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The former footballer set to be one of Sligo's first Olympians

Chris O’Donnell was a part of the mixed 4x400m relay team that sealed Ireland’s qualification earlier this month.

Ireland's Chris O'Donnell (file pic).
Ireland's Chris O'Donnell (file pic).
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Updated at 12.35

CHRIS O’DONNELL SAYS that Ireland’s qualification for the Olympics in the 4×400 mixed relay was the result of “over a year” of planning, but on some level, he has spent most of his life preparing for that incredible moment on 1 May.

He was far from a typical kid growing up. Entering his teens, he made a conscious choice to avoid nightclubs and alcohol.

However, O’Donnell’s dreams initially revolved around a career in professional soccer rather than athletics.

He caught the eye playing for local side Benbulben FC as a speedy winger and was talented enough to represent Sligo/Leitrim Youth Schoolboys League at the prestigious Kennedy Cup underage competition in 2012.

If he were coming through now, O’Donnell might easily have been snapped up by a League of Ireland club, but at that time, there were only teams playing from U19 level onwards.

Had it not been for his early soccer-playing exploits though, it’s unlikely O’Donnell would now be preparing for the Olympics, as he initially only took up athletics as a means of improving himself as a footballer.

“I was encouraged then to join the local athletics club where I just aimed to use that solely for my football — the sprint training,” he tells The42. “I was hesitant at first to participate in some competitions. In the end, I gave in and went to the Connacht Championships. I started doing well there, eventually onto All-Irelands and then we made it up into the Irish schools’ team to represent Ireland at U16.

“While I had ambitions in football, it got to a stage where I was on the Irish team for running and it was just very difficult to give that up.

“So I gave the running one year — it turned out really well — and I just haven’t looked back since.”

There has long been a debate about the merits of early specialisation in a particular sport versus playing several different games as a child, and naturally, O’Donnell firmly considers the latter to be the ideal option.

“There are a lot of things from playing football that I’d say still stands to me to this day,” he says. “I’ve built a very strong aerobic base from all the years of playing. That helps now in my training. A lot of dynamic movement I would have learned from playing other sports.

“I’d certainly encourage other kids to play as many sports as possible. When you’re younger you don’t want to specialise, there’s no need.

“I used to run against some absolute superstars at U15 or U16 level. I couldn’t get near them and I was thinking: ‘How on earth am I going to beat this guy?’ Then, two years later, he’s out of the sport. That kind of sums it up — they were specialists early.

“You have all the time in the world. You want to focus on your senior career. You don’t need to specialise until you’re at least 16. I’ve seen it happen too often, guys that were miles ahead of me at underage level and now, unfortunately, they’re not even playing sport anymore.”

He continues: “My family were all football fans, so that’s where my background in football came from. It’s certainly something I’d like to give a go at again after running and see where I end up because I can’t see myself not playing a sport, to be honest.

“But I’ve got some goals still to achieve in running and I’m focused on those.”

rio-olympic-games-2016-day-fifteen Usain Bolt was one of O'Donnell's childhood idols. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

O’Donnell says a passion for sport influenced his decision to focus on pursuing a high-level career in that sphere from an early age.

“I grew up watching sport — Usain Bolt at the Beijing Olympics, my favourite Premier League footballers, that’s just what I took to. While a lot of my friends would have gone down the route of going on nights out, I just said: ‘Look, I’m going to focus on my next training session or my next competition.’

“And up to this day, I still have that same attitude. And that’s not going to change — I don’t like to leave any stone unturned. When I go into a race, I don’t have any excuses. At the start line, I know I’ve given everything over the last 12 months. So I can’t say ‘I’ve only given 90% here or there.’ I’ve given myself the best chance.’”

The journey has been extremely challenging at times. Former athlete Derval O’Rourke recently was critical of the funding system, and O’Donnell echoes these concerns.

“The disappointing thing about the funding is that it functions as a reward system. So for example, you need to win your medals before you get supported.

“I would like to see more how they support the up-and-coming athletes, then they can go on and win the medals, rather than supporting them after they’ve done the job.

“I’m lucky to have parents who supported my career, but you see a lot of young up-and-coming talent and it’d be nice to see them supported, as they move through the toughest part of their career, from junior to senior level.

