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The melancholy of the former distance runner

In the first part of our series, Irish Olympian Ciarán Ó Lionáird discusses life after high-level sport.

Ciarán Ó Lionáird represented Ireland at the 2012 Olympics.
Ciarán Ó Lionáird represented Ireland at the 2012 Olympics.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated at 21.10

OVER THE COURSE of his career, Ciarán Ó Lionáird always came across as different to the average sports star — certainly somewhat more outspoken.

While others have stayed silent, he has championed LGBT rights, condemned aspects of Sport Ireland’s drug-testing policies and also defended Alberto Salazar, the controversial coach who is currently appealing a four-year ban from athletics for doping violations, with the pair having worked together for a spell in the now-defunct Nike Oregon Project. On the latter subject, Ó Lionáird says his conscience is clear.

“I maintain everything was done the right way and look forward to seeing the appeal process take its course,” he tells The42 on his past links with Salazar. “And I’ve never taken a performance-enhancing substance through my entire career.”

There had been high hopes for the Cork native going into the 2012 Olympics. A year earlier in South Korea’s Daegu Stadium, he had reached the final of the World Championships, finishing 10th.

Yet injury problems prevented him from hitting top form in London, as he failed to advance to the semi-finals of the 1500m.

“This has been the worst experience of my life. There’s no positives I can take from this,’’ he said immediately after the race.

“It just felt like my Achilles was screaming with fire. I’m just sick of all this.

“I’m going to find something else to do with my life.

“Maybe if I spend some time away from the sport, it will get me healthy again and relight the fire.”

The raw disappointment of a 13th place finish in his heats was clear. Though Ó Lionáird did ultimately pick himself up from the setback, finishing third at the 2013 European Athletics Indoor Championships a year later.

In 2015, he reflected on the Olympic experience. “In some ways, if I could go back, would I change what I said? I think I’d change how I said it, but I think my feelings were real and legitimate.

It’s very frustrating when you give your all to something and — people tell you when you’re growing up that if you try hard you’ll do your best at something — but I felt like I was being punished because I got hurt by trying so hard.”

Ó Lionáird hoped to make up for the disappointment of London by competing in the Rio Olympics. But again, various injuries, including a recurring Achilles problem, took their toll and left him wheelchair-bound at one stage.

Ultimately, he opted to retire and forge a new life for himself, quietly stepping away from the sport not long after his Rio dream died.

Looking back now, he still derives little thrill even from the fact that he was one of the privileged few people on the planet to compete at the Olympics.

“It was kind of like any other championship,” he says. “The world championships are the same level as the Olympics and I’d done that the previous year. As an athlete, as soon as you get one thing done, you’re kind of on to the next. So I was more focused on trying to get to the line and compete in the race and win the race.

“It’s something that’s cool to have done, but there are other moments in my career when I look back that have more importance.”

ciaran-o-lionaird Ciarán Ó Lionáird pictured competing in the Morton Mile in 2014. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

He has certainly benefited significantly from sport. It helped with his education. Just after completing the Leaving Cert, the Leevale AC athlete took up a scholarship at the University of Michigan, later transferring to Florida State University. Since retiring, he has worked full-time with Nike and is currently based in Oregon.

These days, the 31-year-old is determined not to get too fixated on the past and his former life as an athlete.

“My closest friends probably don’t even know much about my running career and I like it that way,” he explains. “It’s just something I did, not something I am.”

Having fought injuries for much of his career, it was in 2016 when he began to seriously contemplate his future in the sport.

“I started to think: how long do I want to do this for? You give up a lot of your 20s and the potential to enter another career when you run and you decide to do this thing. I had some good results between 2012 and 2016, but I dealt with a lot of injuries.

“But when the writing was on the wall and I wasn’t going to make Rio, I started to think about whether I wanted to do it past 2016. I had the support of people, I had the support of Nike, I had my contract running past 2016, so I could have kept going.

“But I made the call consciously to walk away and start building towards something else, a different life. At that point, it was more just trying to set my future up as opposed to thinking in the present. I had to think about whether I was ever going to get back to the level I was once at.

