'It is always there: 'You need to live your life just like Lynch would.' He left a mark on everyone'

A tribute to late Irish and Shercock AC athlete Craig Lynch, with contributions from two of his former coaches.

OUR GENTLE GIANT could light up a room big or small. His talent was only out-shadowed by the size of his smile.

Numb. That’s the only way to describe the overriding feeling as the small Cavan town of Shercock woke up on Sunday, 8 September 2019, to the news that Craig Lynch had died in a car crash overnight.

craig-lynch The late Craig Lynch. Source: Karen Delvoije/INPHO

Everyone from the sleepy town and surrounding areas knew the outstanding athlete. 

Both off the track and on the track, Lynch was so special to so many people.

A father, a son, a fiancé, a brother, a training partner and team-mate, a friend, a teacher, a student.

A lively and mischievous 29-year-old who gave so much to so many, but had his life cut devastatingly short that September night.

Born to run

You could say that Craig Lynch was born to run, but his rise to the top wasn’t exactly straightforward.  

There were highs and lows, ups and downs, good seasons and not so good ones, but it all started out in Shercock. The youngest of seven kids, Lynch’s home was on the main street and they ran a pub business, so everyone around knew the family.

Like many other kids in the area, he ventured up to the local athletics club, Shercock AC. The heartbeat of the close-knit community, many come and many go, but only a handful stick it out and compete at senior level. 

Lynch, of course, was one of said handful. 

But in his early teenage years, there were doubts. 

His former coach, John McGeever, smiles as he looks back on the memories of Lynch as a young athlete in the juvenile section of the club.

Craig was a sprinter, and very much a speedster,” he begins. “He didn’t like cross country at all, like most of the young athletes that were sprinters!

“Like many kids that age, he came and he went and he came and he went. He wasn’t involved for a year or two but when he was about 13, I met him in town. At that time we had a very good U15 relay team but we were missing one.

“I knew Craig was fast, but he wasn’t involved in the club structure at that time. I asked him would he be willing to step in and be the fourth man, although he was a year younger than the lads. He was delighted to be asked.

“He came in and that team did very well. If I remember correctly, they won the at Indoor Championships in Nenagh. That gave him a real thirst for athletics.”

It was a thirst that could never be fully quenched.  

Once he caught the bug, that was him hooked for life.

“Because he was at that age, 13, 14, he was choosing what to do,” McGeever notes.

Once he decided he was going to do athletics, my goodness, he was completely committed. He was very dedicated to training, would rarely miss a session. He just wanted to know what to do and how to do it. He easily fitted in.

With a real spring in his step and a fire in his belly, everything grew from there. 

As Lynch went through his teens, he was a permanent fixture on the club’s sprint relay teams, and it was from 16 onward, that McGeever witnessed him really break through as an individual.

craig Lynch in 2007. Source: Shercock AC website.

“He looked to be very, very fast as he trained up, and started to enjoy some individual success, including winning indoor All-Ireland titles in his age group in the sprint events.

“Through his late teens, he really came through. By the time he reached 17, 18, he was well able to compete even at senior level, as the club was competing at senior level in the National League. There were lots of opportunities for him there.”

“He definitely had it all the time, that’s for sure,” his old coach stresses. “But when you just see kids running around the football pitch, you can only compare them to each other. 

Craig was a good example of someone who has the natural ability and the focus on training, and the combination brought him through. 

Once Lynch put his mind to something, that was that. 

He was destined for the big stage once he got going, and his sheer determination and incredible work ethic was what got him there.

“He trained very hard and he brought many along with him, and did right up to recent years,” McGeever nods. “Craig’s appetite for training was legendary. You had to hold him back a bit, if anything. He could over-train.

“Like many young athletes, he had his setbacks with injury at times and more recently, with an Achilles tendon issue, just from the intensity of the training. He got a great response to training. 

He was a natural leader, I would say that, from when I was working with him as a juvenile. He was a natural leader in the club.

