Starved of sports during Covid-19, Irish athletics gained thousands of new fans as people tuned in to see the European Indoor Championships in Poland in March. The power of this kind of exposure is not lost on Phil Healy, the Cork athlete who narrowly missed out on a medal at those championships. Healy, who is now officially Ireland’s “fastest woman”, believes that the more people who are watching, the more they will appreciate the hard work and dedication it takes to be a world-class athlete.
ater this month, for 16 days, the sporting world’s focus will turn to the Olympic Games in Tokyo and Irish eyes will be on Nadia Power, Phil Healy and Sarah Lavin, three of our top track stars. But for these Irish Olympic hopefuls, the journey to the games started decades ago.
Nadia Power’s earliest running memories is of a Senior Infant’s race when she took off like a bolt of lightning, leaving all her classmates — including all the boys — for dust.
When we speak, the 23-year-old from Dublin’s Templeogue has just returned home after a tough training camp in Switzerland, where she was put through her paces with other female athletes vying to secure their own spots in the 800 metres in Tokyo. Being back, she says, has afforded her the chance to steady herself before the final few competitions that mark the run-up to Olympic qualification.
A student at Dublin City University, Power — an only child — was always sporty. With her mum Sheila from Kilkenny, camogie was a big thing in their house. She’s always competed under her mother’s name but credits her father as having just as big an influence on her life. Her Sudan-born dad, Dr Abdullahi El-Tom, moved to Ireland in 1990 to take up a post in Maynooth University. After 30 years of working within the university’s department of anthropology, he retired as head of the department in 2019.
There is an idea that often persists in elite sports that young athletes have at their backs pushy parents who will stop at nothing in pursuit of glory for their kids. But Power says that for her, nothing could be further from the truth.
“My parents always facilitated me in training and racing — they were always happy to bring me everywhere I needed to go. It was never a push. I know if I decided to quit tomorrow, they’d be super disappointed but they wouldn’t force me into anything. That’s been a huge benefit to me,” she says.
“My childhood coach used to always say to me, ‘You don’t realise how lucky you are with your parents,’ because as a coach, he’d seen a lot of pushy parents and seen how that negatively affected the athlete. He saw that my parents were dealing with the situation so well.”
Power’s own single-mindedness — returning home to study at DCU and turning her back on a US scholarship because she felt it would hinder her running career — is part of that drive to be the best she can be.
“I’m quite good at picking up if something isn’t working for me, changing my mind and just moving on. One of my good points is that I make it happen for myself and I seek out whatever set up I need. I contacted the coach in Switzerland myself. I set up my gym coach. I reached out to my agent to see if he could help me. I’m single-minded in that way and I don’t like to sit and wait for anything to happen for me. I know my goals and want to make them happen for myself. I’m driven by the goal of being an Olympian and being successful, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes and ask for help where I need it.”
This drive is shared by her fellow Olympic hopeful Phil Healy, who has qualified in the 200 metres, the 400 metres and is also part of the Irish mixed 4×400 metres relay team, which secured its Olympic qualification spot earlier this year. The “Ballineen Bullet”, as the sprinter is known, shrugs off the tag of “fastest woman in Ireland”, making the point that records are meant to be broken and there will always be someone snapping at her heels.
The 26-year-old played all kinds of sports growing up, from soccer to camogie, but says she was drawn to athletics, following in the footsteps of her big sister Joan. When her sister was competing, Healy tagged along. It was when she reached the age of 17 that she began to realise her own potential and saw that she could go places. At the age of 18, she went to the European juniors and finished fourth. This was well beyond her expectations — she had gone in ranked in the 20s. It was a light-bulb moment, one when she says she realised she could take on the biggest challenge of all.
Since the end of 2017, Healy’s been based in Waterford and is on a scholarship in Waterford Institute of Technology. After graduating with a health science degree, she switched to a diploma in applied computer science in UCC before moving to Waterford to be nearer her coach, Shane McCormack.
Coming from a sporty family — her two brothers were into GAA — Healy says her parents also grew up playing sports, but nothing super-competitive. “I think it’s more the opportunities they gave us — we were exposed to it in the village and in the surrounding areas. We would’ve done non-sporty things growing up, like drama and music, too.”
In a world where the statistics show that as girls hit their teenage years, their rates of participation in sports fall off a cliff, Healy is clear that having fun is the game-changer to going the distance, whatever level you’re at.
