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'It's hard to explain how much it hurts not being able to realise my Olympic dream'

Irish track star Mary Cullen talks about her latest Games heartbreak, trying to find her way again and why she is excited to see Ciara Mageean take to the track in Rio.

Mary Cullen (centre) in action in 2015.
Mary Cullen (centre) in action in 2015.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Updated 12.00 

MARY CULLEN MIGHT be smiling again but the tears have only just dried up.

Having missed out on yet another Olympic Games through injury, the sporting event she loves so dearly yet the one which has caused her so much anguish, the Sligo native, who turns 34 next week, finds herself at another crossroads after clocking up thousands upon thousands of miles.

She will support her compatriots from afar over the coming days but with no Irish representative in Cullen’s 5000m event, which gets under way on Tuesday, she can ignore the action guilt-free.

Having missed out on Beijing in 2008 with a calf injury, Cullen was in the form of her life a year later when she claimed a 3000m bronze medal in Turin at the European Indoor Championships, breaking Sonia O’Sullivan’s Irish record in the process.

She failed to make the qualifying time for London and it was too late to get home from the US for the Irish nationals when she cruelly heard that ‘B’ standard times would be good enough after all.

So essentially the Rio pot was a big one and Cullen went all in.

But disaster struck again; following one of her longest spells of fitness in an injury-hampered career a hamstring issue reared its ugly head and her hopes folded at the final hurdle despite a couple of promising runs earlier in the season.

When she ran 15.26.53 on 1 April at the Stanford Invitational, just over two and a half seconds off that treasured qualifying mark (15.24), the 2015 Irish 5000m champion seemed destined to finally make her Olympic bow in Brazil.

“This is going to be my time, this is going to happen,” she thought.

Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

But it never materialised from there and with time and races running out, Sligo athletics coach Dermot McDermott took matters into his own hands and organised a special track event at IT Sligo to help Cullen get over the line.

It was 23 June, just over two weeks away from the July 11 cut-off date for Rio qualification.

McDermott pulled out all the stops, pacemakers were even flown in, and an incredible crowd of young and old showed up to support a local woman desperate to become the Connacht county’s first female Olympian.

Rattled with nerves and feeling the pressure, Cullen didn’t know what to expect. She had a lump in her throat before she even arrived at the track. Then she saw, and heard, the boisterous crowd.

But just a couple of laps in Cullen started to feel another twinge in that blasted hamstring. She knew there was no way she could make the qualification standard now although she still finished in a respectable time.

Having the enthusiastic onlookers there made it tougher to digest. Another Olympic dream, another what could have been.

It was devastating at the time and things got worse as she had to pull out of the European Championships in Amsterdam two weeks later with the same injury. That sealed it, redemption in Rio wasn’t to be.

Looking back now though, Cullen is inspired by it all. She recognises something very special happened at 9pm that night at the Knocknarea Arena.

“People do support me at home and it’s great,” Cullen told The42.

“But that night in Sligo, to actually see it right in front of me, I couldn’t get over it.

“The amount of kids and families that came in to support me.

Obviously there was a bit afterwards where I felt I had let everybody down. That was emotionally hard — there were a lot of tears that evening.

“For me, not making Rio was the gutting part about it. But days after it I still had people coming up to me saying that it was an amazing night. And that helps.

“I was feeling guilty about not running the time that night. But you look at the amount of kids who were there. And if any of those kids get inspired by it, not necessarily just to go running but for anything at all, that makes it worthwhile.

“People have said to me since that I probably won’t fully appreciate what happened in Sligo until all is said and done, and they’re probably right.”

Mileage

Cullen has tried all sorts to ease the stress on her body; mixing up the mileage, adding cross training, and running on grass. But no matter what she does, her muscles just keep giving in.

As was the case just over a month ago, she knows she’s running out of time. But on this occasion, it’s on a grander scale. And that’s brought about some deep questions in the North Sligo AC athlete’s mind.

“It’s hard to explain to non-runners — you put in all this effort and time into it,” Cullen, who is coached by Ray Treacy, brother of Irish Sports Council CEO John, said.

“People don’t see when you’re running your 80 miles a week or your 90 miles a week.

“You might just see the snippet of the 12 and a half laps and nothing of all the stuff leading up to that point.

“Although we [runners] are still aware that there are so many worse things going on in the world we’re obviously so selfish and in our own little bubble, it’s hard to explain to people how much it hurts to not be able to live the dream that you’ve always wanted.

“So then afterwards I did question it a bit, I was like: ‘What was the point of that? What was the point of me getting so close and for it not to happen?’”

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

As she grasps her coffee in a quiet west Dublin café, fresh from an 8km run, Cullen is honest about her current point of uncertainty. At least putting miles in the legs is still easing the pain in her mind.

She hasn’t fallen out of love with running just yet, and it’s unlikely that flame will ever extinguish, no matter how rocky the relationship gets. She’s come a long way since she first fell head over heels for the sport as a teenager at the Community Games. But the journey isn’t over yet.

Cullen knows something must change if she wants to prolong her career and a move to half-marathon and marathon running now looks most likely.

She may not have raced further than 10km to date but she is already taking inspiration from the likes of Cavan’s Catherina McKiernan, who made the transition from the track to the 26.2 miles with great success.

And Cullen is hoping that the lower-intensity work will be kinder on her injury-prone body.