“Once I would design a session that was to be done by the sprint group, he would be leading it. People would follow him and then drop out as they went along, but he’d keep going.

“He was a lovely guy, completely dedicated. We talk about commitment and dedication to training, but he was also dedicated to his club, his coach, his fellow athletes. He was very committed to people, I think that was a very strong feature in Craig. That’s why he was so well known.

It seemed everybody knew Craig. It wasn’t just from watching him on a track, he made a connection with so many people. He was a natural friendly person.

It pains McGeever to say was. He finds himself saying is from time to time, forgetting the cruelty of this world for a split second, before checking himself and remembering that this nightmare is unfortunately real life.

And it’s the exact same for another of Lynch’s former coaches, Jeremy Lyons. 

The next chapter

Lyons began working with Lynch while he was studying at Dublin City University. He knew of him, of course, and has early memories of the athlete trying to run a fast 200 metre time to get onto the DCU team. 

That shows the level he was at, Lyons notes, and puts his international exploits in later years into perspective. Having worked under John Shields beforehand, Lynch soon landed into Lyons’ training group at the Glasnevin college. 

craig2 Lynch was a stalwart of Shercock AC. Source: Shercock AC Facebook.

“He was pretty good underage… always was, but he never got to whatever level,” Lyons recalls. “I had my own group in DCU. I used to refer to them as the Simon Community, because there was always the misfits and odd ones.

“Craig was good friends with those guys: Paul Byrne, John Fagan, those types. He’d have always been hanging around. Then in 2012, he jumped in and started training with us. He was going well.”

That didn’t last long, however.

“Five or six months in, he disappeared,” Lyons laughs, reflecting on Lynch’s absence from training. His priorities changed when his baby girl was born. She came first, so running was put on the back burner for the rest of the season.

In 2013, Lynch reached out once again and got back on the horse. A qualified physics teacher at that stage, he re-joined the group on a full-time basis.

Lyons had his own plans for the re-invigorated Cavan man. 

He was still thinking that he was a 100m guy,” he explains. “I was always thinking, ‘Yeah, this is a 400m guy’ but he didn’t want to do the work.

“But good Irish 400m runners are 1,2-ers who move up. The 2013, 2014 season was when it kind of started, in earnest. He was still doing 1s and 2s and dabbling in 400s. 

“He would have got on European Team Championships 4x100m relays, would have been on squads for 4x400s. That was the first proper chunk of it.”

The summer of 2014 was the next big step in Lynch’s career. There was a promising Irish 4x400m relay team, and they had a really good chance of qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

This was the perfect opportunity for Lynch to well and truly catapult himself onto the biggest stage, and Lyons was keen for him to target that. That summer at National Championships, Lynch had his focus set on the 200m, but his coach entered him in the 400m too. A great chance to stake a claim. 

“He didn’t want to do it,” Lyons grins. “This was classic him; stubborn and belligerent.

“I’ll always remember it. I’d coax him and literally let him do what he wanted, I just couldn’t get in to him. But that was the first year where I kind of went, ‘Okay, I’ve got myself hooked in.’”

Set in his ways with glory in his sights, all was going to plan as Lynch looked in good shape in the 200m heat. But disaster struck in the final. Disqualification. 

He was like a dog. Kicking things, punching walls, type of stuff. I said I’d get him to do the 400m, but I couldn’t find him. 

“He was out in the back field with his mam; her trying to comfort him, him cursing and blinding and crying, giving out to her and giving out to me. I’m saying to her, ‘Look, we’ll get him around here.’

It was then where I go, ‘Look, this is your chance, this is the chance to get the tattoo.’ The Olympic rings tattoo.

He wasn’t exactly sold straight away, but with that thought in mind after more temptation from his coach, Lynch lined out in the 400m. A PB in the heat, a second-place finish in the final, and that was him on the Irish 4x400m relay team.

The road to the biggest stage

Off to European Championships then, Lynch was the super sub, as expected. 