“I loved having fun. I certainly wasn’t the best at it, but I enjoyed going to training. People need to move away from the winning mentality. That’s a massive thing. People think if you’re not winning, that’s a failure — but you don’t have to be the fastest or the best. If you’re going out, doing your best, then you’re winning for yourself. That’s what people need to do. It comes back to coaches and the environment within the team — it’s not all about the winning. It’s about performing to the best of your ability,” she says.
Being the best and being competitive has been with 27-year-old hurdler Sarah Lavin since she was eight years old. Now, with her Olympic dream of a place in 100 metres hurdles realised, she’s focusing on the day to day, doing the work, making small adjustments to perfect her stride.
The Limerick woman can’t believe that she is getting another shot at Tokyo. After missing out on the 2016 Rio Games due to overextending herself, she thought her chances of competing in Japan were ruined after she sustained a “complete freak of an injury” to her ankle after a race early last year. But then Covid-19 swept the world, and major events, including Tokyo 2020, were cancelled.
“Definitely the pandemic afforded me time. I’m grateful for this opportunity that feels God-given that I’m going to get another run at things after another year of good training. Now I think it’s trying to stay injury-free,” she says.
Five years ago, the wheels came off the Rio-bound wagon for Lavin when overtraining and under-fuelling led to her developing the condition known as relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S).
“I definitely was under-fuelling for what I did, but not consciously. It’s such a subtle thing. In the beginning, it wasn’t even apparent. It’s something that I think can happen really suddenly, unawares,” she says.
Despite the setbacks and the obviously massive disappointment of not going to Rio, Lavin dug deep and the hard work paid off. She is currently in the best form of her career. Just last month at the Paavo Nurmi Games in Finland, she clocked the second-fastest time of her career in the 100-metre hurdles at 13.23.
As well as getting lots of training in, Lavin builds yoga and mindfulness into her week. “It’s knowing what you need to do rather than what you want to do, if that makes sense. Sometimes we only do what we want to do, whereas we might need something else. There’s a good mix of different things,” she says.
Clearing hurdles to get this far hasn’t been plain sailing for any of the Olympic hopefuls. Travelling to competitions in a time of Covid, navigating quarantines, staying virus-free and injury-free while avoiding countries that were going into lockdown was a huge pressure on the athletes that they normally wouldn’t have to face. So much so, that they all agree the running is the easy part when they finally get there.
Being a female athlete in today’s world also means navigating the often tricky world of social media. With so much at stake in terms of preparation for Tokyo, you would have to wonder if it’s hard to stay focused while having a necessary presence on social media?
Lavin believes that young girls can be very influenced by “ideal” body images thrown up on social media, and athletes are not immune to comments about body shape and size. But as she’s developed as an athlete, she says she’s more conscious of loving her body for what it can do — running 60 metres and jumping over hurdles in eight seconds — than how it looks.
“That’s an amazing thing for a body to do. There’s a bigger message there for young girls, like be proud of what you can do. If that’s your 5k or if that’s nothing to do with sport at all and if that’s music, then loving that and what your lungs can achieve. I think just more self-love, to be honest. The society we’re living in, where young girls are saying if I can make myself look aesthetically pleasing, I can maybe land a load of free stuff — I’m just so glad I didn’t grow up in that era,” she says.
While Phil Healy says social media can create opportunities for athletes to promote themselves, she feels it’s great to switch off from it as it can create its own pressures.
“You just have to be aware of what you’re posting and think twice. Body image is a massive thing and it can be a reason for drop-outs as well when you’re getting into those teenage years. It comes with massive pressures — you have to look a certain way and you have to have a certain filter. It does put pressure on some people, but for me, I’m posting what I’m happy with and everyone needs to look at themselves and be happy with themselves,” says Healy.
“When you look at athletics, there’s an awful lot of issues where it’s the done thing to wear a crop top and knicker shorts, but certain people may not feel comfortable with that. There were certain years that I certainly didn’t feel comfortable in that. I feel a move needs to be made away from that, from the typical norm of ‘this is what you have to wear’. Even if you wear a singlet, you’re seen as an exception to everybody else, you know. ‘Why is she wearing a singlet?’ because that’s not what everyone else wears,” she says.
Healy points out that in the NCCA, the organisation that represents student athletes in the US, you’re not allowed to wear a crop top, and if this rule was brought in here, it may make young athletes feel a whole lot more comfortable in their skin without fears of being caught at an uncomfortable camera angle.
