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Dublin: 20 °C Thursday 28 May, 2020

'It's a huge deal to wear the green of Ireland' - Mixing it up between the world stage and school

Up-and-coming star Ciara Neville on her meteoric rise, Leaving Cert year and balancing it all on and off the track

‘DREAM BIG, SPARKLE more and shine bright.’

Ciara Neville Ciara Neville. Source: Sasa Pahic Szabo/INPHO

That’s Ciara Neville’s Twitter bio and it’s scarily fitting for the 18-year-old international sprinter. She’s a dreamer, but the thing is she sparkles and shines accordingly to back it up, as per that quote.

She radiates this aura of profound maturity and sensibility, this sense of appreciation for the position she finds herself in, which is a testament to the work she’s put in to get there. She wants to go much further though, she wants to be the best.

It’s hard to believe that she’s just 18 and currently in her Leaving Cert year, cleverly balancing her studies with competing at the top level. She’s had a whirlwind few months, perhaps the highlight coming when she was selected to don the green singlet at senior level at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham.

Then there was January 2017, when she clocked a record-breaking PB of 7.30 seconds to win the National Junior Championship 60m title in Athlone, setting a National Junior record and equaling the National Senior one in doing so.

The Emerald AC star retained that title this January in a time of 7.34, before taking bronze in the senior 60m final the following month.

To get a sense of how far she’s come though, one must go right back to the very start. There have been ups and downs, highs and lows, dark days and brighter ones, but here she is, riding the crest of a wave.

Neville was six or seven when she first started athletics. Like many other kids, she tried and tested various different sports, but there was always one true love.

“My friend’s Mam was the coach so I kind of just went along for the fun of it,” she tells The42, explaining how she first got into athletics.

“I was playing hockey, soccer and football the whole way up as well so I was just busy out doing everything. Definitely, athletics was always my favourite.”

Ciara Neville Neville is an Avonmore Protein Milk ambassador. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

She smiles as she tells stories of being thrown into Cross Country growing up ‘for the fun,’ but she wouldn’t exactly use that same word to describe it herself. She just wanted to sprint, and that’s what she’s done pretty much since then.

She gave up the other sports at the age of 14 to focus on her beloved athletics, and hasn’t looked back. The 2015 European Youth Olympics in Tbilisi, Georgia soon followed, which she sees as her main breakthrough.

“I ended up winning that,” the Limerick native says, cool and modest as you like. Gold in the 100m, an incredible feat with some invaluable experience gathered along the way.

“It was so cool seeing all the other countries and racing against them. It was in Georgia so it was really hot. Getting used to all of that was really good.

“When I won that gold medal at the Europeans, that was when I was like, ‘Wow, this is where I want to be’.”

That feeling of representing your country is one that never gets old, particularly on those special days.

“It definitely means a lot to go around with the green singlet and the gear, and then when I won the European medal, to hear the anthem playing and the flag around me, it was definitely something special. It’s definitely a huge deal to get to wear the green of Ireland.”

Following that glorious day, her personal progress stuttered slightly with times failing to reach the highs they had done previously. Although, she was part of the Irish 4x100m relay team that came fifth at the 2016 World U20 Championships.

Back to winning ways in January 2017, Neville broke those aforementioned National records at the Junior Championships, before competing in her first senior event at the European Indoor Championships that March aged 17.

Herself and Phil Healy were the last Irish athletes standing on day three in Belgrade but bowed out at the semi-final stage. A huge learning curve though, and one which she drew many positives from.

Ciara Neville on her way to finishing 7th In action at the recent World Indoors in Birmingham. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

She did so once again in Birmingham last month. Neville finished 7th in her 60m heat in a time of 7.47 to cap a busy indoor season, balanced with her pre-Leaving Cert exams.

“It all worked out well so it was grand,” she smiles.

“It’s definitely busy, like. We get to fly to all the races and travel all over so that’s really exciting, just fitting it all in. It was definitely very cool to go to the World Championships.

“That was my first World seniors. I definitely learned a lot there and I’ll be taking that on board for the next competitions. I would have liked to have equaled my PB or get it close to my PB which is 7.30 but it wasn’t to be on the day.

“Maybe the nerves got to me a little bit. I feel like that will definitely help me for the future.”

At the time of our conversation, Neville was preparing for a training camp in Portugal, with the books packed in the suitcase ahead of the oral exams. It has to be done, she grins, saying they’ve come along to several competitions with her this year.

It’s a busy schedule but all about her routine — school, after-school study, home, train, eat, shower, bed. And repeat.

“It’s definitely busy to fit in the study around the training and stuff but I feel like once I keep the same routine, it’s easy to balance it. It’s the home straight at this stage, I’m just excited to have it (Leaving Cert) out of the way to focus on athletics.

“I’m used to it at this stage, I just keep on the same routine. My friends are always saying they don’t know how I do it but I’m just used to it at this stage. It comes as second nature.”

There’s that sense of maturity again. Actually, given the fact that she’s only 18, how special of a feeling is it that younger girls — and boys — look up to, and aspire to be her, like she did with others years ago?

“When I was younger growing up, I definitely looked up to Derval (O’Rourke) and Sonia (O’Sullivan) because they were making it so well and winning World titles. They were definitely inspiration for me.

Ciara Neville The Limerick youngster has a busy few months ahead. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It’s so exciting when younger athletes come up to me, asking for photos and everything. It’s very cool. They comment on my Instagrams being like, ‘Ah, you’re my inspiration’. It’s really cute and definitely inspires me to motivate myself and do better.”

And that’s what she’s hoping to do over the coming months; to be the best she can be.

“The summer’s always so busy so once the Leaving Cert’s over I’ll be flat out with competitions and the main one will be the Worlds in July,” she explains.

Before that, there’s North Munster and Munster Schools in May for Castletroy College before the Irish Schools the first weekend in June, right before the exams.

From there, it’s onto National Outdoors to ‘set her up nicely’ for the U20 World Championships in Finland, her number one focus, followed by the European Senior Championships mid-August.

“That’s kind of the second aim, being the older age. My own age would be the main aim,” she notes.

“I think it’s all coming together nicely so hopefully I can reproduce on the track.”

Watch this space. There’s a lot more to come.

Avonmore Protein Milk is teaming up with Irish Sprinter Ciara Neville for its new ‘You’ve Got This’ campaign. Throughout the ‘You’ve Got This’ campaign, Avonmore Protein Milk will inspire others by showcasing what it takes to make it in high performance sport.

The digitally led campaign will highlight the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice top athletes make to reach their goals, by telling Ciara Neville’s story.

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Emma Duffy

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