“I was saying, ‘Look, this is your chance to go over and be the brilliant squad player. The lad who’s there with the right body language,’” Lyons says. “He’s clever and he sees into that. That was the kind of mantra he took on. 

craig-lynch Running for Ireland in 2016. Source: Karel Delvoije/INPHO

“They ran an Irish record, were a great team and he was central then to that squad. Everyone loved him, all the managers loved him, the other guys loved him…”

You couldn’t but.

2015, and Lynch was fully committed to the 400m cause. A pre-Olympic year, it was full steam ahead. Everything started so well: World Relay Championships, a successful training camp in Florida, full funding and carding from Sport Ireland.

But then the Achilles started flaring up, leading to a patchy outdoor season. 

Lynch watched on as his Irish team ran another national record at the World Championships, fully focused on managing his injury and nursing himself back to full health.

2016 really was the big one. 

“We’re saying, ‘There’s pretty much going to be an Irish relay team going to Rio. You just needs to be top four, top five, top six to get that tattoo, wherever you want to put it,’” Lyons remembers. “It was all about the tattoo, you get these little things.

That was interesting. I was listening to his speech when he won the Cavan Sportsperson of the Year in 2016. He said, ‘I’ll get that tattoo.’ That’s where that came from.

After a good three-plus years of grafting, Lyons was finally in “the inner circle,” as he puts it. Lynch finally started to trust him, so was fully on board for Lyons’ suggestion after struggling through the winter. 

“Around December, I said, ‘Do you know what we’ll do for a bit of craic? We’ll run the 60m indoors.’ He still thinks he’s a short sprinter so he’s all fired up and loving it,” he laughs. “I was like, ‘Yeah, go out there, throw shapes. Wreck the little speedy lads’ heads.’

“Part of that was to get him prepped for the intensity that was going to come in the outdoors. In an Olympic year, everyone just raises their game. I was saying, ‘Lay down an early time in the 60m indoors, there’s a bit of a spotlight, coming in, you’re the man to watch.’ He was loving this.”

Absolutely delighted with the plan, Lynch couldn’t buy into it any more. But it was all on one condition: all 400s from there on in.

The indoor experts were flying it at the time, but Lynch went and threw a spanner in the works. He dropped a big PB and won it out for his only senior national title. 

“Brilliant,” Lyons smiles. “He gave a brilliant interview afterwards: ‘It’s all about just racing.’ Brilliant. That kind of set him up then and the year just followed from there.”

Warm-weather training went really well, his injury was under control and everything was going to plan. 

“I think that year was a measure of what he’s about,” Lyons enthuses. “He was still up at home, teaching, driving to Dublin three days a week, coming up every second Saturday because the other one was his ‘Sarah time’ [his daughter] so he couldn’t compromise that.

“A Wednesday session in the Institute after school, driving home, down for our session, driving home at 9pm, getting home at 10pm, eating, whatever. A strength session with Dan Moore on a Tuesday and then filling in around that by himself.

“He had a lot going on away from running too, and he was just doing it. I kind of get frustrated when I see GAA players and all the talk of the sacrifices they make. They are making sacrifices, but going home to Mayo or whatever, they’re getting a mini-bus bringing them back with pre-packed meals.

This was a lad that was doing it all himself, and you wouldn’t even know it. 

The big one, and thereafter

“2016, he ran really well,” Lyons beams. 

“He ran a massive PB at nationals. Beats [David] Gillick, nearly beats [Brian] Gregan, qualifies on the relay team.”

That, in fact, was McGeever’s standout racing memory of Craig Lynch: the 2016 National Championship 400m final.

“It was an incredible race to the line between Craig and Brian Gregan,” the Cavan coach recalls, his memory as vivid as if it were yesterday.

david-gillick-brian-gregan-and-craig-lynch That race to the line. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Even thinking about it, my heart rate goes up. It’s a competitive memory, I can visualise almost every stride of down that home straight.

“It was carried on the RTÉ News in the sports section that evening — the commentator shouting, ‘Craig Lynch is in the lead coming up to the line now, Gregan closing him down just inside… and he just pipped him on the line.’ We were all on our edge for that one.”