All three of these Irish athletes know that the exposure the Olympics will bring will inevitably put even more focus on them.
Power believes that social media comes with the territory of being a modern athlete. “It’s definitely a new requirement for athletes. My coach can help me with his experience of competing at a high level, but he can’t help me with this whole new side of being an athlete that we have to deal with. I think it’s interesting, but overall it’s positive. It’s a good way for me to share my story and let people know about athletics,” she says.
“I get an overwhelming amount of support from social media. It’s a way for me to connect with fans and thank my sponsors. For me, it’s always about checking in with myself because the priority is getting my training done to perform as best I can. You can make your social media really nice, but I think your social media is going to be better if you’re successful on the track. That’s how I think about it,” she adds.
All three athletes believe that their way to success has been paved by the sisterhood of Irish athletes who came before them, women like Sonia O’Sullivan and Derval O’Rourke. Their own importance as role models to a new generation of young women is something they also take very seriously.
Power says she’s seen young women push themselves too hard by putting too much pressure on themselves. Damage can be done in the early years of secondary school, which she believes should just be about showing up and enjoying yourself on the sports field. Her advice to younger athletes coming up the ranks is to try to be positive before every race: “If it doesn’t work out, deal with it afterwards. Consistency has always been my secret.”
Healy recalls how former sprinter Ailis McSweeney took her under her wing when she started competing and says that reaching out to younger athletes herself now is really important to her. “It is important to give them the time, because you will always remember the player who didn’t sign the autograph or the player that didn’t give you the time,” she says.
“That can make a massive difference to them staying in the sport or not staying. It is so important to be there for the younger kids and help them along. They could be a year or two years younger than me. Athletics is an individual sport. It can be a lonely sport and a hard sport and everyone has made mistakes. We need to help each other an awful lot more and improve overall,” she adds.
For her part, Lavin says if she could offer any advice to young girls thinking about giving up their sport, it would be that sport offers so much, and sticking with it can lead to so many other things. “Running has afforded me so many opportunities and if I could give that message to a young girl — even if they’re not 100pc sure of what or why they’re doing a sport, the friendships, the academic opportunities, the travel, there’s been so much that’s come out of sport for me,” she says.
“If you’d told me at 12 that I’d be invited to an Ivy League school in America, I would have bitten your hand off. When I got there, I didn’t think it was really my dream. My passion has always been athletics, whether that’s been unfortunate or not. I’d be a lot more financially stable if it wasn’t. That’s the joy of picking an Olympic sport,” says the UCD-educated physiotherapist.
While Power acknowledges that some might see athletics as a lonely sport, it can work in your favour if you’re built a certain way. “Overall, I think it really suits my personality that I’m in an individual sport because I just like relying on myself and I’m not afraid to hold myself accountable if I have a bad day. I’m someone who likes to know straight away, ‘OK, I did this wrong and I need to get better’ and not put the blame elsewhere. Equally, I don’t feel lonely because I have so much support from home, from my coach and my sports psychologist and physio and even the girls I train with,” she says.
Staying grounded with good people at your back is something that Lavin believes is central to her success. Some of the most inspirational people she’s met, like fellow Limerick legend Paul O’Connell and boxing champion Katie Taylor, are also the most humble, she says.
“I remember being 18 and Paul O’Connell putting on his boots beside me, asking me how training was going — he was at the height of his career. These are the people who’ve inspired me, not just for their athletic achievements and reaching the top, but their attitude has been amazing throughout everything. That’s what is so admirable to me looking on: that you can achieve so much and still remain the same person,” says Lavin.
“My coach is coaching me since I was seven. The people in my life have been there from day one. I’ve come a long way, but I know my goals in my head and I know I have gaps to close, and to achieve them, I’m just focused on that. At the end of the day, we’re all human. I’m literally running and jumping over things and there’s people out there doing amazing things — I have a friend doing a PhD to cure cancer in Germany. To put it in perspective, you think why don’t people know her name?” she says.
With the countdown to Tokyo now firmly underway, all three athletes are focusing on the moment and eating right, training right and staying in the right mindset.
Power says she’s taking it one day at a time.
“Thinking about it makes me tingle inside with excitement — it’s just the biggest thing ever and something I have dreamt of so much. I really haven’t struggled with motivation throughout Covid. Just thinking about how I’m going to feel on the start line in Tokyo makes all of it worth it.”
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