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'I wouldn't be satisfied if this was the peak of my career, I want to go higher'

Ireland’s fastest man is dreaming big.

Israel Olatunde, SPAR European Athletics Championship finalist, is pictured at UCD Running Track at the launch of the SPAR College Fund.
Israel Olatunde, SPAR European Athletics Championship finalist, is pictured at UCD Running Track at the launch of the SPAR College Fund.
Image: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

THE FASTEST IRISHMAN ever. It’s a title Israel Olatunde will more than likely never get used to.

“Probably not,” this country’s 100m record holder smiles, seven weeks on from his stunning exploits at the European Championships in Munich.

“It still sounds a bit strange. My coach, Daniel Kilgallon, kinda takes the piss out of me about it, but no really it’s an honour. It’s what you dream about as a young athlete to hold a title like this, and if I can hold onto it for a long time that’d be great for sure.”

Olatunde became the first Irishman ever to qualify for the 100m final at a European Championships, and then clocked a new national record of 10.17 while finishing sixth.

The 20-year-old from Dundalk became a household name across the country overnight after Paul Hession’s long-standing national record fell, his glittering achievement finally sunk in.

“I guess it has, yeah. I’m bad at this, but whenever I achieve something I always look for what is next really. It’s probably not the best mindset to have, but it is good to be in the moment and appreciate achievements.

“But because the time is so far [ago], I’m already training for the new season. I already have my eye on 2023 and I’m looking to see what heights I can take this to.

“I just know myself that there is so much more that I can achieve. My coach, my family and my mentor, Gerry McArdle, we all know that there is just so much more there. We enjoyed the moment, but we’re just focusing on pushing it on a bit more.

“Looking at it in hindsight, being so close to the bronze medal, I guess, it motivates me that we’re going to push on and to get to the performance I can and get into the medals.”

More on that shortly.

israel-olatunde-after-the-race Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

He’s more than happy to reflect, all the same; to take stock and acknowledge how far he has come: from that sports-mad kid who “wanted to play in the Premier League one day” — he could still do a job as a winger, he laughs — and started athletics to have fun — “I made that mistake with football because I put pressure on myself to be successful at it, and it just didn’t work out at all”– to hitting unimaginable heights on the biggest sprinting stages.

Olatunde’s humility, modesty and maturity shines through with each and every word he utters, as does his appreciation and gratitude for where he is today and who he’s surrounded by.

It’s particularly interesting to hear him talk about the confidence his breakthrough European Championships instilled, and the juxtaposition to efforts in the past.

“This is where it really matters,” the fourth year UCD Computer Science with Data Science student stresses.

“To run fast is really great but to do it at a European or a World Championships where it really counts, that’s something I wasn’t really good at that in the past. I had some disappointments at European U18 and U20 Championships, so it felt good to be at my best at a championships, for once.”

The difference?

“I guess it was more to do with mental preparation. Going into those championships I was always in great shape and I’ve had set goals I was hoping to achieve but things just didn’t really work out and I think a lot was to do with the mental side of things.

“That’s what myself and my coach Daniel Kilgallon and I have been working on this past year. Just kind of trying to get into a good headspace going into the championship and just being able to be at your best when it matters.

“I think in the past I have been maybe scared of the moment. I’d always be focused on other athletes and what they’re doing.

“When I went to Munich, I was just like, ‘No, I don’t care what anyone else is going to be doing, I’m going to produce my best and wherever that lands me, that’s where it lands me.’

“I just really embraced it. I wanted to produce my best and make myself and my country proud. I think I was able to channel that nervous energy into something special.”

israel-olatunde Olatunde is targeting a big 2023. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

“It’s mostly my close circle that have helped me get the mental side of things down,” he adds on his new-and-improved race approach with another nod to Kilgallon, McArdle, and his family.

Olatunde also leans heavily on his faith; Isaiah 41:10 a particular verse from the bible he lives by, and reads religiously before each and every race. 

“I’m a Christian by faith. Just knowing that I’m not on this journey alone, that there’s somebody watching over me, that’s really comforting to know that and I bring that with me everywhere I go — not just my sport, just in anything I do really.

“I’m not just doing this for myself, I’m doing this to showcase my faith through my sport. That’s something that I’m really honoured to do. It really is a blessing to be able to be on this type of platform and just show people who I am and what I represent.”

Extra baggage goes hand-in-hand with that platform. Attention, interest, exposure.

Change often just comes with the territory. 

But there’s been no crazy contrast for Olatunde.

“I guess people recognise me a little bit, but there haven’t really been too many major changes. I still keep my circle close, the people who are around me keep me grounded.

“I guess people have been recognising me a bit more, but in the grand scheme of things, nothing’s really changed, no. I’m still here in college, just working away, training away so nothing too much has changed.”

He’s living on campus in UCD, enjoying a new lease of life and additional free time having previously commuted from Dundalk. That said, there’s new challenges with balancing everything and adjusting to fending for himself.

“It’s different,” he grins. “I still get babied a little by my mom, she sends me care packages every weekend. One thing I didn’t realise was how expensive doing washing was — €5 a wash!”

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The training slog is in full flow. Work in the dark, shine in the light.

And the lights of next season could be brighter than ever.

israel-olatunde-poses-for-a-photo-with-a-fan Olatunde poses for a photograph with a fan. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

“I have the three championships that I am aiming for: the European Indoor Championships in Istanbul in March, the European U23 Championships in July in Finland and then the World Championships in August in Budapest

“I just want to go out there and do my best at each one of them, that’s pretty much it. I just want to produce my best and see what we can do.”

How low can he go? Sub-10?

“I’m not going to put a limit on it. But I think I can definitely go way faster. There’s so many little things I can do better. It’s about not getting ahead of myself, focusing on the little things that can bring the big improvements.

“A good season is very pivotal for my progression and to see where I’m at going into an Olympic year. Hopefully I can be in a position to qualify for the Olympics for sure.”

Olatunde certainly hasn’t shied away from the dizzying heights he can hit over the coming years, his ambition clear as day from this interview and others. Each and every one he’s done since that memorable night in Munich has been firmly future focused.

He always wants more and more, forever dreaming big and not afraid to say it as it is.

“There’s just so much more than I think I can do in this sport and I’ll just see where I can take this,” he concludes. “I want to become the best athlete I can become.

“I’m ready to put in that work to get to where I need to be. I wouldn’t be satisfied if this was the peak of my career, I want to go higher, I want to bring the record down, I want to inspire more people and just see where my career takes me.”

Here’s to that, so.

***

Israel Olatunde was speaking at the launch of the SPAR College Fund which third level students in Ireland have the chance to win two prizes of €5,000 each to support them this academic year. SPAR has teamed up with the fastest Irish man in history and TikTok star Cian Mooney and calling on college students across Ireland to record a TikTok video in their local SPAR in under 10.17 seconds and share it to Cian Mooney’s TikTok channel to be in with a chance of winning. To find out more visit: www.spar.ie  

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