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'Those performances have really stamped my place in world-class Irish athletics, and world-class athletics'

Ciara Mageean on her recent blistering form which saw her break two national records, last weekend’s blip and chasing Sonia’s records.

“OH MY GOODNESS, it was something special,” Ciara Mageean smiles, the Irish athlete of the moment reflecting on a whirlwind few weeks in which she etched her name into the national record books on two occasions.

CMLidl-026 Ciara Mageean celebrating the launch of ‘Girls Play Too: Inspiring Stories of Irish Sportswomen’. Source: Supplied by Teneo.

In late July, the 28-year-old became the first Irishwoman to break the two-minute mark over 800m after a blistering run in Bern, and three weeks later, she smashed Sonia O’Sullivan’s national record with a blistering 1,000m time in Monaco.

Mageean was certainly riding the crest of a wave, but a blip in Stockholm over the weekend brought that dream period to a sudden halt. That third Irish record in the 1,500m was well out of reach on a disappointing day all round.

“Some days it’s just not there,” as she wrote on Twitter that evening, with the wounds still fresh and open. Two days later, she’s ready to face the music. She’s ready to discuss the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, what’s been and gone, and what’s yet to come.

“It’s unfortunate that my media day is after a hard performance on Sunday, when I had two fantastic performances already and I was telling the media to wait until this,” Mageean grinned down a conference call yesterday, with a nod to the several interview requests she turned down after breaking the 800m and 1,000m records.

“That’s a bit of bad luck there!”

But that’s life. 

It is what it is, and Mageean accepts Sunday for what it was. “An off-day” — given the fact that she certainly trusts form — and a good learning experience.

“It’s difficult because I was probably on such a high off the back of my previous two performances,” she explains, adding that in hindsight there were indications of tiredness.

I didn’t realise quite how much they could take out of me both physically, running the fastest times that I’ve ever ran, and emotionally. This is probably a big lesson for me.

“To be honest, this year is a blessing in disguise for many of us, including myself. I only thought that on my run today that this is a year where I’m continuing to learn lessons about myself and about my training.

“I would rather make these mistakes this year than next year.”

The Down star has made no secret of her big goal: to go one better than Rio 2016 and line out in an Olympic final in Tokyo. Having finished 10th in the 1,500m at last October’s World Championships, she is certainly taking it step by step in the right direction.

Since moving to Manchester to link up with her current coach, Steve Vernon, Mageean has shown vast, and consistent, improvements, best seen in Bern and Monaco in recent weeks. It’s certainly been a defining period in her career.

Ciara Mageean’s PBs
800m — 1:59.69
1,000m — 2:31.06
1,500m — 4:00.15

Going under that magical two-minute barrier over 800m in Switzerland was particularly special, and made even more impressive by the build-up. Coming off the back of what should have been her pre-Olympic training camp in St Moritz — where her boyfriend Thomas Moran, an athlete himself, joined her for “emotional support” — she dropped down from altitude the day before the race for the first time ever.

“I knew that I was in very good shape, but to be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect,” Mageean recalls of her season opener.

PHOTO-2020-08-14-21-49-17 After breaking the Irish 1,000m record in Monaco. Source: Pace Management.

“I knew that I could go out and perform well. I ultimately just aimed to go in and to win that race. It was a massive moment in my athletics career because the two-minute barrier has been there for me for a long time and it’s been an aim, it’s been on my list for years now. I finally ticked it off and I’m glad to say that I have.

Those previous two performances have really stamped my place in world-class Irish athletics, and world-class athletics. 

“It also helps get me into some more top-class 800m races that people thought I would have been too slow for in the past. I’m delighted, that was one little life ambition ticked and now I just want to go faster.”

Again, she makes no secret of that. In the past, she’s spoken of her efforts to really establish herself on the world stage, and the challenge to bridge the gap with the very best on the planet.

If she hadn’t done so already, Mageean certainly proved that she’s very, very close to making that major breakthrough — and bridging the gap once and for all — over the past few weeks.

In Monaco, she clocked the ninth-fastest time ever run over 1,000m by a woman — and was right up there with Scottish sensation Laura Muir and just off Faith Kipyegon of Kenya, two of the best there’s ever been over 1,500m.

“I’ve always believed that I could compete with the best in the world,” Mageean nods.

“That’s a belief that I’ve always had and it’s something that I’ve always brought into my athletics from I was a young age. But a lot of the time, there’s that sense that you have strength inside but you can only really justify it from the performances that you’ve done.

“My performances up to that point didn’t show that I could be top-five in the world, necessarily, even though I believed that one day I could. Not Stockholm unfortunately, but the previous two races showed me myself as well that actually, yeah, the physical proof is there.

I think it probably sets the cat among the pigeons in some athletes, they realised, ‘Oh, goodness, Ciara’s a threat. We can’t take her for granted anymore,’ and reassured me that, ‘Yeah, the thing that I believed for so long, there’s actual tangible proof that I can be up there and compete against the best in the world.’

“It’s given me a lot of strength. Obviously the last race, I am bitterly disappointed with it and I’ll have to come to the conclusions and the reasons as to why that performance happened.

“But the previous two just knitted together so perfectly that I know that I can do that again. And I’ll keep working to hone in on my athletic prowess, that that is what happens whenever Ciara steps on the track.”

Still .15 of a second off breaking the four-minute barrier over 1,500m, Mageean feels that that’s there for the taking over the coming weeks as she looks to run three more races in 2020; 1500s and one 800m between Ostrava, Berlin and Rome.

