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Dublin: 6 °C Saturday 15 December, 2018

'You're just pinching yourself asking if it's real... I'm thinking, 'we're the world silver medalists''

Karen Kirk is the coach who guided the Ireland women’s 4x100m relay team to a sliver medal at the World U20 championships.

AS THE IRISH women’s relay team was running in the 4x100m final at the World U20 Championships last weekend, one thought dominated their coach’s mind.

Karen Kirk Karen Kirk and her silver medal-winning U20 relay team. Source: Karen Kirk

“Please don’t let it be fourth,” their mentor Karen Kirk said to herself as she watched the final leg of the race unfold.

The Lisburn woman knew there were medal prospects in this team at the outset of the championships, but nothing is certain when it comes to relays.

A podium finish had eluded them in previous finals and it looked like that might happen again in Finland as they came to the last changeover between Ciara Neville and Patience Jumbo-Gula.

Ireland were in that dreaded fourth place but as it turned out, Jumbo-Gula’s blistering run down the home stretch was enough to propel Ireland from fourth to second to secure the silver medal.

She might have even snatched a gold medal from the winning Germany team if the finishing line was a little further down the track.

Still, it was an exceptional achievement for a country that doesn’t boast a strong sprinting record on the world stage, and Ireland’s team of Molly Scott, Gina Akpe-Moses along with Neville and Jumbo-Gula, were deservedly treated to a hero’s welcome at Dublin airport when they returned home.

Rhasidat Adeleke — who was replaced by Neville for the final after she was ruled out of with a hamstring strain — and Lauren Roy were the other members of the squad who helped Ireland to achieve this feat.

“Them winning that medal was the proudest moment of my coaching career,” Kirk tells The42.

“I’ve put a lot of work into it as well. I’ve been away from my family quite a lot and they [the team] know that because we share that information all the time together.

“As I always say to them, we’re a squad of seven not just six. I’m part of their squad as well and we make sure everybody respects everyone within that squad. I’ve been with them for the last three years and we all know each other quite well.”

Ciara Neville and Molly Scott Ciara Neville and Molly Scott among the Ireland team returning from the 2018 IAAF World Under 20 Championships. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Their success brought relief to the group too after the disappointments they experienced in recent years, including the 2015 European Youth Olympic Festival (EYOF). Ireland were favoured to medal at that event but Akpe-Moses suffered a hamstring tear and Ireland failed to finish.

And when Adeleke was struck down with that familiar injury this time around, it brought back some painful memories for Kirk.

“I do [think about it] every time they run,” says Kirk.

I’m just thinking, ‘please get everybody through and [let] nobody get hurt.’ You do that because I work with these girls on and off throughout the year and I’m not a personal coach to any of them.

“Their personal coaches will know how they respond to things but I am always thinking, ‘just don’t get hurt.’ So, yeah there were a few flashbacks but you have to kind of put them out of your mind and just think of what could happen.

“They were just fabulous on the day, they did everything right. One changeover could have been a little bit better but we’ll take the silver medal.”

Kirk could see the Ireland team in the call-room just before they were summoned to the track for that final run last Saturday. All of their opponents were there too, polishing off their final preparations before heading out.

Some of the teams were quite expressive about it all as Kirk recalls. She saw that the Germans were ‘slapping thighs,’ while the Swiss and Great Britain squads were ‘shouting’ to psyche themselves up.

The Irish quartet however, looked relaxed, ready and calm.

Kirk sometimes worries if her runners go quiet at this time before a race, but there was nothing to fear this time. They were even dancing a bit to help limber up.

“The four girls were sitting quite calm and I think Patience and Gina were doing a bit of a dance together,” Kirk laughs.

“It was really great to watch because you were thinking that they looked so relaxed and that they were gonna go out there and run really well. Staying relaxed was one of the last things I told them because if you get too hyped up, you’re not gonna run well.

You need to trust your checkmark and get off on that checkmark. If you’re too hyped up, you can go too soon from that checkmark. Dancing was relaxing for some of them and they were loving it.”

As for Kirk, she prefers to be on her own at race time and normally drifts away from the crowd to find a quiet spot to watch her team run.

The relay is technical event and it’s about more than simply outrunning the teams in the other lanes. As the coach, Kirk has a lot to process when she’s looking on at her runners.

When it comes to relays, anything can happen. Batons can be dropped as we saw with the Americans, they dropped the baton in the heat.

“You can run out of the zone, there’s so many things that could happen. You really don’t know what’s going to happen until you get the heats out of the way you don’t fully know where you stand.”

The running order is another aspect of relays that requires a lot of work and prior to the world championships, Kirk experimented with many different combinations in her team.

They all gathered for a training camp in Porutgal back in March, where they tried out different runners in different places to try and tease out the line-up that would maximise their chances at the worlds.

Eventually, Kirk settled on Scott to line up as their starter on account of her powerful speed over 60 metres.