At one point, I was a world finalist, when I was at my most healthy. I was knocking on the door of getting a medal potentially. I probably could have made another Olympics if I had a clear run of things. But I knew I wouldn’t have even been happy doing that. I wouldn’t have been happy unless I bettered what I’d done before. I had to just think strategically on whether I was capable of that. I made the call that it was better to step away and build a career in another realm.”

Typically, undertaking an occupation outside of sport is far from straightforward for former athletes, and Ó Lionáird admits to having found the experience challenging.

“You’re already to some degree at a bit of a disadvantage. If someone comes out of school at 22 and they start a career, by 28 or 29, they’re pretty established.

“When I came out at 28, the trajectory is strange. You’ve got a few years where you’ve really not done a lot besides run around in circles. You can’t show people that you’re capable, because you haven’t had the level of experience in the corporate world that someone who came right out of school would have.

“It’s competitive out there, so for me, it was just about trying to prove I was more than a runner. I left what I did during my running career at the front door and tried to [learn] another skill and that’s a tough transition. It’s like training for anything else. You have to put a lot of work in. You have to dedicate yourself and be focused and make sure you know what your goals are.

“Working in the corporate world is very different to training for a race in the sense that it’s not all about how hard you work necessarily. Are you being strategic? In running, you’re on your own a lot. In the corporate world, you’re dealing with people. It’s much different. It’s a different mental level you need to [acquire]. So it’s just about re-setting your mind and learning new skill-sets.”

Yet more so than securing a job in a different industry, Ó Lionáird regards simply adjusting to normal life and knowing what to do with your down time as the toughest aspect of transitioning out of sport. Your job is no longer an obsession, a 24-7 occupation, as it essentially tended to be when competing.

“The real challenge for me was finding another purpose outside of work, and trying to find a life balance and a mental balance when something like running is taken away.

“You’ve got to figure out what your passions are outside of sport. You can find a good career — that’s fine — and take care of that. But you’ve got to be happy. That’s the biggest thing I’ve had to work through. Sure, things are good, I’ve been able to make the transition. But am I happy? Am I balanced? I’ve had to figure out what hobbies, what things to do in my spare time that can keep me motivated and challenged. Those are the things that are the most challenging.

“So I would just tell someone who is in there right now, just think through what are the things that you’re passionate about outside of sport that give you some drive. It could be writing. It could be drawing, music, whatever. But I definitely think as an athlete once it’s over, you’re going to need an outlet to put your energy towards. Because if you’re at that level, you’re a highly motivated individual and you have a lot of energy.

I think you underestimate when you’re competing and training how much of that energy is offset by the fact that you’re competing and training. But when that training is gone, you’re going to be a ball of energy and you need to put it towards something. It’s different for every person, so I can’t tell everybody else what that could be, but just to be aware of considering what it might be.”

And has Ó Lionáird found that greater purpose he alludes to, now that his running career is over?

“I think it’s a work in progress for me, for sure. Some of my really close friends that were professional athletes and have made the transition, we’ll get together once in a while, we’ll go on a run and of course, we’ll talk about the old times. I think conversation naturally drifts back towards how it was — it will always be a part of you. I think athletes will always deal with a bit of melancholy that they’ve reached this insane high and that’s over now. But so long as you keep focusing on being the best balanced version of yourself, that’s all you can do, and make sure that you can keep that high through healthy means and not otherwise.

“Athletes appear to be incredibly disciplined, but I think a lot of times, they’re disciplined because they have the sport there that keeps them that way. I think when you don’t have the goal of competing in the Olympics anymore, you have to re-train your mind around everything. ‘This is what I when I go to bed if I don’t have to train. This is what I eat if I don’t have to train.’ You can drink or do whatever you want. So just having the mental fortitude to be able to set boundaries for yourself in the absence of sport is really important.

“That was a learning lesson for me. I literally had to re-train myself in everything I was doing. That was way harder than the work transition. It was just learning how to live in a balanced way. Because athletes are indulgent people. We push things to the limits. It’s extremes all the time. Those are the big-time lessons that I think people have to go through.”

Originally published at 09.00

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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