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'Even though Craig wasn't around, he was very much part of their journey to ensure they got there'

Two of Jeremy Lyons’ athletes at Dublin Sprint Club, Sophie Becker and Cillín Greene, are at the Olympic Games. The late Craig Lynch’s legacy will always live on in the group.

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THE JOURNEY TO an Olympic Games is one like no other. Exhilarating highs to gut-wrenching lows; good days and bad days; blood, sweat and tears.

It’s one a very limited amount of people across the world get to experience, and even fewer achieve that monumental feat of reaching the destination.

Two of Jeremy Lyons’ athletes at Dublin Sprint Club, Sophie Becker and Cillín Greene, join that elite group of Olympians this summer, all set for Tokyo 2020 with Ireland’s 4x400m mixed relay squad.

An incredibly proud coach, Lyons has spent the past few days and weeks on home soil, thinking about the journey. One person he keeps coming back to is the late Craig Lynch, the Irish athlete who had his life tragically cut short in a car accident in September 2019.

His immeasurable loss has been felt far and wide since, from his hometown of Shercock, county Cavan, to much further afield, both within and outside athletics circles.

Just 29 at the time of his passing, Lynch was at the peak of his powers. Training under the watchful eye of Lyons in his Dublin group, the Shercock AC star was bouncing back from a torrid run of injuries and returning to his brilliant best after the disappointment of his Irish 4x400m men’s relay team just missing out on qualification for Rio 2016.

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The destination was sadly never reached, the Olympic rings tattoo Lynch talked so much about never etched onto his skin.

That two of his training peers who he had such an influence on are now there, preparing to take to the biggest stage in the world, is both special and heartbreaking. It’s emotional, but a reminder that Lynch’s legacy lives on forever.

That’s something Lyons keeps coming back to.

“People on the outside, all they see is two names on a team, but I, as a coach, know what they have done, particularly Sophie for the last five years and Cillín for the last four years, and the journey that they’ve been on to get there,” he begins.

“Cillín essentially sealed his qualification at Nationals three or four weeks ago. That was five years to the day that Craig Lynch ran his PB at Nationals, literally five years to the day. It was pretty much an identical time that they both ran. Cillín ran 46.38, Craig that day ran 46.40. They were both in lane three.

“I was thinking there’s almost an element of poetry or romance to it, in the sense that their journey, which started five years ago, it was started for us by Craig. Craig went on the Olympic journey in 2013, 2014, to get to Rio, and ultimately, he didn’t make it.

“But what I learned and what the other athletes and coaches learned on his journey, I think, massively influenced the two in our group who eventually got there.

“He would have influenced them personally to various levels, but also me as a coach. What I learned from him has enabled the training to be such that those two ended up going to Tokyo.

“Craig didn’t get there, but he was part of their journey… even though he wasn’t around, he was very much part of their journey to ensure they got there.”

***

In the days after Lynch’s untimely death, Lyons spent a lot of time thinking. And talking.

What would he and his training group do now? How would they deal with what had happened? And how could they honour, and keep the memory of one of their finest athletes and friends, alive?

His mind kept wandering back to various different happenings, one which ultimately set the wheels in motion for the foundation of Dublin Sprint Club.

In the weeks previous, Lyons had applied for a job in DCU Athletics after Enda Fitzpatrick’s departure. “I was really excited around what kind of coaching environment I could build there,” he recalls, confident he was a good candidate. He didn’t get it, though.

Understandably, the ego was a bit bruised. He text the main man. “I remember I messaged Craig, and it was the standard, ‘F them.’ ‘Fuck them, J,’ he says, ‘You’d have lasted three months there, you dodged a bullet.’ I remember I was like, ‘He’s right, you know.’”

craig-lynch Craig Lynch in action at the 2016 European Athletics Championships. Source: Karen Delvoije/INPHO

As it turns out, that would be one of their last text exchanges, and one he would be recounting to Lynch’s father, Patsy, at his wake just days later on a miserable, rainy, dark evening in Shercock.

“Patsy’s obviously grieving but he was just laughing. Patsy was going, ‘God, yeah, that’s Craig all right, that’s Craig.’ Something then twigged with me, ‘Jesus, there was something there’.

“That kind of twigged my brain, wanting to build this coaching structure. I remember, my wife said to me, ‘Why don’t you just build… you didn’t get DCU but build your own coaching environment.”

The day after the funeral, Lyons met another of his athletes and a close friend of Lynch’s, Ger O’Donnell, for a coffee and a chat in Costa in Santry.