A proficient 100m/200m sprinter is normally needed to run the second leg and considering that Akpe-Moses posted a PB in the 200m at the end of June, Kirk felt she was the ideal candidate for that position.

She also won a gold medal in the 100m final at the European U20 Championships last year which further demonstrates her quality over short distances.

Adeleke is a strong runner at the bends and Kirk appointed her to run in the third leg. Neville is also blessed with that skill, and so when Adeleke succumbed to that hamstring injury, the Limerick native was selected to deputise in the final.

And finally, Jumbo-Gula completed the team as she ran the last leg.

Patience Jumbo-Gula, Gina Akpe-Moses, Ciara Neville, Molly Scott Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“You need someone who’s going to keep their nerve,” Kirk explains, “keep cool and not panic because that’s usually the changeover most mistakes are made at so you need somebody that’s going to finish well and Patience, if you’d seen any of her runs at the European U18s, her last 50 metres is so strong so I knew she was the person for there.”

Ireland came through their heat without committing any of the aforementioned technical errors and they were satisfied with their running order. They posted a time of 44.27 in their heat to qualify for the final as the overall second-fastest team behind Germany.

Kirk knew there was nothing more she could do at this point as her girls prepared for the final.

She saw the first changeover between Scott and Akpe-Moses and was relieved as the baton changed hands, knowing that Ireland had made a strong start.

After that, the final was something of a blur for her.

“I couldn’t really see the other two [changeovers] that well, because they were so far away but I knew once Patience got away and got the baton in her hand she was fine.

“Once Patience got the baton in her hand, it was then that I started to shout because I knew all of the changeovers were done and there was nothing more I could do.

She took the baton and passed the British girl and the Italian girl and ran a phenomenal leg. If there was five more metres in the race, I think she would have caught the German as well.”

She added:

“It’s probably still only sinking in now. When we got back to Dublin and seeing the reception we got, that really made me think, ‘flip look what we’ve just done here.’

“I’m back to everyday life, I’m a school teacher and I’m on my holidays at the moment which is great so I’ve got time at home and I’m just doing the everyday duties as a wife and a Mummy.I’m just thinking, ‘we’re the world silver medalists’ and you’re just pinching yourself asking if it’s real. It’s a fantastic achievement.”

The long-awaited gold medal achievement of this U20 team coincides with a golden age for female sprinting in Ireland.

Cork’s Phil Healy is in superb form at the moment and has recently become the holder of both the 100m and 200m national records. She broke the joint-record held Ailís McSweeney and Amy Foster after running the 100m in a time of 11.28 at the beginning of June.

She followed that up with another superb performance at the Cork City Sports event in CIT earlier this week where she became the first Irish woman to run the 200m in under 23 seconds.

There are a number of factors that have prompted this upsurge in women’s sprinting in Ireland. Firstly, the athletes are naturally driven to succeed and standards have risen in recent years.

According to Kirk, female sprinters currently need to be able to complete the 100m in a time of 11.5 to get on a relay team whereas a time of 11.8 was good enough to get on the team as recently as three years ago.

Additionally, coaches in Ireland are adopting a more collaborative approach to their job whereby the relay coaches and the personal coaches are working together to get a better all-round outcome for their athletes.

“The personal coaches that are working with these athletes day-to-day are learning more and wanting to learn more because they’re seeing the benefit of it as well,” Kirk explains.

“There are some fantastic coaches in Ireland and we’re all sharing information which we maybe weren’t doing maybe 10 years ago.

We’re all sharing our knowledge to help each other whereas maybe 10 years ago coaches were keeping everything to themselves and they didn’t want to let their secret out as to why their athletes are so good.

“Now coaches are prepared to share that information and we’re going to conferences and workshops and everybody is prepared to help each other which I think is a huge step forward.

“And look at what it’s doing, the standard is improving. Phil Healy is just phenomenal at the moment and a lot of that is down to her personal coach Shane McCormack who is doing just a fantastic job with her. He’s gone away and researched and spoken to other coaches and getting her in the right shape for the right competition.

Sprinting has never been as good in Ireland ever I think from the female side of things. They’re all pushing each other and they’re all wanting to get onto relay squads so they’re having to train that little bit harder which in turn is making them all much faster.

Kirk has been involved in coaching relay teams since 2007 and is proud to be part of this movement in Irish sprinting. She also coaches the Irish senior relay team and is away at competition in London with them this weekend.

The Tokyo 2020 Games are a realistic target for the U20 girls provided they maintain their form, hold their focus and continue to work hard.

“There’s a lot we need to do and Tokyo is a target but I think the 2024 Olympics in Paris, if all of these girls are still running, that is going to be a bigger one for them. I do believe we could get to Tokyo. We’ve got Phil Healy running in the seniors and other girls in the seniors that are running well.

“It’s a big ask but it’s a target and you have to set your targets high because that’s the level we’re at now. I would love to get a team to the Olympics, whether it’s 2020 or 2024 but I do think we can get there with the right support.”

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