Ireland's Golden Girls: Healy and Adeleke will always remember their summer in Gyor

Two of Irish athletics’ rising stars look back on their gold medal-winning achievements at the U18 European Championships.

AND, IN A flash, everything changes. You’re Sarah Healy, two-time European champion. Or Rhasidat Adeleke, the European U18 200m gold medallist. There is new-found fame. More eyes, more ears, more demands, more pressure. But, actually, nothing changes. 

Possibly borne out of self-effacement, but quite possibly because of their tender years, modesty is what you get from two of Irish athletics’ rising stars; we just run, what’s all the fuss about? Even after the glorious summer they’ve had, not much has changed. 

“Yeah, it’s still all the same really,” Healy laughs. 

Rhasidat Adeleke and Sarah Healy Sarah Healy and Rhasidat Adeleke at Irishtown Stadium. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

They’re both back in school this week — 17-year-old Healy starting sixth year in Holy Child Killiney, while Adeleke, only 16 last week, is now in fifth year in nearby Presentation Terenure — but have been given the morning off to help launch the inaugural Dublin Sportsfest. 

“I suppose we wouldn’t be doing stuff like this if the summer didn’t happen,” Healy considers. “But I’m not complaining anyway.”

Neither is Adeleke, whose achievements were recognised by her class-mates when term recommenced on Monday. 

“My first day back… they were like ‘Oh my God, you’re so famous,” she grins. “But it’s funny, they’re just excited. I really like it.”

Such is the life of a teenager, things have moved on pretty quickly. 

It’s just two months since Healy claimed a memorable long-distance double at the U18 European Championships, or Adeleke confounded her own expectations to win 200m gold, yet it seems like that magical week in Gyor is a lifetime ago for them now. 

“I’ve watched it back,” Healy says. “But I haven’t really thought about it much. It was amazing and such a good summer, and when I look back I’m happy about it, but I kind of already have moved on.”

We’ll do the reminiscing for you, Sarah.

Rarely had an Irish athlete, of any age or experience, produced a prodigious performance on such a scale, as the 17-year-old from south Dublin stormed to back-to-back golds with remarkable ease and admirable confidence. First the 3,000m, and then the 1,500m to complete an extraordinary double.

Healy’s talents had been marked for some time, but this season hit the headlines for breaking a host of records over multiple distances, before blitzing the rest of Europe to further underline her exciting potential. 

She had originally travelled to Hungary targeting 1,500m glory, but after easing through to the final over that distance, then decided to come out for the final of the 3,000m, and it proved to be an inspired move. 

“I hadn’t really thought about it [3,000m] during the summer,” she explains.

Sarah Healy celebrates winning a gold medal Healy with her parents after winning 3,000m gold. Source: Sasa Pahic Szabo/INPHO

“I hadn’t thought about it in training but the schedule worked out and I felt in good shape. I just thought… you know what, I can go out and get two medals. Why not like, and I felt if I didn’t and once that idea was put in my head then I’d sit there watching the 3k final, thinking I could have won it. 

“So I’m glad I did it, it was a nice bonus.”

Healy made it look easy, hitting the front from early on and never threatening to surrender the lead, before wrapping up another golden moment for the Irish team, and her family who were in the crowd.

“It was so nice to have them there. My mum and dad came over and I was really glad they were there because obviously they bring me to training all the time so they’re very involved.”

As is coach Eoghan Marnell, who has carefully overseen Healy’s progress at Blackrock AC since she first started running at the age of nine. Her introduction to running was ‘just for fun at the start’, as she played a number of different sports, including hockey.

“My family aren’t into athletics really,” the Monkstown native continues. “My mum wanted myself and my sister to join and I did join quite young so I’ve always done it but I’ve done loads of different sports as well, but just never gave up athletics. Obviously I’m really glad I didn’t now, I really like it.

“I’ve been competing since I was like U11 or whatever and I won a few races or things but back then it wasn’t so much racing, just fun. It’s only in the past year or so I’ve thought about doing something serious with it.”

Adeleke, born to Nigerian parents, has a similar story. 

“I played everything, too,” she says. “Gaelic football, athletics, swimming, basketball and then one of my teachers in primary school encouraged me to join an athletics club.”

From there, the 16-year-old joined Tallaght AC and has been winning underage and schools titles with her club and Presentation Terenure under the guidance of coach Johnny Fox ever since. 

“I wasn’t really serious about running but after the 2017 indoor season, that’s when I really excelled so I was like ‘Oh my god I might be able to go somewhere’ so I quit  everything else.”

