There are few athletes to have endured the adversities that stand with their peculiar paths and yet characterise themselves with growth and resounding positivity in the face of despondency. The alternative is a tale as old as sport itself, those that will fall short of potential, incapable of escaping the limitations of their own success.
A career hampered by injuries, the loss of her long-term coach Jerry Kiernan, and some agonizingly close run-ins on the biggest of stages, Ciara Mageean can be categorised as those who exercise resilience and dignity in spite of every misfortune.
Becoming somewhat of a poster-woman for Irish athletics as of late, partly thanks to her demonstrated class which has become evident not only on the track but also within interviews, the College Tribune was fortunate enough to speak one-on-one with Ciara Mageean.
Being past her days in the blue and yellow of UCD, Mageean looks back on her formative years on the Belfield campus; “I have extremely fond memories of UCD, training on campus, of studying in UCD. Getting on the Ad Astra scholarship also helped, I was living the high-life up in Roebuck Halls for a while!”
The Down-native would provide justification for such treatment as she would compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics and European Championships, all while completing a degree in physiotherapy.
Every positive value has its price in negative terms, however, a reality that would not escape Mageean and her teammates upon her arrival at the university in 2011.
“In my very first year at the university, they dug up the track. So the whole time I was at UCD, there wasn’t actually a track on campus! We were trying to head down to Irishtown [Ringsend] at certain times in the day which certainly wasn’t the easiest thing to do. We made it clear as an athletics club that we weren’t too happy… so it wasn’t all rosy, that royally p’d me off!”
Then Director of UCD Sport Brian Mullins, who has since unfortunately passed away, would publicly apologise to his athletes for how the removal of the historic track was handled.
Whether it was Irishtown, down the pathways of Belfield, or elsewhere, a constant component in Mageean’s training was the late, great Jerry Kiernan, whom she met in her collegiate years. Mageean pays a beautiful tribute to her coach;
“He had such a big impact on my career as an athlete, but more importantly to me, Jerry really helped me become the person that I am today. I was injured a lot during college and I struggled a lot with my identity at that point. I was always known as the runner, so that was tough not to be out running. Jerry taught me that there was so much more to me than just athletics. Every time I step out onto the track now, I certainly live in Jerry’s legacy.”
Ironically, one of Mageean’s more career-defining moments came away from the track, specifically, right next to it. Running a personal best and securing a new national record in the World Championships final, Mageean took home 4th place in what was a devastatingly-close finish in Budapest. It was her post-race interview with Virgin Media that caught the nation’s attention, however, as she showed a forward-thinking positivity that few could boast in a time of disappointment such as that which she had just endured.
The 1500m runner explains her unique mindset, “It is so tough, coming fourth at a World Championships. I had the knowledge that I had a real possibility of coming away with a medal. To miss out on that was difficult, but to say I’m disappointed with coming fourth in the world… it’s so funny! That is something truly phenomenal. Going into the Olympics next year, it gives me great motivation to think that I can be up there and I am somebody that they’ll fear going into the final, that is where I want to be. I came so close to a medal… I’d love to be able to actually hold one.”
Acknowledging the level of competition that resides between her and a medal at the Olympics, Mageean measures the difficulty of earning a heavy necklace at the games;
“Certain nations have much more of a stronghold over the middle distances. I’m out there racing against, arguably, the greatest athlete of all time in Faith Kipyegon, who is the first woman to ever go sub-3:50 in the 1500m. If you were looking at it in football terms, you’re asking an Irish person to go out and be the greatest footballer of all time.”
Mageean assures that her athletic aims stretch far beyond material however, “My dream is obviously to win an Olympic medal, but my legacy in this sport will go beyond any medals I hope. To be an inspiration to young athletes. I was really lucky as a young athlete to be able to look at Irish athletes like Sonia O’Sullivan, Derval O’Rourke, David Gillick, and Paul Hession. To think that I’m in a position where young athletes look up to me and see me as an inspiration, it’s a huge honour.”
Growing up on O’Sullivan medals and O’Rourke hurdles would surely construct a sense of pride in the green of Team Ireland for any young athlete, Mageean as it happens does not stray too far from that assumption. “I’m extremely proud to be an Irishwoman and extremely proud to wear the Irish vest.
For me it’s always been about running for Ireland, running for my country. The reason I chose athletics over camogie when I was 18 or 19, was because I wanted to run for Ireland at the Olympic Games. I always felt like it was a little superpower [wearing the Irish vest].”
Competing at both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics have facilitated the actualization of that dream, however being disappointed with her performances in both, can Paris 2024 be Mageean’s third-time lucky? “I hope when I’m sitting in this place next year looking back, I’ll be feeling very happy and proud. There’s no guarantees in sport, but I want to be in that final. It’ll be my third Olympic Games, I don’t know if I’ll have another, I’ll be thirty-two next year and thirty-six at the Olympics after that.”
Her odds of a successful Olympic campaign undoubtedly increase when one considers Mageean’s blistering form as of late, which the Portaferry woman hopes to carry into Paris next Summer, “I’d say I’m certainly coming into the peak of my career. It feels very good to be in that place, to keep pushing the boundaries of your own performance. It’s very exciting that the Irish record over the mile is now faster than the British, American and Australian records. To say an Irishwoman is faster than all of those other nations over the mile is amazing. I’m running faster than I’ve ever run.”
Ciara Mageean’s athletics story does not appear to be one with an end in near sight, but rather one with pages yet to be written, a genesis that trails close behind, and public eyes that remain to be widened. Watch this space intently, because if you do blink, you’re more than likely to miss what’s in store for Ciara.
Dara Smith-Naughton – Sports Editor