IT’S BEEN A long and gruelling road, with more dark days than he cares to remember, but a fit-again Ciarán Ó Lionáird is starting the see the light.
One of the lasting memories for many Irish fans from London 2012 was his brutally honest interview after finishing 13th out of 14 in his 1500m Olympic heat.
“This has been the worst experience of my life,” he said at the time.
“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.”
Thankfully, for him and Irish athletics, despite further setbacks since, the fire still burns brightly.
After nine years in the US it’s no surprise to hear the proud Corkonian’s chirpy American twang. But the most striking thing about Ó Lionáird’s voice these days is the maturity and realism it possesses.
It’s a testament to the 27-year-old’s mental strength, and the stability provided by those around him, that he is still chasing his Olympic dream at all.
As if he wasn’t low enough after London, Ó Lionáird continued to be plagued by his Achilles injury thereafter. And that eventually led to the middle-distance runner undergoing extensive surgery, his second operation, on the tendon in his left leg last June.
Ó Lionáird had to start from scratch again; his journey back to the track began in a wheelchair last June. So it was a major personal milestone when he made his competitive return in Portland three weeks ago.
“It’s been a tough journey,” Ó Lionáird told The42.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs. And probably more downs that ups in the last two or three years. And obviously you question yourself and you wonder, ‘am I going to be able to come back from this?’
I was in a wheelchair, then on a crutch and then in a boot for the first month after surgery. As soon as I stepped out of the boot my Achilles felt totally pain-free.
“The problem is that after two surgeries, the last one being particularly invasive; cutting my calf muscle and re-attaching it. That’s taken a ton of work just to be able to walk on the leg, strength-wise.
“It’s (the leg) really taken a hammering. The struggle was to get my leg to the point where I can walk and run properly again.”
The Oregon Track Club (OTC) athlete’s return to the track was successful; a fourth-place finish in a solid 3.41.41 has given the Inchigeelagh man reasons for optimism. But after the challenges he has had to overcome in recent years, Ó Lionáird is refusing to get carried away.
“It was good to shake off the rust. It’s definitely a work in progress,” Ó Lionáird explained.
“It’s still a long road back. It’s good to come out at this stage and knock out a time that’s as good as any other time that I’ve started the year with.
“I spent the entirety of last summer and most of the autumn getting off crutches and getting used to walking again.
“Then it’s about jogging and eventually running again. It’s been a humble start, so to be able to come out and run something respectable definitely shows I’m moving in the right direction. There’s a still a lot of work to be done to get where I need to be.”
Where does he need to be? Well, the Olympic qualifying standard is 3.36, so he needs to trim five seconds off his opening run of the season. If he can stay fit, he has no doubt he will do just that.
But Ó Lionáird is a fierce competitor. And Rio offers him a shot at redemption after his heartbreak four years ago. So he is targeting a return to the career-best form that saw him run 3.34.46 in 2011, the fourth-quickest 1500m by an Irishman.
“My goal is definitely to be there (at the Olympics) and I’d be really disappointed if I’m not. And not just that but competing well there and doing justice to myself, my coaches and team-mates.
“I need the A standard to qualify but I’d like to be back around my best before the Games. My PB is 3.34 so somewhere around there is where I want to be. I definitely need to be in that kind of shape or better when it comes to the Olympics.
But realistically, so long as I have the A standard and I’m ready to go, from there I just need to focus on being in good enough shape and being healthy at the Olympics.
“I don’t necessarily need to have a really fast time under my belt. I just need to have the fitness to do it and be able to run 3.34 or 3.35 in any type of situation, be it a slow race with a fast burst at the end, or a fast one.
“You don’t want to put the cart before the horse. But one thing that’s not lacking is my fitness — my heart and lungs.
“I’ve taken good care of my body and it’s just a matter of getting my legs used to running at those paces again. I’ve re-learned to walk and to jog. And it’s about building — week by week and month by month.
“I’m confident that I can get there. I have to be, I’ve put a lot of work into this. And my support structures have really helped me a lot.”
The life of an elite distance runner can be troubling. Logging the miles, week by week, is taxing mentally, never mind the physical toll it takes on the body.
Add in the injury struggles and you have a recipe for extreme frustration, best reflected by his London 2012 interview.
During the low points on the recovery trail, the team environment at the prestigious OTC proved a saviour for Ó Lionáird.
“Running is really a team sport over here as part of the OTC. It makes a huge difference. I’ve always been in a community of runners and that’s helped a lot. People take you under their wing and you feel like you have a family.
“Even in those times when it didn’t look like it was going to happen (a return to fitness) and I felt despondent, I always had people there to pick me up.”
Ó Lionáird is sharp, humorous and refreshingly honest. He is a character, of that there is little doubt. He has a strong presence on social media; where his tattoos, bold hairstyles and sense of humour shine brightly.
He left Ireland for a scholarship at the University of Michigan as a wide-eyed 18-year-old. A transfer to Florida State University followed soon afterwards. And he has been Stateside ever since.
He gets back to Ireland about once a year to see his mum and brothers, while supplies of Barry’s Tea and Irish biscuits keep most of his cravings for home comforts at bay.
But right now the only thing he has an appetite for is racing. The World Indoors are in Oregon next month, on the same track where he made his comeback three weeks ago.
He has, of course, had indoor success in the past, notably winning a bronze medal at the Gothenburg European Indoors in 2013. Although he insists outdoor racing will remain his priority this year as he builds towards Rio.
“I want to get races in just to practise racing. And the indoors are going to provide a good opportunity for that.
“I’m only going to run as much as it benefits me though — I’m not going to take risks with the indoor season that could possibly negatively impact the outdoor season.
I’m leaving it up to my coach (OTC’s Mark Rowland) just to balance that out and I’m just going to do what I’m told.
“The Prefontaine Classic is always a big target for me, to get out and compete in Eugene, where I train. My coach prioritises that so I’ll hope to race there in June.
“Around that it’s just about seeing where the fast-paced races are and seeing where I can get in and taking advantage of the opportunity when it comes.”
After clearing some massive hurdles, the tide seems to have turned; he’s fit again, and the end goal is coming into sight.
Redemption in Rio would be a just reward.