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Athletics legend Gillian impressed by Adeleke and co.

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Eamonn Fitzgerald catches up with Irish race walking legend Gillian O’Sullivan to discuss Ireland’s recent success at the European Athletics Championships

“The nation holds its breath,” said RTÉ commentator George Hamilton during Ireland’s quarter-final penalty shootout with Romania in 1990, and David O’Leary’s historic spot-kick. Those were the glory days of the Charlton era.

Well, the Irish sporting nation held its breath once more last week during the European Athletics Championships and the heroics of Ciara Mageean, Rhasidat Adeleke, Sharlene Mawdsley, Thomas Barr and Chris O’Donnell as they won two gold and two silver, a mighty haul for this small nation.

Who better to speak to on this topic than Killarney’s own Gillian O’Sullivan, herself a silver medallist in the 2003 World Championships in Paris?

The Minish race walker also set the unofficial world record in the 5000m walk in Santry, Dublin in 2002, which was thankfully later ratified by the IAAF. Her record stands. That was a magnificent achievement.

Her silver in Paris was the first time since 1995 that an Irish athlete had won a World Championship medal. She was one of the main contenders for Ireland to win a medal in the Olympics in Athens in 2004 in the 20km walk but suffered an injury to her lower back before the games that prevented her from taking part. She retired in April 2007 after enduring years of injuries.

EF: Gillian, the recent successes of the Irish athletes in Rome must have had you holding your breath.

GOS: It was unbelievable for the Irish athletes right from when Ireland won the gold in the mixed relay and then of course Ciara (Mageean) striking gold and Rhasidat winning silver. It is so difficult to even qualify for the final of the events when you look at the world-class competitors at the European Championships.

It was a huge boost for athletics in Ireland and particularly so for the ladies. What that will do for the current Irish athletes in all sports and for the young children sampling other sports is unbelievable.

Killarney Valley AC are making huge strides in New Road, not just with international stars such as Sarah Leahy, and now Oisín Lynch who is heading off on a scholarship to the USA, but also the many club members, young and not-so-young, who are always progressing to even better PBs. That is how it all started for you above in the Spa field many years ago.

Yes, indeed, I started out in the Spa/Muckross Community Games, and I can thank the support I got from my family and those Community Games volunteers in Spa/Muckross who put so much time and effort into encouraging us to participate and improve to win medals. Not just in Kerry but in the national finals at Butlins in Mosney. Those were great days that I cherish.

We rarely heard of race walking until you hit the headlines. Why this event?

I’m not so sure how I specialised in this event, but it just seemed to suit me better than the sprints or the long distance running. Somehow I got good at it, improved and took it on from there.

When I went on to college (UCC) I continued and was fortunate to get good coaching. Rob Heffernan (now an RTÉ athletics pundit) was also making his mark as a road walker. We were a great help to each other as we were competing in all those big races at that time.

You brought great honour to yourself, your family, Killarney and Ireland by winning the silver medal in Paris in the World Championships.

Yes, it was very special to win any medal competing against the best in the 20k walk. It was so competitive, as all of these races are, and it all came together for me that day. You need a lot of luck, of course; timing your run, following your race plan and delivering at the tape.

That memory lives on in a special way near your home at Minish. Visitors arriving from Cork see that Killarney has a world silver medallist as that roundabout in Lissivigeen is named in your honour. Your close neighbour Mick Gleeson, himself an All-Ireland winner, realised the value of your achievements and secured the naming of the roundabout during his time in political life.

Mick was always very supportive and helpful in every way. He appreciated the value of sport.

That was a high, but just like life itself, there are also lows. In the run-up to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, you were in the form of your life and were pinpointed as a real medal prospect for Ireland, until…

As you said there are highs and lows and in the long-term preparation for the Olympics things were going very well. I trained very strategically to peak for the Olympics, got plenty of rest, ate the right foods at the right times and it was all good until I was struck with an injury.

At first it was a setback but I felt all would be well by the time the Olympics came around. It wasn’t to be, and the injury didn’t clear up. I had to make the tough but inevitable decision to pull out. That was devastating as any sportsperson will tell you, having to withdraw from the day you looked forward to so much. That’s sport.

With the maturity of recollection, you appreciate the good days and the fact that you were healthy enough to participate, even if you didn’t win a medal. Most athletes in a race don’t win a medal.

