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'She didn't realise she was that talented' - how a Cork bullet became Ireland's fastest woman

Phil Healy is ready for her first Olympic Games. This is how she got on track.

Phil Healy

CORK SPRINTER PHIL Healy was at a training camp in Spain when she had a conversations with her coach that would help shape her career in athletics.

It was a chat that would ultimately change her trajectory in life too.

But if she was serious about maximising her output on the track, she would need to reassess in order to progress.

At this point in 2015, Healy was into her second year of working under the tutelage of Shane McCormack after previously working under Liz Cooney in Bandon AC. Her 2014 season had been a pivotal one. Still only in her late teens, she had qualified for the European senior outdoor championships in Zurich where she narrowly missed out on the semi-finals for the 100m.

McCormack remembers how journalist Cliona Foley remarked on the manner of Healy’s post-race interview. That there was a hint in her tone suggesting better days lay ahead for her.

That would prove to be an accurate prediction as Healy went on to devour national records and earn the title of Fastest Woman In Ireland. But for now, Healy needed to face down a hard truth. She was a second year nursing student at the time, balancing a hectic schedule of working on wards and 12-hour shifts along with her running commitments.

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She was also training remotely, hours away from McCormack’s base in Wexford. He knew she had Olympic aspirations on her mind, but this arrangement was no longer serving her potential.

And as honourable a profession as nursing might be, McCormack couldn’t dress up the facts that she needed to hear.

“She just wasn’t running well,” McCormack tells The42 from Ireland’s pre-camp base in Tokyo for the Olympics.

“She just lost fitness, she couldn’t train as much. We had to pull back her training for safety. She was doing 12 hours standing on her feet.

“So, everything just went out the window. She wanted to be the best and wanted to be in the Olympics.

“I said, ‘I get it, I support what you’re doing but as a coach, you’re not giving me the ability to coach you to that place. You’ll never get there with nursing. And I’m not telling you to stop nursing but eyes wide open, we both know that it’s not helping.’

“That’s an emotional thing to deal with but she was a girl in second year in college. She didn’t really know where her life was going. It was a very conflicting time for her. But in fairness, she decided that she wanted to change. She didn’t want to be a nurse, she wanted to be an athlete.

“When she decided she wanted to change, I was like, ‘Whatever you want to do in life, I’ll support you 110%. If you’re making this sacrifice, I’ll match it.’”

The Ballineen bullet 

Healy wasn’t an early bloomer in athletics. As her sister Joan recalls, she inclined more towards camogie as a youngster and was an unwilling participant at athletics training. But because her sister was already going, she agreed to keep tagging along.

Their two brothers — Diarmuid and Pádraig — are GAA-centric too. Joan reckons Pádraig has the ability to be a strong 400m runner but has “absolutely no interest.” There’s also a strong aptitude for sprinting on both their mother and father’s side of the family. 

The running bug finally sunk its teeth into Phil when she reached fifth year in secondary school.

“She definitely followed in my footsteps because I was making European and World championships as a junior,” Joan remembers.

“She got exposed to that from a really young age. They all travelled to all the competitions with me to all the different countries so when she was a young teenager, she got to see what it was like to be a major championship.”

Joan points to her sister’s gradual success at Munster schools events before eventually winning finals at All-Irelands and coming home from her first appearance at a European Junior championship in Italy with a fourth-place finish.

Buoyed that result, a then 18-year-old Healy sent an email to McCormack requesting that be her coach and raise her stock even higher.

phil-healy-and-shane-mccormack-before-the-races Phil Healy and Shane McCormack pictured at the 2019 Cork City Sports. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I don’t think she really believed in herself and didn’t realise she was that talented,” says McCormack.

“When she sent the email and the manner in which she wrote it was like, ‘Let’s see if we can make this work.’ Obviously, it was going to be a remote set-up. I was at a point in my coaching career where I had the energy to give to this. I knew she was special and talented.

“Whilst I’ve had some really good athletes in my past, not at the level she was at. I sort of felt like I was ready for the challenge so we started then.”

The 60m and 100m were Healy’s specialist events when she started out, going on to break the Irish record for the latter in 2018 when she thundered home in 11.24. It was around this time that she became known as the Ballineen bullet — or the Bandon bullet if you want to give a nod to the location of her club.