And another O’Sullivan record — 3:58.85 — could also be there for the breaking.

“Most definitely,” Mageean assures when she’s asked if it could be done, with her 1,000m time in Monaco converting to a 3:57-3:58 1,500m. “I know that there’s a big race in me.

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“I have a lot of confidence from the back of those two races and how I felt in them, and I know that goal is going sub-four, which is my my first step.

ciara-mageean-with-sonia-osullivan Mageean with Sonia O'Sullivan. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Every time I step on the track, I just want to race. I actually don’t try to dwell on the times too much. I find that looking at the clock can weigh me down slightly. I just like to go out and be competitive. I know if I’m in a race and I’m competitive that the times will come.

Those previous two performances have showed me that yeah, that four-minute barrier is getting closer and closer. I believe that I can go under four, and I’ll keep having a little eye on Sonia’s records.

“I know what my aims are, I just want to keep running fast. I didn’t go into the previous two races trying to beat the national record, I just went out to try to run hard and I’ll continue with that little ethos towards my training.

“The belief is there in me that I can go under-four and I can go even faster. I only wish there was an extra 500m off the back of Monaco!”

On that, chasing Sonia’s records is a funny one. Between watching the Cork great on the world stage herself and admiring her as a role model, to drawing many comparisons through her own career, Sonia O’Sullivan’s is a name Mageean has heard more than no other.

Now, to be right up there alongside her in the annals of Irish athletics history, could be strange. But not to Mageean.

“Ever since I started my athletics career, people couldn’t help but bring Sonia’s name up alongside mine and draw comparisons. I’ve been very used to that from I was no age.

“Now, as I draw closer and closer to her senior records, it doesn’t actually come as too much of a shock to me because people have been doing that. Now, I would never have drawn those comparisons myself.

“I would always look up to Sonia and see her performances as inspirational and I definitely see Sonia as a huge inspiration in athletics, to know that an Irish woman is up there and competing with the best in the world.

She was force to be reckoned with in world athletics. I want to be in that position as well and to see a fellow Irish woman having done that in the past only gives you strength going forward, trying to take those steps yourself. She forged the path and I’m trying to follow in her footsteps.

“It’s fantastic,” Mageean adds. “It’s always great getting records, never mind national records, and never mind national records from such a phenomenal athlete. I’m delighted to be able to get up there and as always, it makes me very chuffed to see Sonia tweet after I get one of her records.

“It’s quite humbling because yeah, she’s an idol of mine. It’s not something that’s come as a shock to me, I’ve been aiming for this for a long time but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mean a lot when it does happen.”

That takes Mageean back to her roots in Portaferry, back to where it all began all those years ago. She hasn’t been in her hometown or seen her parents since February and is looking to the family reunion when her season ends in late September, but it’s the golden childhood memories that keep her going.

Just how important it was to have Sonia and many others — she came from a camogie background: “It’s still a big part of my life, a big part of who I am, and really it made me the athlete I am today. I do miss it and I look forward to maybe one day picking up a hurl again” — as role models growing up.

Now, she is Sonia for the next generation. As the book she’s launching, Girls Play Too, clearly shows. It’s “absolutely critical” to inspire young girls — and boys — Mageean nods.

ciara-mageean Meeting fans after racing in February. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Girls Play Tooo, I wish I had something like this growing up because I grew up with fantastic role models around me in my family and I feel very fortunate that I had an aunt playing camogie who I dreamed of becoming. I wanted to be like my aunt Edel [Mason] so I didn’t lack female role models in my young years because they were there in my family, but whenever I look towards the media it wasn’t always there.

As I started developing into athletics, I became more aware of female athletes. I didn’t really grow up seeing Sonia necessarily because I wasn’t in an athletics household, I grew up in the GAA and I grew up watching hurlers and thank goodness for my aunt Edel, I had a female star to look up to too.

“As I started forging my path in athletics, I started seeing these fantastic women. There was Sonia who was phenomenal and I could see the legacy that she left behind. And I was a young athlete whenever Derval O’Rourke was racing, I saw Fionnuala Britton [McCormack] race.

“I was in physio alongside Derval, and I was in awe that she was in the physio at the same time as me. She was amazing to me.”

You can almost hear her smile down the phone.

“I think it’s so important that young girls have this and that they see they too can pursue their dreams of being sportswomen,” Mageean concludes, hammering her point home.

“I want to see it for young girls in all careers across the world; little scientists, women commentating on the TV in sport because we’re equal to our male counterparts and young girls deserve to have that.

“I’m completely humbled that a youngster would think of me as a role model, and I’m blown away whenever I’m reminded of that. I only got a little letter in the post today from a young girl, who had sent me a letter before and I replied, and she sent me another one back.

“Those little things mean an awful lot to me because I want to leave a legacy behind me in this sport. And if I can inspire one or two young ones to follow their dream, then I haven’t done too bad.”

Not too bad at all, indeed. 

***

Lidl Ireland ambassador, Ciara Mageean celebrates the launch of ‘Girls Play Too: Inspiring Stories of Irish Sportswomen’, the first ever collection of stories about Ireland’s most accomplished sportswomen written by RTÉ Sport broadcaster, Jacqui Hurley. Sure to inspire the next generation of Irish female athletes, the book is available exclusively in the retailer’s 163 stores across the country for €12.99.

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Emma Duffy

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