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'Oh my God, this Irish girl can run': The rise and rise of Nadia Power

An in-depth look at the 23-year-old DCU student, after her incredible few weeks.

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Updated at 11.05

A COUPLE of years ago, Nadia Power made a decision that looked destined to have a major impact on her career.

A hugely talented athlete as a youngster, the Dubliner’s prowess ensured US colleges were lining up to recruit her on a scholarship.

Villanova University in Pennsylvania has traditionally been home to a number of Irish athletics stars, while Iona College in New York and Providence College in Rhode Island were both strongly considered before Power ultimately chose the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

After spending the first half of the year there, she came home to Dublin and made a call to Enda Fitzpatrick, Dublin City University’s (DCU) Athletics Academy director at the time and told him the American stint was not going to work out.

She was unaccustomed to the daily eight-mile runs her US coach was demanding of the athletes, and felt concerned that this intense schedule was at least partly responsible for the team’s extensive injury list.

Power agreed with Fitzpatrick’s suggestion to at least see the year out in Virginia, but more problems ensued.

The coach was insisting Power and a British-based colleague needed to come back two days earlier than originally planned from the Christmas holidays in order to attend a team meeting. 

Acceding to this belated request would have meant paying an extra €700 for the flight change and so, both Power and her team-mate opted to defy the order and stick with the original plan.

Upon her return to the US, the coach was furious. Power was temporarily suspended and also saw her scholarship funding cut. Within two weeks, she was back in Dublin again in the knowledge that she would not be reluctantly returning Stateside a second time.

At the time, some people might have questioned the decision. In hindsight, however, it looks like a wise one, and epitomises the single-mindedness that has driven Power to remarkable heights.

***

On Friday, Power will compete in the European Indoors, her first senior championships on the back of some incredible form that has made her one of the most exciting Irish athletes of recent times.

Fitzpatrick vaguely remembers first coming across her about 15 years ago, when she was just eight.

Mr Fitzpatrick — as he is known to the more than 100 young ladies in sixth year at Holy Faith Clontarf where he is their year head while simultaneously teaching Maths, Geography and PE — had an impressive athletics career in his own right.

The Longford native is a former international 1,500m runner and sub-four minute miler, while his wife, Róisín Smyth, represented Ireland at the 1984 Olympics in the 3,000m.

His two daughters, Sarah and Eimear, carried on the tradition, and every member of the family now has run internationally and won an All-Ireland cross-country title.

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Eimear ran in the same age group as Nadia, which explains the longstanding connection between her and Fitzpatrick.

Another standout athlete in this age group was Carla Sweeney, a close friend of Power to this day, with the pair attending St Mac Dara’s Community College together.

Eimear, meanwhile, went to the nearby Our Ladys School and was also friendly with the pair.

“There were three girls that used to run against each other, who lived within a mile of each other, over here in Rathfarnham/Templeogue,” Fitzpatrick recalls.

While the trio were friendly away from the track, they were certainly rivals on it.

“Their paths kept crossing. In final year, Carla might have won the Irish schools 800m, Nadia won the 1500m and Eimear won the 1500m steeplechase all on the same day.”

fionnuala-britton-with-enda-fitzpatrick-her-dcu-coach Enda Fitzpatrick, pictured above with Fionnuala McCormack, has been an important figure in Irish athletics for many years. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Now a top-class 800m runner, Power in an interview with Cathal Dennehy last year explained her decision to pursue 1500m throughout school as a means of avoiding directly competing against the similarly accomplished Sweeney.

Part of Fitzpatrick’s role in DCU — before his acrimonious departure in 2019 after 15 successful years — was to scout and recruit promising young athletes to their programme.

Upon learning of Power’s desire to go to America after school, Fitzpatrick emphasised importance of having a back-up plan.

“I just said to her: ‘Don’t take your eye off the ball here, just make sure you get the best Leaving Cert you can get.’ The course she wanted to do was marketing in DCU.

“I said to her: ‘If you get the points for that course, of course you accept it and defer your place until the following year.

“That’s exactly what she did do, after she did a really good Leaving.”

After Power returned from America, with a couple of free months before beginning in DCU, Fitzpatrick agreed to start working with her immediately, after getting the blessing of previous coach at Templeogue AC, Stephen Holt.

Fitzpatrick helped persuade her to make the switch from 1500m to 800m, and Power’s progress ever since has been astonishing.

The 2019 season gave the first indications of her potential, as she finished third, earning Power a bronze medal at the U23 European Championships.