But despite having the skills for dash distances, Healy was rusty out of the blocks over the first 10 to 20 metres.

“She wasn’t even a good 200m runner by her standards now,” McCormack notes.

“She still had schools records over the distance but she wasn’t shooting the lights out. That first year was really about improving her start and she did run a national U23 record indoor over 60m. So, we got some pretty quick gains.”

Sister Sister

The way Joan Healy reflects on it now, if Phil didn’t have her example to follow, she might never have carved out the career she now has in athletics. And without her younger sister’s support, Joan may well have handed in her badge and walked away from the sport entirely.

One couldn’t be without the other.

On the day we speak, the eldest of the Healys explains how she dropped Phil and McCormack to the airport for their trip to Tokyo that they have waited forever to take. The Covid-19 pandemic pushed their plans back a year, but now Phil is finally in Japan for her first appearance at an Olympics.

“I got to give my contribution to their leg of the journey because it’s as far as we get to go,” says Joan, her voice carrying an air of disappointment that the family won’t be able to travel and watch Phil’s every step on the track.

Their locality is packed with posters and flags in Phil’s honour, wishing their girl from West Cork the best of luck.

But as proud as Joan is of her sibling, there was a time when Phil’s success was difficult for her to process.

The arc of Phil’s sprinting progress was on a constant rise while Joan’s had stalled.

“I had actually picked up some really bad injuries and it had stopped me in my tracks.

“I went from not being able to train to being completely on the sidelines and then I was the one tagging along to all the competitions. But to be quite honest, if Phil wasn’t at the level she was at and wasn’t doing as well as she was, I probably would have packed it in. So if it wasn’t for Phil’s success, I wouldn’t be in this sport.

“I really rely on her now because I’m coming back from my injuries. I did get another bad one this year but I’m coming back off it and she’s been there with me all along the way and offering so much advice. She’s really pulled me out of some dark holes.”

During a training session, Joan remarks that there’s “no messing” with her sister and the business is serious from minute one.

“I don’t even know how to describe her. A session is tough but it’s just the way she goes about the session, there’s just no stopping her. You see her run a rep and she’s in a bin gawking her life away and the next thing you know she’s back on the track again and doing another rep.

“The determination has always been there from a young age. When she sets her mind to something, she’s doing it and giving it 100%. She’s like that in athletics and academics and all other aspects of her life.”

The pair have often competed against each other too, crossing paths in 60m and 100 races. Phil remains a master speedster but has branched into 200m and 400m running as well.

On the occasions when they do end up in the same race, for those few moments between the blocks and the finish line, their family attachment goes to one side and everyone on the starting line is an opponent.

Serena and Venus don’t cough up points to spare each other’s feelings so why would the Healy’s drop their competitive guard?

“There’s not much talk between the two of us,” Joan points out. “But the two of us know where each other’s strengths are. She knows I’m going to be gone at the start and not to panic, whereas I know I’m going to be gone at the start but she’s going to come through like a train.

“When you cross the finish line, we’re back to being sisters again. We kind of treat each other like any other person on the start line. You don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, I’m racing against my sister,’ or ‘I’d love my sister to win.’ No, you’re looking for yourself so that goes out the window and you treat each other like anyone else on the start line. Every man for themselves.”

The bumps in the road

Healy’s name is synonymous with success. The list of national records that have fallen under her spikes are a few clicks away on Google. After setting that new 100m record in Santry in 2018, she told The42 that she went into that race treating it as a “warm-up” for the 400m that was coming after.

Later that summer, she became the first Irish woman to break the 23-second barrier over 200m at the prestigious at the Cork City Sports.

And of course, Healy is responsible for one of the most heartening viral videos of all time. Her performance for UCC in the last leg of a 4x400m relay at the Irish Universities Track and Field Championships in 2016 will forever be immortalised in Cathal Dennehy’s famous description ‘From the depths of Hell.’

Only dogs could hear the high pitches of the excellent commentary as Healy torched a path from way back the field to edge out UCD’s Michelle Finn and collapse over the line to win.

Healy became a sensation and a symbol for perseverance in the aftermath. Her days were stacked with interviews as everyone wanted to talk to the girl who had bridged a seemingly unassailable gap to steal a dramatic win.