Rhasidat Adeleke finishes first in 23.52 Adeleke stormed to gold in the 200m. Source: Sasa Pahic Szabo/INPHO

She’s already on the way to the top.

After winning silver at the European Youth Olympics last summer, Adeleke has continued her development over the last 12 months, producing a superb run in the 200m final in Gyor, clocking the fastest U18 time in Europe this calendar year.

With her family on hand to witness the moment, the teenager was overcome with emotion as the enormity of her achievement sunk in. 

“I was so shocked,” she recalls. “I didn’t expect it at all because I wasn’t in the top ranking and wasn’t running great at that time. I went in with the mentality of if you don’t get a medal, it’s okay. I started crying… it was really embarrassing.

Healy interjects: “It wasn’t embarrassing at all!”

“It was stress and everything and was so nice to medal and get on that podium,” Adeleke continues. “I didn’t expect but others were talking about me medalling and I didn’t want to disappoint them.

“I think that’s what made it even more nerve-wrecking because if I don’t win a medal I would be disappointing people. At the end of the day, I did, thankfully.”

Both athletes know what happened over the summer is nothing more than a stepping stone, and that potential is a dangerous word. Both know the hard work is yet to truly begin, and success at junior level guarantees nothing.

But after a memorable summer for Irish athletics, it’s hard not to get excited about what is to come, particularly with Healy and Adeleke part of a new generation who are putting the sport on the map again. 

“A lot of people having been saying it, even my friends from different countries, have been saying ‘Where did you guys come from, what’s going on?’ Adeleke smiles.

“It’s usually distance athletes that would be medalling but we’ve now got sprinters coming up as well. It’s really good to see Ireland is now a nation of all events, it’s amazing.”

Healy continues: “It’s so nice to hear people say positive stuff but I think I can read it without being like ‘Oh my god’ because I wouldn’t take it all to heart. Just because someone says something about you and what you can achieve or who you can emulate doesn’t mean it’s true.

“Nothing changes, you just keep doing the same thing. Keep running, keep training.”

And that’s the plan.

Sarah Healy celebrates winning gold Healy celebrates winning 1,500m gold. Source: Sasa Pahic Szabo/INPHO

Study will naturally take precedence for Healy over the coming months as she settles into her final year in secondary school, but she has no intention to take her foot off the pedal, in both athletics and hockey.

“I guess that’s the most important thing now, the Leaving Cert. I’ll get that out of the way and see. I’ll want to continue running this year as I’d hate to be just studying and doing nothing else. Hockey is also important for me as I really enjoy it and it’s something different but I can’t obviously do them both forever.

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“I will play hockey in school this year as it’s my last and it would be a shame not to.”

Athletics is a big part of her life, but Healy — like any teenager — has different outlets to take her mind off training, times and races. 

“I put a lot of time in and it is important to me but I don’t think you can let it be like everything because it’s not always going to be going well. You have to have other things.

“I have friends in athletics but my friends in school, they’re supportive but they don’t really care about athletics, it’s not like we’re all talking about athletics all the time.

“When I’m with them, it’s just normal and I’m not thinking about athletics. My friends are an outlet.”

For Adeleke, she is hoping to travel to Buenos Aires for the Youth Olympic Games next month, but the hamstring injury which denied her the chance to run in the 4×100 metre relay final at the U20 European Championships is still a concern.

Either way, and whatever is to come in her burgeoning athletics career, she’ll never forget the summer of 2018.

“It was such an amazing experience. It just shows that even if you’re not in the top-ranking you can still pull something out. That’s what will make me remember it. I have such confidence now.”

Healy will remember the team atmosphere, and the friendships created.

“I’ll just look back and it’s such a great memory to have no matter what I do,” she says.

Sophie O'Sullivan, Sarah Healy and Rhasidat Adeleke Sophie O'Sullivan, Healy and Adeleke. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It is such a nice memory to have and that it all worked out and I was able to go out there and perform the best way I could. It was such a fun week and everyone doing so well.”

As for the gold medals?

“They’re at home. Just in my room, I don’t do anything too special with them…But, you know, they’re nice. They’re just in my draw,” she laughs.

“Yeah, me too,” Adeleke adds. “I feel like I should do something more but I’m not sure. I don’t know what you could do with them.”

“It’s more the pictures…” Healy agrees. 

Whatever happens, memories to last a lifetime. 

Sarah Healy and Rhasidat Adeleke were at the launch of the inaugural Dublin Sportsfest, a week-long celebration of sport throughout the City of Dublin which will take place from 23-30 September. For more info click here.

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Ryan Bailey

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