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'From that day on, I knew she was special' - the people and places that made Ciara Mageean

The42 speaks to the coaches who helped shape the career of the star of County Down.

A GROUP OF school children in Down have just stepped off the ferry that brings them over and back to their home in Portaferry.

ciara-mageean Ciara Mageean was a star from when she was young. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

They’ve missed their connection bus after another day at Assumption Grammar in Ballynahinch, and must wait for the next one to come. They’ll be at the Strangford Lough ferry for about another half an hour.

That’s plenty of time for the kids to head down to the beach and start climbing on the rocks.

From any distance, they’re just regular teenagers. Among them though, is a star.

She’s already been marked out as a quality sporting talent, winning individual camogie accolades from the age of nine. She’s a regular sight on the Portaferry team, representing all the age grades from U14 up to senior.

A versatile player, she can play on any line but her preferred position is in the forwards.

She still calls it her first love in sport. Even now, she continues to pack hurls and sliotars for wherever her running schedule takes her, in the hope of fitting in a few pucks.

But that’s not what we get to see. We’ve come to know her in a different uniform.

Wearing the Irish singlet, Ciara Mageean has become a distinguished international athlete, and a household name. 

With the Olympics postponed until 2021, Mageean has survived the lockdown boredom by breaking longstanding national records. In July, she clocked a new national record and personal best of 1:59.69 over 800m in Switzerland.

That run made her the first Irish woman to break the two-minute mark in that event.

She crashed through another record last week, running the 1,000m in 2:31.06 at the Diamond League in Monaco. That’s over three-and-a-half seconds clear of Sonia O’Sullivan’s previous record which stretches back to 1993.

At this stage in her career, Mageean trains under running coach Steve Vernon in the UK. Manchester is her base, her current home. Dublin, where she studied for seven years, is another home.

Portaferry is home home.

Ciara Mag Ciara Mageean pictured with the Portaferry minor team in 2010. Source: Elizabeth Collins

Camogie’s loss, athletics’ gain

The hurling and camogie roots grow deep in Mageean and come from both sides of her family.

Both her parents played, while her father, Chris, was known as ‘The Hunter’ on account of his desire to get on the ball. Her aunt Edel Mason was a brilliant camogie player who holds the unique achievement of being the first camogie player to All-Ireland intermediate titles with two counties; Down and Antrim.

Mageean was surrounded by positive influences, but she didn’t rely on just the good genes.

“Ciara was the star,” says Mageean’s former camogie coach, Elizabeth Collins, who also taught Mageean biology in Assumption Grammar. Collins was also a passenger on that ferry over and back to school.

“She started playing when she was probably about eight. And from when she was playing, she was either one or two grades above her age group every year.  

“It’s a case of having the genes and then you have to have the focus and ability to work on what you’ve been given.

Don’t get me wrong, Ciara wasn’t a wee angel. She was like all the other children. She was in a group of girls who were, let’s say, mischievous.

“But when it came to training, Ciara just turned like that and she just focused totally and her aim was always to win.

“Players will come along and will develop to a certain stage but there are is also that one little gem who will come along who will stand out.”

Mageean often refers to her aunt Edel as her idol, and her first ambition in sport was to emulate her success on the GAA pitch. It didn’t quite work out that way as life brought Mageean down a different path, but Mason still played a part in her running career.

On the nights when Mageean attended running training in Belfast, she would stay at her aunt’s house instead of facing into a long journey back to Portaferry.

Mageean’s first running coach, Eamonn Christie, highlights Mason’s input while reminiscing on his days of mentoring Mageean.

“Her aunt doesn’t get enough credit,” says Christie.

“She lives in Belfast and on a Tuesday, she [Mageean] would have stayed with Edel and Edel would have brought her to the track, brought her home and made sure she had a nice hot dinner, and made sure she got to school the next day.

“Edel was as big a supporter as her Mum and Dad. All those people made it easy for me.”

Life was hectic for Mageean at that point. She was fitting in her running training on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday around her school and camogie commitments.

Sometimes, as Collins recalls, she tried to fit too much in and she advised her to ease up.

“She was such a talented person that she wanted to give 100% to everything. And if you’re trying to juggle all those balls in the air, something has to give. And so I was wary of the fact that she was progressing so well in athletics and that she would need to be careful.”

Before those years when she had that packed schedule, the small ball game was Mageean’s sport. And her aunt was a huge help to her from the start.

“Edel always told me she would have Ciara and her sister and cousins out,” says Collins.

She would be hitting the ball at them so that they wouldn’t know any fear on the pitch, and they would be able to go into any kind of a tackle from when they were no age. They’ve never had a fear about that.”

I just entered her in the race

IMG_2787 Mageean's teacher Helen McCambridge was the person who first encouraged her to take up running. Source: Helen McCambridge

Helen McCambridge, another member of the teaching faculty in Assumption Grammar, tries to deflect the credit.