“Our group had been through a lot. We’d lost Craig, another person in our group had died tragically two years previously so as a group of young people, they’d been hit massively.

“I was reaching out to Ger. We talked about a lot of stuff. But in my brain was this other concept of, ‘Okay, let’s try build something here.’ It might seem like I’m making this up but it literally was the very next day.

“I said to Ger, ‘Look, let’s just change things, let’s build something here.’ I said, ‘Ger, you’re still an athlete, but I want you to come in and be a coach.’ He was like, ‘Absolutely’.

“We sat down there that day and put a plan in place. We brought in Aideen Sinnott as well, who was kind of working with us as a coach, and we created what is this Dublin Sprint Group. It’s not my training group; it’s Dublin Sprint Group.”

“That was the start of the journey,” he smiles.

“If I hadn’t done that, I don’t think the guys would have got to Tokyo because I was aware of the gap and shortfalls I had as a coach. Craig Lynch would have highlighted a lot of them because he was a high performance guy.

“That triggered me to kind of [say] ‘Look, we need to change things.’ And we did. From that day on that we just started doing things differently. It was a new approach.”

***

Becker, initially, was the biggest benefactor of the new era.

Having moved to Dublin from her native Wexford — she studied Genetics and Cell Biology in DCU — she joined Team Lyons and trained with Lynch through the winter of 2017.

“She was a very similar athlete to Craig,” Lyons says. “She’s a power athlete, she wasn’t shooting the lights out as a junior, a late developer. She was slowly building, organically kind of taking inputs from Craig.”

“The Craig template” was used for Becker: moving up the distances from 100m to 200m to 400m. In 2017, she finished 28th at U23 Europeans. She gradually chipped away from there, enjoying a bit of a breakthrough in 2019 as she made the senior team for Berlin. That same summer, she was ninth at U23 Europeans. Massive progress.

Now 24, she hasn’t looked back since, running a massive PB of 52.32 in Belfast in May which put her fifth on the Irish all-time list.

“Lockdown came, she took total ownership of her career athletically and just got into unbelievable shape,” Lyons continues. “Won the indoors, won the outdoors in 2020. 

“I’d seen this with Craig Lynch, with other athletes — and other coaches would say the same thing: You see a mindshift change in an athlete where they take ownership. In the winter of 2020, I saw that mindset change.

“As Craig would say, she went to the hurt locker. She went to the scary place as regards sessions. You think back to these moments…”

January 2021 immediately comes to mind.

A freezing cold, dirty day in Dublin. The wind swirling around Santry made it feel like minus 5 degrees, and as Lyons says himself, Becker was in for a “horrible session”. 400m, 300m, 200m on the limit. To the max.

After an amazing 400m and 300m, she was out on her feet. Lyons picks up the story.

“She was on the track and literally she couldn’t move. My natural approach as a coach would be to go, ‘Look, that’s fine’ and shut it down.

“But again, I learned from Lynch that sometimes when you’re pushing the envelope, you might need to feel there’s a bit of edginess and tension between the coach and the athlete. So I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna dial it up here a bit.’

“She was on the track crying, she had lactic tears, she couldn’t move. And I was like, ‘You have to get up off the track, you have to get up off the track.’ I was like, ‘Jesus, this is not my normal zone… but you have to do this.’

“I was lifting her off the track, walking her over to the start of the 200m to do her rep by herself. She’s not happy, she’s giving out, we’re fighting with each other. When she gets there, she runs it and she does an amazing rep to shut out her best session ever.

“She still talks about that; that day in Santry where she went to a place she had never gone to before. That edginess or that crustiness that was needed, you know?”

That’s just one example of the many, many learnings Lyons and his athletes took.

While Greene and Lynch didn’t cross over just as much in terms of training, they partnered up for bike rehab sessions after the former broke his elbow at European Indoors in 2019.

“Cillín, up to that, might have been doing bike sessions, thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s a bike session, a recovery,’ but he got a rude awakening when he started doing rehab sessions with Craig,” Lyons laughs.

“He’s barking at them; ‘Get your heads up!’ ‘Come on!’ ‘Push, push, push!’ Cillín was like, ‘Jesus, these are nearly harder than the track sessions!’”

He still talks about those invaluable grinds.

While they might not have spent just as much time on the track together, Galway man Greene still took indispensable nuggets of wisdom from Lynch.

“It wasn’t just the serendipity around the times and what they had done five years apart. Cillín’s a deep thinker, and he would think about things a lot and he would take a lot on board from people.

“While himself and Craig didn’t cross over a lot training-wise, any time he was with him, he would have learned from him. They were very different personalities.”