Generally in the past, the misogynistic trait in too many males meant that praise for female athletes, whenever it was given, was done so with begrudgery. Thankfully, that is changing and continues to change thanks to the recent European Championships, successful world-class athletes like yourself, and Kerry LGFA, to mention but a few.

Attitudes are changing and it’s all for the good. I have great admiration for the Irish ladies soccer team and Kerry LGFA who really impress me with their standard of play. It’s not that many years ago when the Kerry ladies had to fight their corner to get basic facilities for training and travel allowances.

What about the vitriol Rhasidat has had to suffer on social media?

Those faceless begrudgers, those hurlers on the ditch who spill out their negativity and hide from their own realities knowing nothing about sport or its values. Their abuse is despicable.

Now for the hard question, Gillian: what does sport mean to you and why is it valuable in your life?

There are great physical advantages, where you learn to take care of your body and live a healthy lifestyle. There is great rivalry in a race but look at all the friendships you make for life. That was very obvious in the European Championships. Not only were the Irish athletes knitted together as an Irish team, but the TV cameras showed the camaraderie and sheer delight when they won. They were enjoying themselves and were united in sport.

That’s one of the great values of sport and it also prepares you well for life. Sport helps us to face the many challenges and stresses in life that we all encounter at some time or another.

And that feeds in directly into your own business as a personal trainer in Carrigaline. (Gillian is married to Anthony Kelly and they have one son, 12-year-old Tom whose sporting interests are horse riding and swimming). Although your business is not confined to sportspeople alone…

No not at all. In fact, many of my clients are not sportspeople per se. They are ordinary people who want to regulate their lives, take responsibility for preserving it and appreciating it. For some, it's an exercise plan and to know how to follow that to get fitter and consequently feel better and enjoy life. They want to feel better about themselves. They may be under certain stresses of one kind or another and want to learn coping mechanisms to deal with these.

Women are usually better at getting their health checked regularly which is the correct thing to do. However, more men are taking up that good advice and that is a very good thing for everyone.

Your parents Alice and Pat as well as your siblings Thomas, Michael, Paul and Maria who supported you throughout your magnificent sporting career must be equally proud of your wonderful work promoting health awareness. The Irish phrase says it best: ‘Níl sa saol ach seal, lá thuas lá thíos’ (Life is only a period of time, one day up, one day down.)

And it just dawns on me now, that Gillian O’Sullivan and Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh, two of the best-known Kerry sports stars, have the traditional Irish natural red hair, but it takes more than that colour to reach the top in their respective sports. Mná Chiarraí chun tosaigh arís.

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‘There’s definitely more in me’ – Leahy feeling positive after close-run thing at nationals

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Kerry woman Sarah Leahy chats to Adam Moynihan about her recent outing at the National Outdoor Championships in Dublin. The Killarney Valley AC sprinter competed with the best of the best, including new Irish record holder Rhasidat Adeleke.

Adam Moynihan: You recently took part in the 100m final at the National Championships. How was that experience for you?

Sarah Leahy: Atmosphere-wise it was absolutely amazing. Just very good energy all around. And coming out for the final, obviously, Rhasidat brought a massive crowd. So that was really cool to be a part of because I don’t think there’s ever been a crowd that big at nationals before. To be in the final where so many people were there to watch her was obviously amazing.

What about the race itself?

I came fifth and ran a time of 11.74. On the day, with the whole excitement of it all, I was actually really happy with that. I was a bit disappointed but I was like, it’s a great day overall. I ran well, didn’t get a medal but I was really close. I didn’t get the perfect start like I did in the heat. So I was a little bit behind, but I just managed to come fifth in the end.

A week on, the excitement has kind of worn off, and I think there’s definitely a lot more in me. I could’ve pipped the third place But yeah, it is what it is. It was still good. I’m happy with it.

It was very tight for third place, wasn’t it?

Yeah, it was two-or-three-hundredths of a second and it was a blanket finish for four of us. So it was close but no cigar. Not this time. I came fifth last year as well, so I was hoping for at least fourth this year, but it ended up being the same. At least it wasn’t sixth! And there’s definitely more in me as well. Time-wise I’m just waiting for it to kind of happen a little bit. I believe it will. It was amazing to be in a race where a national record was broken.