McCormack wanted her to enjoy her moment.

“The ‘Depths of Hell’, he recalls, “was meant to be a really low key event to just run a relay and see where we are, and that didn’t really fucking go to plan because it was probably the most seen relay leg of all time.

“The way I saw it was, ‘Go enjoy it.’ She still hadn’t arrived as an athlete yet. The write-up was brilliant because it went viral but she would have preferred if it was in a European final running the last leg for Ireland.

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“It goes back to the drive and want in her to always be better and that was all. I think there was a week there where it was mental but thankfully we have some good people on our team like Sinéad Galvin that manages a lot of that stuff for her.

“It was probably a glimpse of what was to come.”

But Healy’s path in athletics has not been a straight forward one. She did some experimenting with races before finding comfort in the 100m, 200m and 400m. Sampling sprint events is a practice “we don’t do enough” in Ireland according to McCormack and he believes that in order to be proficient at the distance you want, you need to be running strong at the distance above it.

“At the start with Phil, we were really only training like a 400m runner to be a good 200m runner. And then she just got better and better at it, that the 400m became her event. It’s not something you can flip into overnight. Some people can and they’re born with the genetics. Phil has the genetics for it but she needs to work at it.”

Resolving that difficult period in 2014 required Healy to leave nursing behind and change to an IT course in WIT in order to work more closely with McCormack.

More struggles followed in 2019 when Healy fractured her metatarsal in the most innocuous way. McCormack was with her at the warm weather training camp when she suffered the freak injury while coming down off a step.

“A tiny little step,” says McCormack.

“We went straight into a private hospital and an X-ray. And then back to Ireland and she went back to work the next day. We just adapted, just threw the kitchen sink at it and killed her but she came out 12 weeks later at a World [University Games] final which is still to me to this day, one of the best results she’s ever had.”

On the training load that Phil took on to recover from that injury, her sister Joan adds:

“What she did in 2019 would make you wake up when you’re at training and complaining about something being so hard. Some days she was training twice or three times a day.

“She was absolutely exhausted from it. She’ll tell you to this day that she would never do it again. But what she has gained from that now and how she can take that forward knowing that she was able to put her body through that and knowing she was able to put her mind through that has definitely served her massively.”

The pandemic caused major disruptions for Healy’s training and Olympics preparations too. As restrictions tightened, she moved over to Wexford to continue her training. They set-up a gym for her in a Montessori school owned by McCormack’s wife Melissa, while there were some stunning photos of her plowing through the sands at Curracloe Beach.

And then one day, while doing some weight reps, Healy’s shoulder popped out.

I just happened to be walking in, I was working remotely at the time. I just popped out to see how she was getting on.

“I videoed it as it was happening because I video some of her reps anyway.

“On the blower to Emma Gallivan her physio from when she was junior. Conor McCarthy is her phsyio at the moment but we couldn’t get him so we just had Emma on Facetime and talked me through it. It went back in easy enough, it wasn’t too bad.”

phil-healy Phil Healy is heading for her first Olympic Games. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Ticking the boxes

Joan Healy’s main goal at the airport was not to cry. She held back from extending any words of wisdom too, confident in the knowledge that her sister has “her own ways of doing things” in preparing for the Olympics.

She’ll have a hectic schedule of events to get through at the Games, starting with the 4x400m mixed relay. Cillin Greene, Chris O’Donnell, Sophie Becker, Robert McDonnell and Cliodhna Manning are all in that team along with Healy. Four runners from the six will be selected to run.

She also has the 200m and 400m individual events on her radar in Tokyo. 

“She’ll have a notes thing in her phone,” says Joan, “and she’ll write down what time she needs to get up and eat breakfast and pack a bag and what time she’ll leave her hotel to get the bus to the stadium. They’re her usual rituals.

“At the track, it’s just earphones in and tunnel vision.”

McCormack and Healy are certainly aware of the excitement at home and the weight of emotion behind her journey to the Olympics. Her prospects in each event will take care of themselves, but the Cork woman has always placed a huge emphasis on performance whenever she discusses her own running form.

The bullet is in the gun ready to fire.

“For now it’s just game on,” says McCormack. “Head down… job to do.”

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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