“If they’re supported,  it would make life a lot easier and they wouldn’t have to deal with the stresses of thinking about college and that sort of stuff all the time, as they have to do.

“You have to make your way abroad, flights, accommodation, get your races in there. We go abroad to race top-level athletes in better weather. We also go on warm-weather training camps at Christmas and Easter time.  

“If you haven’t made it already, then you’ll be funding all of that yourself. So a lot of athletes who wouldn’t have the support team around them would probably end up leaving the sport or getting a bit disheartened and not giving 100%.”

O’Donnell himself has spent the last few years studying sports science at Loughborough University while working under former athlete Michael Baker.

Describing it as “the best university in the world for sport,” he has split his degree over several years and is happy to admit that his focus is on training rather than academics “first and foremost”.

The uncertainty prompted by the coronavirus outbreak was tough, as was being isolated from his family back in Ireland, but O’Donnell is happier now that facilities are more readily available and it is looking as if the Tokyo Olympics will belatedly be going ahead.

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sppoland-chorzow-athletics-world-athletics-relays Chris O'Donnell, Sharlene Mawdsley, Thomas Barr, Phil Healy (L to R) of Ireland react after the 4x400 metres relay. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

His patience during this taxing period was finally rewarded earlier in the month. Along with Phil Healy, Sharlene Mawdsley and Thomas Barr, and substitutes Andrew Mellon and Sophie Becker, O’Donnell was part of the Irish team that finished with the fourth fastest overall time in Chorzow, Poland, thereby securing a place in Tokyo.

“Obviously, we had the big disappointment last year of the Olympics getting cancelled and those plans went out the window. To do it one year on probably makes it even sweeter.

“Because we hadn’t run as a four together, and were ranked one of the lowest seeds, other countries wouldn’t really have feared us. But we knew that if everyone ran to their best on the day, then we would have had a chance. And that was definitely the case. Everything came together. We actually did even better than our expectations. We would have taken a top-eight finish that would have meant qualification for the Olympics. So while we believed we could do it, we probably didn’t think we could come fourth overall. We finished ahead of some very big nations as well. 

“We were drawn in a semi-final with Brazil, Britain and Germany, so no matter what, it’s always going to be tough. We really put it up t0 them and the four of us ran our hearts out.” 

The team is, in the Sligo athlete’s words, a “nice blend of youth and experience”. 

At 23 and 22, O’Donnell and Mawdsley are still relatively inexperienced at the highest level, though they are complemented by more seasoned internationals in Healy (26) and Barr (28).

“Looking back on Thomas at Rio [during the 2016 Olympics] was just inspirational,” he adds. “To be on the same team as someone like that, it’s just going to spur you on.

“So when I look across in the call room and I see these three amazing athletes next to me, we’re just giving each other confidence because we all believe in each other.

“You talk about Thomas — the idea for me was to get the baton to him on the last leg with us in contention. We gave him a lead, which was probably beyond anyone’s expectations. We knew that if we can get him [in a favourable position], not so much ability on the last leg, but simply with his experience and know-how, he wasn’t going to let us down.”

So barring injury or poor form, O’Donnell is likely to be part of the Irish team again at the Olympics this summer.

“It’s a dream come true. Especially as someone from Sligo, we had our first Olympian two weeks ago in Mona McSharry [since John Joe Dykes in 1924]. So it’s like I said, ‘I’ll have to get my act together here’ when she qualified.

“It’s like buses. We had a very long wait for a Sligo Olympian. For two to come at once is amazing. The reaction home is always good, but this has been something else, to be fair.

“The community from the village in Grange and Sligo [in general] has really got behind us — I’m thankful for that as well. And I’m also thankful that my dream could be coming true in a couple of months with some more hard work, fingers crossed.”

Consequently, after many years characterised by perseverance and discipline, O’Donnell believes there is one invaluable lesson that any athlete can take from his story.

“Stick at it, because you don’t know when your time will come and don’t be too disheartened if you’re not winning races by a mile when you’re 12 years old. You don’t have to. It’s more for fun at that stage. Your time will come if you keep working.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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