIS

She's in the first heat today which includes four women who have all run faster than her season-best 8:08, including her old Turkish nemesis Nevin Yanit – the only European to make the London Olympic final – who pipped her for gold in Barcelona and retained her European title last year.

It also contains Belgium's Eline Berings, a former European Indoor champion who, like Yanit, has also run sub-eight this year.

O'Rourke's Irish record of 7.84 dates from 2006 but she is already running faster than she was this time last season and ran sub-eight in 2011.

With four automatic qualifiers plus four fastest losers, she should easily make the semi-finals but once there will need to go sub-eight to progress.

It is another 31-year-old, Russia's Yuliya Kondakova, who leads the European rankings with 7.93, followed by Belarussian Alina Talay on 7.94.

O'Rourke has repeatedly said that this summer's European outdoors are her real focus this year which, significantly, take place in Moscow.

Seven years ago she won her first European silver in Gothenburg off the back of that amazing indoor breakthrough in Russia and those same cities now converge fatefully.

Every quick glance at her iPhone convinces O'Rourke that she's far from finished and you cannot escape the feeling that she's hoping a combination of form and fate will help her prove that.

European Indoor Championships,

Live, BBC 2, 9.0 & 3.40

Irish Independent

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