“I’m hoping the longer approach of the marathon might suit me a bit better but obviously it’s unknown to me,” Cullen explained.

Catriona McKiernan had amazing times over five and 10km and then she went on to become an unbelievable marathon runner, so you can’t help but think maybe it will suit me better.

“But it’s a different animal and it’s very hard to know at this stage. It’s easy to say it.

“Right now the short-term goal is try to get over the heartache of Rio and at the same time try to get back on the horse.”

Heartbroken she may be, but Cullen can’t hide her excitement when asked about Ciara Mageean, who warned the world of her talent when claiming bronze in the women’s 1,500m in Amsterdam.

Source: Karel Delvoije/INPHO

Mageean’s Rio heat gets under way early tomorrow morning and while many may have been caught off-guard by the Co Down native’s achievement last month, Cullen certainly wasn’t.

“It’s just amazing to see her back after such a rough time with injuries. She’s obviously so talented.

“You see it a lot with young, successful junior athletes, that they don’t always come through. But with her, we always knew she had the ability.

“I think she’s in an amazing place going to Rio, for a 1,500m runner. Even Jenny Simpson, one of the top Americans, her PB over 800 is about the same as Ciara’s now, like 2 flat.

If it’s a tactical race and Ciara gets herself in the final, I just think anything, especially over 1,500, can happen.

Mageean’s story, of course, was all the more remarkable as the 24-year-old has also been blighted by injuries in recent times, a common theme among Ireland’s track squad — Mark English (800m), Thomas Barr (400m hurdles) and Ciara Everard (800m) having also had their issues of late.

And that’s no coincidence, Cullen explains.

“It’s just that fine line, you’re pushing your body to that level. You want to be right on it but it’s so easy for the body to break down so close to the big events.”

The gold medallist during Cullen’s finest hour, when she claimed bronze in Turin in 2009, was Alemitu Bekele, an Ethiopian-born Turk who received a four-year doping ban in 2013.

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

So it comes of little surprise to hear how vocal Cullen is on two of the darker themes that are likely to dominate the track and field events; doping, and more specifically the Russian problem, and the ‘recruitment’ programme of Turkey.

The Turks were the talk of Amsterdam, and not in a good way, with seven Kenyans, two Jamaicans, including sprinter Jak Ali Harvey (formerly known as Jacques Harvey), and one athlete each from Ethiopia, South Africa, Azerbaijan and Ukraine among their European Championships squad.

Yasemin Can, formerly Kenyan star Vivian Jemutai, of course made the headlines here after cruising to 10,000m gold, a performance which pushed a disgruntled Fionnuala McCormack out of the medal places.

McCormack was unerring in her criticism of the situation, describing it as a joke, and Cullen understands her prerogative better than most.

“There is a bad feeling towards some of the Turkish athletes.

“When Bekele beat me in 2009 we didn’t know anything about her when she came into the race. I remember Ray sending me an email about her.

“And then, after winning in 2009, she ended up testing positive and getting a four-year ban four years later.

“I know some people were saying about Fionnuala that was it sour grapes but it’s not. It’s so hard for her, it’s happened to her a couple of times now. I think she [Can] only just qualified for Turkey in May of this year.

“They’re obviously just paying people to come over and run. They’re not living in the country, they’re not contributing anything to the country.

How can they even stand on the podium and listen to the anthem? Something needs to change.

As for Russian athletes, Cullen insists life bans must be enforced, and beyond the glory that athletes miss out on when losing to dopers, it’s also a financial issue for many who are struggling to fund their careers in the sport.

Domestic

On a domestic level, Cullen is calling for more to be done to help ease retired athletes into the next phase of their lives.

After spending so many hours, days and years striving for one goal, which in some cases goes by in a matter of minutes, or in Cullen’s case doesn’t come at all, there is a real danger they will struggle to find their way once the blinkers come off.

Irish athletes such as 400m star David Gillick and 2012 Olympic marathon runner Linda Byrne have opened up in recent times about the low places they have descended to when trying to tread a new path without the comfort of their running shoes.

David Gillick made a remarkable return to international competition earlier this year. Source: Karel Delvoije/INPHO

“They have a lifestyle coach that kind of helps you with those things but I still think that, especially for runners, more needs to be done.

“These athletes are so focused on just running. The lifestyle has to be so strict that it doesn’t really allow for other distractions.

“Someone like Derval O’Rourke was great at running and planning for afterwards but some athletes just aren’t, they’re just very focused on what they want to do.

“It would be good to see Athletics Ireland have someone to help athletes in that situation.

Even for me, with all my injuries, if I didn’t have my family and that support I wouldn’t have got through a lot of those stages in my career. I don’t know if people realise how tough it is to deal with those kind of things by yourself.

“Even if it was just to use athletes, I know a lot of the Australian athletes if they’re funded they have to go into schools and help with kids.

“It’s a part of your funding almost, stuff like that might make it a bit easier to get to that next stage.”

As for Cullen’s next stage — who knows?

Sixteen years ago the then wide-eyed 17-year-old found herself heading to Providence College, Rhode Island on a sports scholarship, with a degree in social science on the side. It was running first and education a distant second.

Bizarrely, a wiser Cullen now finds herself at a similar crossroads; butterflies in her stomach, not knowing what’s ahead, just trying to enjoy her running again.

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About the author:

Alan Waldron

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