Eamonn Christie did most of the coaching, according to her. She just nudged Mageean into the sport, taking her out for lunchtime running sessions and bringing her to races.

The PE teacher comes from a netball background, but she always has an eye out for a potential runner in other sports. The midfielders in GAA teams, who have big engines, tend to catch her attention.

She saw that Mageean had a lot of energy and encouraged her to pour it into competitive running. Mageean went on to represent the school twice in cross-country races at district level. McCambridge knew she had a real prospect on her hands when Mageean ran again at the same event a third time.

“We were in Delamont [Co. Down] and she was up against two athletes,” she begins.

“I have a picture of her winning that race, it was in the local papers.

The shorts were nearly hitting the knees and a big t-shirt with a collar on it. I remember her taking over these two athletes who had the tight shorts and the wee vest tops, and the commentator didn’t know who she was.

“They had to look through the notes to see who this number was. You’re quite proud then and she won that race on her natural ability. She didn’t come from a running club background at that time. She won that with what she had in her. The top 12 went on to Ulster and I think she came fourth that year. That’s without ever being to a running club.”

It was at this point, McCambridge recalls, that Christie came in. And when they went to races, she stepped back and let him direct the show for Mageean. She was about 13 at the time. 

She was happy to let go and watch the Portaferry youngster blossom from afar. But it hasn’t always been easy for Mageean.

After a glittering career at junior level, Mageean’s progression was stalled by injury. A bone spur on her ankle which eventually required surgery was one of the big injuries that held her back. She also encountered problems with her Achilles.

The latter injury forced her to pull up with 400m to go in the 1,500m final at the 2017 European Indoor Championship.

Mageean couldn’t hide her despair as she spoke to RTÉ after that disappointing outcome.

“The thing with Ciara is she digs deep and keeps going, and doesn’t give up,” says McCambridge. “And look where she is now?”

The Choice

Mageean’s camogie folks knew from when she was about 16 that she would have to put the hurl down at some point.

To keep competing at international level, athletics would have to be her only focus. They accepted that.

Collins even remembers an athletics coach once advising her that athletics was going to win that battle in Mageean’s mind. Collins didn’t need the reminder.

It was never going to be an easy separation for Mageean either, and even after her official final game for Portaferry in 2010, she still snuck in a few more appearances for the seniors.

Mageean and Collins didn’t have a typical teacher-student relationship at school, due to their camogie connections. They often talked about Mageean’s future and the difficult decision that lay in front of her.

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“We all hoped,” says Collins, “she’d pick camogie but we knew that if you have such talent and you could go on and compete at world level, you’re going to obviously pick that sport. And the chance to represent Ireland was just so important to her and her family. She talked about that a lot.

“She just loved camogie and would have done anything to put on that jersey, go out and take part. It was a big, big decision for her to move into just athletics.

Our club has not won a senior championship title ever. And if Ciara had been a part of our team, we definitely would have won.

“She stopped playing camogie in 2010 because she was captain of our minor team that year when we beat our neighbours in Ballycran in the final. That was such an achievement for her.”

That decision was entirely Mageean’s. All her mentors, in both sports, gave her the space to make that call on her own.

In her early years, Christie actually felt that camogie was a good addition to her running training. He kept her running load light as a result, while Collins would often take Mageean off in games when an important race was coming up.

She didn’t always like being subbed off but she “understood what was being done.”

Christie, McCambridge and Collins all played their part to ensure that Mageean had the right balance.

ciara-mageean-crosses-the-line-in-7th Ciara Mageean crosses the line at the 2010 cross-country championships. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I never interfered in her camogie training one bit,” says Christie, “because I actually thought it was quite good for her in that running is obviously a very individual sport but camogie runs through Ciara’s veins.

“It’s a team sport so she was able to go along and socialise with other people. But what people also don’t realise is that when she was training, she was doing a lot of very short, sharp bursts of like 30m, 40m, 50m and I tended to think they really helped her with her leg speed over 800m.”

The Next Sonia

This label surfaced a lot during her years in the junior ranks. It’s an inevitable occurrence in sport, when one athlete starts to close in on the legacy of another.

During those years, it wasn’t Ciara Mageean we were seeing in headlines. It was ‘The Next Sonia.’

Over time, we came to be on first name terms with the Down woman as she carved out her own name in the Mount Rushmore of Irish athletics.

And breaching that two-minute mark in the 800m is a record that is only hers. She’s standing out on her own now. The comparisons are no longer necessary.

However, Mageean never seemed to be daunted by any of that to begin with.

“I would say she relished that to be honest,” says McCambridge.

She is competitive and when she started beating Irish records as a school girl, we all thought she’d be as good as Sonia.”

Mageean was easy to train, according to Christie. She never questioned his methods and when it came to the time when she was moving on to University, she chose a path that differed from her predecessors.