There and then, another brilliant story comes to Lyons.

When European standards came out in 2019, he got a WhatsApp message from Greene:

“God, the standards are out, they’re tough, they’re crazy,” it read.

cillin-greene-blesses-himself-before-his-heat Cillin Greene. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

They absolutely were, Lyons agrees, at 46.40.

“Straight away, I see 46.40, that was Craig Lynch’s PB,” he picks up. “I sent Cillín a message to say, ‘Look, that’s well within your grasp. You’ll have to up your game.’ When someone raises the bar, people rise to that.

“He’s like, ‘Absolutely, I just need to get my winter together’. And then I throw in a line to say, ‘It’s also Craig Lynch’s PB, which will be a nice one to beat!’”

The night before Nationals this year, when Greene essentially sealed his Olympic qualification after winning the 400m, he revisited that conversation.

“Cillín sent me a screenshot of that message and he goes, ‘Remember this message two years ago?’ He says, ‘I was just going through it, and I found this message that you’d sent to me around that time and around it being Craig’s PB.’

“He also said he had just re-read the article on The42 that you had done at that Christmas time around Craig, and he said it was motivation. He was taking motivation and solace from Craig in 2019 to start that journey, but then the night before Nationals this year, he was reading that story and he was taking motivation for him.

“I’d be talking to Craig’s sisters and Amy [his fiancée] and saying, ‘Craig’s legacy lives on.’ They might be thinking, ‘Ah, he’s just saying that,’ but it does, it really does. It permeates the group and that, for me, was just a really good example of it.”

***

#JustRace. Feel the fear and do it anyway. ‘You need to live your life just like Lynch would.’

His legacy is always there.

And as Lyons says, not just for the athletes, but for the coaches too. Himself, O’Donnell and Sinnott would attest to that, as would anyone lucky enough to have mentored Lynch on his own journey.

Another big learning he took, which he used with both Becker and Greene, is specific to relays: be the best team-mate you can be.

In 2014, Lynch was selected on the 4x400m relay squad for Europeans in Zurich, Switzerland, off the back of a stunning second-place finish at Nationals. A squad of six would go, with four selected to run.

“I had a sense that he mightn’t make the strike four,” Lyons remembers. “Knowing him, he was stubborn and outspoken and I was concerned about how he might react.”

Source: Soccerspective/YouTube

He remembered hearing Geno Auriemma, an NCAA women’s basketball coach, share some interesting thoughts around body language, and how you act on the bench.

The main point? If your body language is bad, you will never get in the game.

“I was saying this to him: if you don’t get selected, be professional. Be disappointed, challenge them, look for the rationale, but then draw a line in the sand. Move on, be professional, and be the best teammate.

“And he did that, which was a big step for him. I thought, ‘Jesus, if I got Craig Lynch to do that, I can get anyone to!’”

That’s something the group has taken with them since. Becker was a sub at World Relays in Poland in May, when the 4x400m mixed relay team qualified and clocked a national
record of 1:35.93. Of course, she was gutted, angry and frustrated. But she was prepared for that eventuality, and she knew what to do.

She sat down for a meeting with Ireland coach Drew Harrison, told him how she felt and accepted his reasoning, before moving on to be the best team-mate she could be, pushing the others on, and using her own disappointment as motivation.

Greene did the same as a sub on the 4x400m squad at U23 Championships in 2019.

“He was disappointed,” Lyons recalls. “I was over there with him. I said, ‘Get out there and warm up. Be the best team-mate you can be. Don’t be moping around, because that’s important, that affects the morale. These four guys are going out onto the track, if you’re just half-hearted going through a warm-up there, that’s going to affect them.’”

Lyons scheduled a 300m time trial for when the strike four went into the call room, so Greene warmed up as if he was lining out, deadly focused on the job at hand and supporting the others.

He “knocked the socks off” the time trial, running a training PB before watching his team-mates’ relay from the stand. That was the lesson: professionalism, from both an athlete and coach’s perspective, is key.

Another big learning Lyons took relates to “the Craig template” and the transition to 400m running, one which Greene followed as well as Becker.

He remembers one particular 400m race Lynch ran in the UK in 2016. “It was terrible because he didn’t commit, he was afraid, he was afraid of going too hard and blowing up.”

A few days later, he was forced to run the same distance at a Dublin Graded Meet in Irishtown. The plan? Gun it to 250m, and who cares what happens after that. That’s exactly what he did, mastering the first half of the race and then taking it from there.