That wasn’t the first time Lynch was gut-wrenchingly pipped at the post in 2016. 

The 2016 Olympic dream came crashing down at European Championships in Amsterdam that July, as Ireland finished just outside of the qualification time.

A week before, the coaches came up with the idea to sacrifice the individual events and focus solely on the relay, just like the Polish do. Two athletes — Lynch included — were for it, two were against. 

“Long story short, they ran the individuals and I don’t think it impacted them,” Lyons says, after explaining how Lynch was loyal to a team-mate and wanted 100% agreement across the board between himself, Gregan, Gillick and Thomas Barr.

“They scraped into the final, came fifth. They were .07 of a second off the time for getting there, but then they were a little bit further back. Didn’t get it.”

Beyond heartbreaking.

And the fallout continued long after that agony in Amsterdam.

“2017, the injury flared up again,” Lyons frowns. “It got worse. It was a bad year. 2018, he kind of disappeared. He was training but the intensity wasn’t there.

But this year again, he trained all through the summer. From May, he was following one of our programmes and he was ready then to just go again. He was in pretty good shape.

Just at that moment, Lyons is reminded of a picture on his phone. 

A selfie of two lads, smiling from ear-to-ear after a tough session. 

“Craig sent me this,” he smiles proudly, but his eyes gloss over at the same time. “That’s Fagan and himself up in Navan.”

What we now know was that was Lynch’s last session. Four days before he died, the two good friends rattled off that 3x3x200m [three sets of three 200m repetitions] track session that Lynch loved to hate, as he set the wheels in motion for his 2020 comeback.

The caption was, ‘Eight years later,’ and I goes, ‘It’s like Oasis getting the band back together,’” Lyons adds. “I put it up on our Instagram, and I put on a little Oasis filter. It comes up, ‘Live forever.’ How poignant is that…”

Lyons’ voice cracks ever so slightly as he remembers that Sunday morning, four days after that picture was captured. After hearing the horrendous news, Lyons headed for Portmarnock Beach with a list of names to ring around and tell.

A crisp morning with sand swirling around the dunes, he was left with visions of this special athlete — and friend — powering up them. But his last memories of Craig Lynch are most definitely happy ones. 

craig-lynch-dejected-after-the-race Dejection after the 2016 Europeans. Source: Karel Delvoije/INPHO

“I was even talking to the family at the funeral, and we were saying, ‘Isn’t it great that the last thoughts in his head around athletics were, ‘I’m back,’” he notes.

“At the wake, I met Amy [his fiancée] and she was all chat about running and his splits. This was the first thing she was telling me: ‘That’s all he’s been badgering on about.’”

Memories and tributes 

As anyone whose path crossed Lynch’s can vouch for, he was one of the friendliest and nicest people you’d ever meet.

He spoke to elders the same as he did with youngsters. His positive outlook on life shone through both on and off the track. He was never without a smile on his face.

He is… or he was a natural optimist,” McGeever smiles. “He was very, very positive. He always believed if you worked at something, you would get the reward and it would come right. He proved that through his athletics. 

“Also, he did very, very well through his college career into teaching at Eureka School in Kells. He was a successful and popular teacher. I think that’s a tribute to him as well.”

McGeever often spoke with Lynch about his teaching, because of his own involvement in lecturing. And his grá for that shone through with every word.

“He loved teaching,” his club coach continues. “And I’m telling you, he talked about his classes doing the Leaving Cert as if he was talking about a sports team doing a major competition.

“It really was like that. He had them all labelled off, what grades they were going to get and how to get the best out of them. He was coaching them through school, in my opinion.”

Likewise, McGeever’s voice cracks at this moment.

I’ll miss Craig a lot. I always thought he would become a great coach because he had every aspect you need to be a good coach. He was a communicator, he had the experience of competing, he was enthusiastic and optimistic.

“I think he’s a huge loss, I really do. I think would have done great things, great things.”