“I’m sure lots of people were saying Ireland would be lucky to win a medal there, but I was very confident,” remembers Fitzpatrick.

“That was our plan for that year and we followed it. We didn’t tell too many people. But we went to the European U23s and we came back with that medal. That gave us great confidence. Then we’re thinking: ‘Okay, next year is the Olympics. What’s the aim? I’d love to make the Olympics.’

“My gut feeling would be the earlier you go, the better, because you’re going to get experience. But if it was in 2020, would it have been a year too early [for Nadia]? I’m not too sure. I thought we would have a great chance even last year to go there. But because it was cancelled, that probably worked in our favour.”

***

To say Power has had a good start to 2021 would be putting it mildly.

In January, at the Vienna indoor meet, she set a new Irish 800m record, finishing second with a time of 2:02.44.

And just a couple of weeks later, at the World Indoor Tour in Torun, she broke her own record, finishing third in a time of 2:00.98.

There were similarly impressive performance last month in Metz (2:02.96) and Liévin (2:03.84).

And last week, her stellar season continued in Madrid at the final World Indoor Tour, finishing third in 2:01.55 — her third fastest overall time ever.

imago-20190713 Power pictured with Ellie Baker and Jemma Reekie of Great Britain after winning a medal at the European U23 Championships. Source: Imago/PA Images

As well as providing major confidence boosts, these displays could also prove crucial when it comes to determining ranking points, which can help Power achieve her goal of making it to the Tokyo Olympics.

“And it’s not just to make up the numbers,” says Fitzpatrick. “I don’t see why we can’t go to an Olympic semi-final.

“I don’t see why they couldn’t do that first time out. So our target will be to go there and perform. But you’ve got to get there first.”

While she won’t be taking anything for granted, Power appears to be in a healthy position as it stands in regard to Olympic qualification.

There are 48 places available in the women’s 800m, with a maximum of three athletes per country.

The qualifying standard of 1.59.50 is more difficult than usual, with 22 athletes in the world currently having met that criteria to reach Tokyo automatically.

To put the difficulty of that task into perspective, only one Irish woman, Ciara Mageean, has ever run under two minutes, achieving a time of 1:59.69 – still just short of the automatic qualifying criteria — in Bern, Switzerland, last year.

The remaining places will be decided by ranking points. Power’s score of 1184 currently has her inside the top 48 in 37th place.

The points are based on your five best performances — two of which can be indoor, with the other three outdoor. Fitzpatrick is confident Power can improve on the latter area in particular as she bids to realise her dream.

“To be honest, I would think 1184 points should be enough to get her there even if she never ran another race,” he adds. “But look, included in that are poor-ish 800m times from 2019. That was two years ago when we were concentrating on the U23s. We didn’t run too many races back then. We still ran 2:02 something, but if we run three outdoor races in May or June, that ranking should go up even more.”

***

It’s been a fairly remarkable couple of weeks for Irish athletics in general. Four days after Power set a second indoor record within a couple of weeks, Síofra Cléirigh Buttner eclipsed her feat with a time of 2:00.58 at an American Track League Meeting.

Fitzpatrick puts the series of brilliant performances down to a number of factors, including the greater rest and preparation time afforded to athletes owing to Covid, the lack of crowds decreasing the pressure, and the specialised running shoes that a number of competitors are availing of.

“If you had turned around at the start of the year and said there would be six [Irish] girls that would have qualified for the European Indoor Championships, I’d say that’s crazy, because it never happened before,” he adds.

“The seven fastest times recorded by Irish women indoors are after happening in the last month.”

a-view-of-the-athletics-arena-in-torun-ahead-of-the-start-of-the-european-athletics-indoor-championships Power is set to compete at the European Athletics Indoor Championships on Friday. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Power herself has benefited from undertaking a training camp in Portugal at the beginning of the year.

Teaching commitments mean Fitzpatrick is not always able to join the star on her trips to various parts of the globe and so Louis Heyer, a Swiss coach, agreed to work with her.

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The camp was of a very high standard – Selina Buchel of Switzerland, a two-time European Indoor 800m gold medallist, was there, as were fellow European medal winners Lovisa Lindh and Joanna Jozwik of Sweden and Poland respectively.

Yet even in this esteemed company, Power managed to stand out.

“All of a sudden, Nadia is down there and she’s training with athletes that are much better. She’s thinking: ‘I can actually run with these.’

“Obviously, I’m getting reports back from Louis, saying: ‘Oh my God, this Irish girl can run, Enda.’”