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

“I was reading an article by Paul Kimmage a while back about sprinters and how you need to be not afraid to crash. The 400m, is very similar. I learned that from Craig — in 400m, you can’t be afraid to blow up.”

“You nearly have to let them fail, where they go too hard and they crawl home for the last 50m,” he adds, noting that Becker and Greene went through the same process, trying different race patterns to strike a fine balance.

“Those little learnings where you have to commit, we learned that with Craig. It took a longer time with Craig, but because of that, we were able to do it quicker with Sophie and Cillín, and the other kids coming through now. That was a hard-earned learning with him down through the years which we’re profiting from with the current crop that we have.”

***

While Lyons is rooted firmly on these shores for the Games, he’s content in the knowledge that the hard work is done as his athletes settle into their holding camp in Japan.

They’re adjusting to the new time zone and the ferocious humidity, focused on the job at hand alongside team-mates Phil Healy, Chris O’Donnell, Cliodhna Manning, and Robert McDonnell.

He tries to catch them around breakfast time in the Land of the Rising Sun, continuing the trend of remote communication we’ve become so accustomed to through the pandemic.

Fortunately, Ger O’Donnell is in Tokyo with the Team Ireland media crew so he’s communicating on the same timezone, while Shane McCormack — Phil Healy’s coach and a good friend of Lyons’ — is with them in camp.

“Shane nearly second guesses what our approach is anyway,” Lyons nods. “He’s helping the guys.

“The other bit is we try to create athletes that are self-sufficient, that can look after themselves. They don’t need to be handheld, they know what to do. They can nearly write the programme, we’re literally just facilitating them. Cillín and Sophie are at the level now.

“For me, it’s fine. This is the easy part in some ways, there’s not much more I can do. It’s just being patient and not saying stupid things to them in messages or on the video chats, just keep them keep them calm, cool and focused on the job, the performance and preparation.”

That performance is needed on Friday night at the Olympic Stadium as the 4x400m mixed relay heats are decided. A new event at these Games, two men and two women run for each team on the day, with the final pencilled in for the Saturday.

The big question: What can we expect from Becker, Greene, and Ireland, so?

“I think sometimes in athletics, we’re kind of too for too hard on ourselves,” Lyons answers.

“There’s 16 countries in the mixed relay in Tokyo. You talk about football; 32 countries go to the World Cup, and more often than not, Ireland don’t make it. In the Olympics, there’s 16 countries that have qualified and Ireland is one of those.

“So already, they are at the pointy end of athletics. They’re going out there as one of the the top teams in the world. On times, I haven’t done the full analysis yet and Drew will do all that with them.

“Could they make a final potentially? They’d have to run the race of their lives, all four of them. That’s possible. 12 months ago, Sophie was running 53.6, now she’s running 52.3 – that’s 1.3 seconds [shaved off], maybe nine or 10 metres on the track. Cillín, the same. This time last year or two years ago, he was running 47.7, he’s now running 46.1 — 1.6 seconds. So they have gone to a new level.

“I would say the strength of the squad is such that if any combination of two and two is picked, it will be a hair’s breadth what they’ll run. I don’t want to be saying they’re top 16 in the world, they’re just happy with that. But we have to put that in context, that’s huge.

“I’d be guessing that they’ll be pushing to get a final, top eight, but the standard… the Olympics is the biggest show on earth. It’s all about performance on the day.”

As we all know, there is much more to life than sport. Just look at the common thread running through this piece. The one person Lyons keeps coming back to is the late Craig Lynch. That puts it all into perspective.

As journalist Cathal Dennehy put it shortly after his passing, ‘Never had athletics felt so unimportant, yet never had it seemed so vital’.

For Lyons and co., for Sophie Becker and for Cillín Green, there’s a huge amount of emotion tied to this. Reflecting on the journey from his viewpoint, Lyons couldn’t be prouder of his dynamic duo.

“It’s a hard one to describe. I was trying to think about this. As a coach, young athletes come to you with these dreams. They trust you with their dreams so you do get paternal, protective and it is emotional.

“It’s a slow burn as well — they run a great time, they’re in contention and then they have to go through a couple of weeks, there’s a selection window where there might be delays in announcements. It’s a slow burn, so it probably doesn’t sink in.

“But it’s massively proud. As an athlete, the pinnacle is the Olympics. They’ve achieved it, so as a coaching group, Aideen, Ger and myself, we’re massively proud of that.”

And there’s no question about it, the main man looking down from above is just as proud as the coaching trio, willing them on their way.

And of course, continuing to influence them on their journey to the destination he sadly never reached.

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Emma Duffy

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