While she was advised to head to an American college to further her studies and training, Christie wasn’t a fan of taking this route. It was what athletes like Sonia O’Sullivan and Eamonn Coghlan opted for, but Christie felt Mageean would benefit more by staying put and continue her training under his tutelage. 

She visited the likes of Villanova and Harvard University, but she decided to stick with Christie and studied physiotherapy in UCD instead.

Whatever about comparisons with Sonia O’Sullivan, Christie had no doubt he had a real gem in his ranks when Mageean ran at the U15 Championships in Tullamore.

She beat one of his other runners, Joanna Mills, that day. Mills is still an accomplished runner but Mageean could smell blood on this occasion.

“I thought Joanna would win that day but this is where you can find athletes are a different class,” says Christie, looking back.

“The two of them went off and they got the instructions to get to the front, work hard and with 300 metres to go, whoever wants it the most will get it.

And boy when they hit 300 metres, Ciara just went. Her leg speed that day was phenomenal and I just stood in amazement. She must have pulled five or six seconds out of Joanna over the last 300 metres.

“That was the day people started to ask questions about her.

“From that day on, I knew Ciara was special.”

ciara-mageean Ciara Mageean always talks about her love for Portaferry. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Home Home

Portaferry always gets a mention from Mageean whenever she speaks publicly. Even in her post-race interviews, when adrenaline is high, she makes space for her home place in her answers to the press.

It’s the place that made her.

She often talks about returning to play camogie again one day, and her old coach says that Mageean also keeps an eye out for any new rising sports stars in the locality.

“She follows everything that’s going on in Portaferry,” says Collins. “She’s always picking up on other young sports people in our club who don’t just play camogie, they play soccer or some other sport. She’s quick to pick up on posts about them, and then she’ll post something back as encouragement to them.

“She’s a great role model and inspiration for them.”

She still frequents Assumption Grammar from time to time as well, and will offer herself to present prizes at their sports awards.

McCambridge was speaking to a former netball player at the school prior to this interview, and admitted that she felt embarrassed about being asked to speak about Mageean’s path to this point in her running career.

But she was quickly reminded that her part is rooted in page one of Ciara Mageean’s journey into this sport.

She said ‘you shouldn’t be [embarrassed] because had I not entered her, maybe she wouldn’t be where she is today.’

“But I’d be very proud. Say she was on TV and whoever I was sitting with didn’t know who she was, I’d say ‘I take credit for Ciara,’” she laughs. “But just because they don’t know who she is.

“But other than enter her, I did nothing. She’s been a great ambassador for the school and she’s just a brilliant girl. Even running aside, she’s just fabulous.”

Mageean and Christie’s running partnership came to an end in 2013. Together, they had amassed an impressive collection of silverware.

Among their achievements are a 1,500m silver medal at the 2010 World Junior Championships, and another silver medal in the 800m at the 2009 World Youth Championships.

They picked up a gold medal in the 1,500m at the European Youth Olympics too.

But Christie had to step away in 2013.

“I took ill,” he explains.

“I had a mental breakdown. I just had mental health issues and I just needed to get away. There were family issues because my Mum had died beside me eight or nine years before that and I had blocked it all out but unfortunately in 2011 it came back to haunt me.

I left athletics for a good 13, 14 months. I knew if I hadn’t got away, to be quite truthful, I wouldn’t be here today.

“Ciara was 24, a professional athlete and I couldn’t do it anymore. We did have a great face to face meeting and I explained to Ciara what was going on and I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it.”

Christie is in better health now and he still monitors Mageean’s progress from a distance.

In fact, all of her friends from the past are still keeping an eye on her.

All three participants in this piece deferred their interviews until after Mageean’s race at the Diamond League last week where she ran that incredible 2:31.06.

The respect still remains.

Christie always told her three things that were possible in her career. The first was that she would break two minutes over 800m. The second was that she would run the 1,500m in under four minutes. And his final prediction for her was to become an Olympic champion.

The first box has already been ticked, and she’s closing in on the second. Her 4:00.15 at last year’s final at the World Championship is a testament to that.

She’ll get her chance to try and go sub-four when she lines up for the 1,500m at another Diamond Leauge meeting this Sunday in Stockholm. O’Sullivan’s current record of 3:58.85 is also there as a target for her.

As for that Olympic goal, Mageean will have to wait until at least next year.

And there’s no guarantees that the Games will go ahead, given the unpredictable nature of the Covid-19 pandemic. There’s also the issue of drugs that continue to devastate her sport and make it almost impossible for the honest and clean athletes to win.

Still, Christie and all her other mentors in sport have high hopes for the girl who used to climb the rocks after getting the ferry home from school.

“I always thought she was capable of being an Olympic champion,” says Christie.

Now when you say that to people about a 17 or 18-year-old, they tell you you’re full of… You’ve really got to know Ciara, her desire, her heart. She has a good guy [Steve Vernon] and a good team around her now so there’s no reason why not.”

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