Lynch’s humour and beloved cheeky manner shines through as McGeever and Lyons speak of the late athlete. 

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The former touches on comedic memories, many to his disadvantage, that he can’t share, while Lyons tells a brilliant story about his older brother-type relationship with Brandon Arrey in the training group.

Arrey arrived on the scene as a promising young athlete — “the next big thing” — while Lynch was happy to take the piss out of him to keep his ego intact. But one night after a tough winter session, Arrey caught a video of Lynch puking his ring up, and the banter went on for months on end. 

Lynch was injured for the 2017 indoor season then, and with an Irish relay team space available for the European Indoors in Prague, Arrey was in the running. 

“Craig was constantly giving him dogs abuse, all very constructive,” Lyons grins, “but there’s a sideline discussion going on on who’s the man they’re going to bring.

“Craig was just adamant it had to be Brandon. Brandon doesn’t know this — he got in on his merits, but if Craig wasn’t there having those discussions and fighting his corner, he wouldn’t have got on the team.

“That’s it: dogs abuse, has his back, but not really shouting about it.”

Arrey went to Prague, and ran well there, but in true Craig Lynch fashion, there had to be a stop put to that in their first session back together.

“Brandon’s strutting out in his new gear, Craig goes, ‘Right, we’re going to put this lad back on the hurt locker,’” Lyons laughs.

“We organise it with two of the other lads. Six reps, and they were going to take turns leading it out. I had to go to Brandon, ‘You’re on a new level now, step up with the lads.’ Craig led the first one, two seconds faster than normal, Brandon goes with him. The next one, Craig sits five seconds off the back so he’s getting a rest.

“After four reps, Brandon’s on the track getting sick, Craig’s walking past him patting him on the belly going, ‘There you go sonny, welcome back!’ Again, dogs abuse but 100% had his back. That’s the man that he was.”

Another treasured moment was when Lyons received a Whatsapp picture of Lynch and Eoghan Buggy — “a quiet guy in the group who really looked up to him” — from Belgium.

I’ve never seen Craig so happy as when Buggy had broken 50 seconds for the first time. Craig’s a 46 guy. But the picture of the two of them, you’d swear he had just run 45 himself.

“The flip side of that then, if he didn’t like you, it was ferocious!”

“And when he went out and partied, he partied,” he adds. “Everything he did was 100 miles an hour. Anyone that came across him, the impact he had…

“David Gillick had a very short window with him, but the two of them just clicked. He was a genuine, no bullshitter. He left a mark on everyone, and he took you on your merits.”

Story after story, memory after memory, Lynch was the Tom Brady to Lyons’ Bill Belichick, the McNulty to Lyons’ Bunk (they both loved The Wire).

“It’s only that he’s gone that you think, ‘Shit, he got me my thick skin… he got me to acknowledge my weaknesses,’” Lyons says, after telling a story of horrendous feedback Lynch once gave him. “He brought me on, he brought others on.

He really was a natural leader. He would have been very strong-willed, but once he trusted you, you were in.

McGeever was another he placed his full trust in.

It all happened very naturally with all the one-on-one sessions.

“As a coach, you have your club group, you have your club as an entirety, and then there are days where you find yourself just with one athlete,” McGeever explains

“Running up the hills in Shercock, building strength. A number of times, it would just be Craig. Sometimes, there were meant to be others and they just didn’t show up, but Craig would always be there. I didn’t get a day off with him.

“I do have memories, particularly of this time of year and the cold slog pre-Christmas, up on the pitch and putt course on the grass. 200m up hills. My job was more or less just to shout at him to keep him going. He would be absolutely shattered, but he always finished it.

“Those memories — apart from all the personal stuff, I travelled with Craig to races around Europe as well; France, Belgium, Netherlands, the UK; we had a lot of time together. But those one-on-ones as a coach and an athlete, slogging it out. I’ll never forget those.

I’ve only been up to the pitch and putt in Shercock once or twice since Craig passed, and immediately, the image of him ploughing up that hill over and over again, so many times, that’s a special memory.

