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# Athletics
'I still get nervous when they start putting hurdles on the track. My stomach drops slightly'
Derval O’Rourke’s muscle memory from her time as an athlete is still intact.

IT’S ALMOST SEVEN years since Derval O’Rourke retired from athletics, but some things are hard to shake from the runner side of the brain.

derval-orourke-in-action Morgan Treacy / INPHO Derval O'Rourke [file photo]. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Between the ages of 11 and 32, O’Rourke was clearing hurdles in the sprint distances. On the day she retired, she went down to the track, lined up the hurdles and ran through them all at full tilt.

And that was her last goodbye to the track and professional athletics. A world indoor champion and three-time Olympian, she was happy with her innings as she made her way for the exit door.

Accepting that her career was always going to end made for an easier transition and she put measures in place to ready herself for the post-running chapter of her life.

But even with her thorough preparation, the change wasn’t entirely smooth.

For the first two years, O’Rourke wrestled with the feeling of being “replaceable” in her sport. The conveyor belt never stops churning out new talents to overtake you.

That doesn’t bother O’Rorke now of course. In fact, she would love to see someone come along and surpass her national records for the 50m indoor hurdles, 60m indoor hurdles and 100m hurdles.

Whether as a pundit or just a curious viewer, O’Rourke is still a fan of athletics. She’s moving further away from the track as the years pass by but the muscle memory remains intact.

“A really funny thing happens to me,” she explains, “when I watch any athletics and they start putting the hurdles out on the track, I get nervous. Like, I have a genuine physical reaction to it, where I can feel my stomach – it’s like my stomach drops slightly and then I have to remind myself that no-one expects me to go and perform.

“Because that’s what used to happen in major championships – the hurdles would start to come out on the track and, even though it’s such a logical thing that has to happen that officials have to put them out, actually what it represented was: you need to be ready to perform.

“So, when I went to the World Championships in Doha and I’d be up in the commentary box with Tim Hutchins – who’s this absolute legend of world athletics commentary – and we’d be commentating on the long jump and the pole vault, and next thing I’d see the officials starting to put the hurdles out on the track!

“And I’d have a moment of – “it’s okay, it’s okay, they don’t expect you to do it!” And I get nervous – so, that happens to me still and I don’t know how long that will happen to me for.

“Even last weekend, I was tuning into indoor track meets from all around the world and when the hurdles came on, my immediate instinct is to note the times and think, ‘okay, will I be able to go quicker?’ But it’s irrelevant. 

“So, yeah, I think there’s definitely that bit of that competitor in you that maybe will always be there.”

Looking at Ireland’s current female sprint athletes, O’Rourke says she’s excited about the potential that exists within the group.

And there’s plenty to get excited about given the impressive results coming from those runners. Fellow Cork native Phil Healy is a good place to start and the record-breaking performances she has been producing of late.

phil-healy-wins-the-womens-200m-final Morgan Treacy / INPHO Phil Healy in action at the 2020 National Track & Field Championships. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

In 2018, she became the first woman to run the 200m in less than 23 seconds while also breaking the Irish female outdoor record for the 100m. More records tumbled before her in 2020, making her a strong contender for Ireland ahead of the Tokyo Olympics which will hopefully take place this year.

Ciara Neville and Nadia Power are also talents on O’Rourke’s radar. They both excelled at the Vienna indoor meet last weekend, with Power setting a new Irish indoor record in the 800m.

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O’Rourke is keeping an eye on hurdler Sarah Lavin too.

“We haven’t had anyone qualify for a major championship for the women’s 100m hurdles,” says O’Rourke. “I would love to see Sarah Lavin give that a really good crack.

“I think she’s had a really tough few years, transitioning from a junior to a senior athlete. But she’s really talented and I think her time is coming now. So, I would love to see her qualify, I think that would be a huge achievement.

“It’s really exciting and I think it’s really important that we see really good female athletes out there. I’ve a daughter who’s five-and-a-half. I love showing her the girls running. It’s really important to be able to do that.

“I think it’s in a really good spot but what I’d love to see is that senior breakthrough from someone. You’d love to see one of them making a major final and getting in the mix for a medal. That would be really exciting for me, and I think you could potentially see that from Phil at European indoors.”

Derval O’Rourke pictured at the official announcement of Allianz’ eight-year worldwide partnership with the Olympic and Paralympic Movements, building on a collaboration with the Paralympic movement since 2006.

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