After Buchel picked up an injury, Heyer was ultimately instrumental in persuading race promoters to let Power take her spot in some of the events where she ended up running such impressive times over the past couple of weeks.

athletics-sainsburys-anniversary-games-day-two-the-stadium-at-queen-elizabeth-olympic-park Power recently was part of a training camp that featured top Swiss athlete Selina Buchel. Source: Martin Rickett

***

Power, though, deserves immense credit for performing so well amid difficult circumstances. Fitzpatrick does a good job conveying the sheer chaos involved in simply making it to the start line of these events, while simultaneously undertaking her degree in marketing (Power is in final year, but has arranged a situation whereby she will complete 50% of her credits this year and the remaining 50% after the Olympics). He recounts the endless Covid tests, car drives, early flights and long waits at airports that have dominated her schedule of late, yet the Irish star has managed to excel regardless.

“You’ve got to admire a 23-year-old girl that’s able to navigate all that herself. She did most of it herself. She’s the one who’s organising Covid tests and still performing really well.

“Doesn’t that tell you something about her character? She’s very focused. She’s a very positive person. Myself and herself get on very well. She trusts me and I trust her.”

jessie-barr Former Irish athlete Jessie Barr is Power's sports psychologist. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

As well as Fitzpatrick, Power also is assisted by strength-and-conditioning coach Donie Fox, physio Tom Lennon and sports psychologist Jessie Barr among others, while there have been plenty of personal sacrifices along the way too.

“People might think she makes a lot of money, she doesn’t. At this moment in time, we’re still waiting to get some funding. Sport Ireland fund Athletics Ireland around March, and they reimburse athletes. But by the time they get it, it’s long spent. So you’ve got to have savings in order to get to where she is. Nadia said to me she’s probably spent almost €1500 on Covid tests alone. And then all the travel, and staying in hotels, it’s really expensive. 

“The other perception is: ‘She’s a lucky girl and she’s off having great fun.’ But she trains bloody hard.

“In essence, you do have to be very different and you sacrifice an awful lot to concentrate on the sport and it’s kind of a lonely sport if you think about it.”

Inevitably, with all her recent achievements, the hype surrounding Power is growing, and Fitzpatrick admits she sometimes finds dealing with all this media scrutiny to be taxing.

“One of the reasons I asked her to go off down to Madrid, she’ll be away from the media. I’m thinking ‘this is great, I’ll do all the talk’. So I’m kind of protecting her from that too, and that’s important.

“The expectation, of course, is that she’s going to go to the European Indoors and get a medal. How many medals have Ireland ever won at the European Indoors? The bottom line, it’s only her first season in the European Championship, that’s a huge ask. 

“So on Friday, the most important thing for Nadia is to get out of her heat. She’s has got to get to her semi-final. And when you get to the semi-final, anything can happen.

“Forget about all the media building it up saying ‘we’re going to get a medal’. And I’m not saying we’re not going to get a medal. But we’ve got to be realistic. Her sole target for the year is getting to the Olympic Games.

“So I would argue ‘let’s get through one race and get a bit of experience’. If you look at the European Indoors, that’s where you assimilate what’s going to happen at the Olympic Games. You’re going to run three races in three days, and that’s exactly what you do at the Olympics. So it’s really good practice.”

***

Whatever happens next, Power has come a long way from that talented eight-year-old girl Fitzpatrick first encountered.

Her background is certainly atypical, compared with the average runner. Born to an Irish mother and Sudanese father, her mum played camogie when she was younger (as did Nadia up until the age of 16), while her dad was a lecturer in Maynooth University.

Yet she prefers to keep her family life separate to the sporting one, to the extent that even Fitzpatrick knows very little about her mum and dad, aside from briefly chatting to them at races and running into them occasionally in Rathfarnham.

“And she’s an only girl. She’s a very grounded individual and because you’re an individualistic girl, you’ll have that little bit of certain-ness as well. So what I like about this girl is she’s well able to articulate what she wants. She knows what she’s about. She’s not afraid to say ‘no’ and some people might find that a bit rude, but I like it. She’s got that independent-mindedness that you need to be a successful athlete. She has that in abundance.

“And she is being well looked after. She’s just after signing a contract with Adidas, so in due course, she’ll have a pair of shoes that will go a bit quicker, so I would be thinking outdoors, we’ll go under two minutes as well. 

“But we’re running quick enough as it is without the shoe, so we don’t talk about it, we just go out and run fast.”

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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Paul Fennessy

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