A family man through and through, he is sorely missed.

irelands-relay-runners-dejected-after-failing-to-secure-automatic-qualification-for-the-race-at-the-rio-games Gregan, Lynch, Barr and Gillick. Source: Karel Delvoije/INPHO

“In particular his daughter Sarah, he’s such a loss to her,” McGeever sighs, “They had such a good connection.

“She used to be up at the track when he was training, from when she was very, very small. And Amy Cotter, his fiancée, who would be minding Sarah when Craig was on the track. He’s a family man, Craig was a family man.

“Obviously he’s a huge loss for the Lynch family, but I think it’s really sunk in… after all’s quietened down. It’s been difficult,” his voice breaks. 

The afterlife

It’s important that Lynch’s memory is honoured accordingly, and that his name is never forgotten.

That was best done eight days after his untimely passing, as his training group and friends gathered in Santry to run themselves into exhaustion. 

They honoured him and remembered him the way he would have wanted.

“It was the last session that he did,” Lyons points out, referring back to that selfie in Navan. “I can’t remember how we came up with the idea, it could have been up at the wake we were talking about it. 

“That was a session that he hated to do but he knew he had to do it. They’re the ones he hated. It was funny because I sent it out just to the training group, and then all these other people arrived.

“There were people from the training group back in 2013. We said we should do it each year. As a start for the season, we all come together. It was a good, quick session and that was it.”

And there were a few pukers, which Lynch would have been delighted with.

Similarly, they travelled down to Shercock for the month’s mind mass and did a training session there. The infamous hill session on his home patch, one he had always invited them to join him for.

“I remember the lads walked out to the hill behind the clubhouse, going, ‘Oh Jaysis!’ They were going, ‘Jesus yeah, that explains a few things…’

That’s the thing… I’ve said it a few times and it kind of gets said every so often; ‘like Lynch would have done.’ His philosophy is living on in the group now. It might sound a bit whatever, but it actually is.

“Some of the older guys would be like, ‘You need to do this and live your life just like Lynch would.’ He had shit going on, he had a job, a girlfriend, a little daughter, but he compartmentalised everything so that when he was training, he was training. It doesn’t mean you have to be a spartan or whatever.”

He continues: “It is always kind of there: this ‘Do what Lynch would have done.’

“There’s a great picture about a week before he won that 60m at the nationals [2016], where he’s lying on the ground after doing a horrible 400m session, wearing a big woolly coat. One of the lads was lying on the ground similarly a couple of weeks ago, and someone else goes, ‘Ah look, he’s in the Lynch position!’

That’s the legacy, it really is.

That’s there in Shercock AC, too.

His memory, and his legacy, will live on.

“I think he’ll always be linked with Shercock Athletic Club,” McGeever assures.

“I think everyone will remember Craig and have that memory of Craig as a juvenile training up on the football pitch. Before we ever got to the track, I remember him up there. All the years on the track, when it was a cinder track and then when it was a tartan track, he was always there.

He is part of the culture, the heritage, the memory and the story of everybody who knew him growing up. He’s a reference point too.

“I know that there are plenty of young, talented athletes coming through that didn’t know him as anything more than a photo on a page, but I think his memory will live on for a very long time in Shercock.”

Across the length and breadth of the country, Jeremy Lyons and his Santry training group will make sure of that too. He gave athletics so much, and athletics gave him plenty back, so it’s only fitting that his name stays alive in that regard.

“We’re hoping to have a Craig Lynch Cup,” Lyons concludes. “We’re trying to formalise it with Athletics Ireland. In principle, they’ve agreed to it and the family would love it.

“It’s not 100% confirmed yet, we’re chasing Athletics Ireland to get the green light. It would be a cup and every year, whoever wins the 60m indoors, the one he won, would get it.

It will be a little connection for the family to stay in the sport, and it will be there then for eternity.

For those lucky enough to have had their lives touched by Craig Lynch, his legacy will live on for eternity regardless.

- Updated 18.43, 30/12/2019

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