And the standard was obviously very high across the board. All the big names were there.

It was a very high standard, yeah. Going in we kind of knew that first and second were gone (to Adeleke and Sarah Lavin). Everyone else was battling for that third medal and only one person could get it in the end. (Mollie O’Reilly got the bronze.) We were all close.

But overall I was super grateful to be in the mix, especially in a race that was that big. It’s one that will go down in history. It was a massive weekend and it was very enjoyable.

Rhasidat is a massive superstar now. What’s it like to run alongside her?

Rhasidat is a great athlete and a very nice girl. As you can see in interviews, she’s very humble. So to compete next to her, to literally be running in the lane right beside her, was amazing. I couldn’t have asked for more from the day in that respect. I thought she might have ran sub-11 because she did it before but she still got a national record. To be part of that race was a big deal for me.

Athletics in Ireland seems to be in a good place, particularly after the success the Irish team had in the recent European Championships in Rome. Does it feel like the sport is getting more attention and more recognition these days?

Oh 100%. Support for athletics has grown hugely in the last few years and I think it’ll continue to grow, especially with the success that Ireland had at the European Championships. I think the Olympics this year is going to drive that on even more because we have such great athletes going. The support is growing and rightfully so. The athletes are really getting the recognition they deserve. I think the future is very exciting for athletics in Ireland.

What about your own career? What’s next for you?

I have one last race of the season left, which is at the AAI Games on Sunday in Dublin. I’m hoping to just get a good run out, a good time, and execute the race well. Training will continue until the end of July, I’ll get a month off, and then we’re back training for indoors next year. I love indoors. I think I excel at that. There’s European Indoors and World Indoors next year, so to qualify for them would be a huge, huge goal.

As for outdoors, I’d like to get on the Irish relay team, but I’ll be focussing on indoors first. It should be a good year.

Are you enjoying it?

Yeah, I’m really enjoying it. I think sometimes you might put too much pressure on yourself and try to get a PB in every race but this year I’ve really learned that I’ve done the training, so it will happen when it happens. Just go out and run and let your body do its thing. And I’m actually really enjoying competing this year. I know I’m going to continue enjoying it for the next few years.

With the surrounding support of the club and coaches and my training group, it’s all going really well for me at the moment. I have no complaints at all. I’m very lucky.

Thanks for your time, Sarah, and all the best for the rest of the season.

Thank you very much, Adam. It was lovely talking to you.

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Kingdom ladies hoping for repeat performance against Royals

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LGFA All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final

Kerry v Meath

Saturday 5.15pm

Austin Stack Park

Live on TG4

Just like they did in 2023, the Kerry ladies will take on Meath in the All-Ireland quarter-final in Tralee this weekend and a repeat of the result they earned that wintry day 12 months ago will do just fine.

Last year’s encounter at Stack Park was a classic game of two halves as the home team ran up a 10-point lead with the unseasonable elements at their collective back.

Meath, who at the time were on the hunt for their third All-Ireland in a row, fought back admirably in the second period but the Kerry women held firm and won by four (2-8 to 0-10) after an emotionally charged final quarter.

Síofra O’Shea was Kerry’s top scorer on the day with 1-1 and her return from injury in recent weeks is a major boost to Darragh Long and Declan Quill’s squad.

The Kingdom made light work of Meath when the sides met in the league in March as Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh kicked 0-8 in a 1-15 to 0-5 victory. Shane McCormack’s charges subsequently lost to Dublin in the Leinster final by 18 points before finishing second to Armagh in the All-Ireland group stage.

Marion Farrelly, Emma Duggan and Meadhbh Byrne caught the eye in their recent win over Tipperary, combining for 2-11 of the team’s total of 2-15.

Former Player of the Year Vikki Wall could be in line for a dramatic comeback after a spell with the Ireland Rugby Sevens team.

As for Kerry, they should arrive at the last eight in decent spirits having put in their best display of the season so far against Waterford three weeks ago. The Munster champions were excellent and eventually ran out 4-13 to 0-9 winners with skilful forward Hannah O’Donoghue (1-3) and all-action half back Aishling O’Connell (0-2) particularly impressive.

Meath are a capable opponent on their day, though, so another professional performance will be required if Kerry want to keep their All-Ireland dream alive.

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