Q&A: Ciara Mageean: ‘A world medal — I’d give my right arm for it’

Flagged as a great Irish middle-distance hope since winning silver at the World Youth Championships in 2009, Ciara Mageean has been hampered by severe injury. But the Portaferry native made good on her talent last July, with a 1,500m bronze medal at the European Championships in Amsterdam.

Q: Ten months on from Rio (Mageean was eliminated after finishing 11th in the 1500m semi-final), what was the biggest thing you took from that experience?

A: That a flower doesn’t bloom all year round — that was the major lesson. It’s hard to pinpoint when you’re going to peak and have your best performance, and for me it was in Paris [two weeks after the Olympics, where Mageean clocked a PB of 4:01.46]. Why that didn’t happen in Rio, I still don’t know, but it was a hard pill to swallow. I knew that wasn’t me in that semi-final, but you can’t beat yourself up. You dust yourself off and get ready for the next one.

Q: Why did you opt out of next weekend’s European Team Championships?

A: Myself and [coach] Jerry [Kiernan] made the racing schedule, and there were so many races I wanted to run but then I’d be racing every single week, and the Euro Teams fell in a block of training that Jerry wanted me to get in before the London Diamond League [on July 9].

Q: What’s your feeling on the extent of the doping problem in athletics today?

A: I think the battle against drugs is never complete; there’s always going to be cheaters in every walk of life. There have been huge movements in the past two years towards cleaning up the sport, some of it in retrospect, but every country needs to stand up and make sure their testing procedures are up to scratch.

I’m very proud to say the testing in Ireland is up there with the best in the world. It baffles me that in some countries athletes are rung and told to come to be tested, which seems pointless. It’s frustrating hearing things like that because everything is done to make sure I’m clean, but other nations aren’t as proactive.

The new rule that you have to have six out-of-competition tests to set a world record is great. It means nations have to step up and test their own athletes. No matter what sport you’re in, you face the issue of drugs. We’ll still be talking about it in decades to come.

Q: How often do you get tested?

A: Out-of-competition, with the testers arriving to my house, it’s between five to 10 times a year, then in-competition can be anything — it’s random. Usually if you medal you’ll be tested, so I was tested after the Europeans but not after the Olympics.

The testers come that often that you know them. I ask them if they want a cup of tea when they arrive. My mummy is well-renowned for putting on a big spread whenever they come in Portaferry. She fills them up for their journey back to Dublin.

Q: A big issue in athletics now is intersex athletes, particularly in the women’s 800m, where all three medallists in Rio are believed to be hyperandrogenic. How do you balance the sympathy for the athletes involved with the importance of protecting women’s sport?

A: I’ve chatted to numerous people about this and it’s very tough. I competed against Caster Semenya when I was at the Commonwealth Youth Games [in 2008, a year before Semenya won gold at the World Championships in Berlin], and at that time she was much bigger than the young girls in the call room. It’s hard. These girls were born and brought up as females, but on the other hand it’s supposed to be a level playing field for the other women who don’t have the same high testosterone count.

It’s tough for competitors knowing you don’t stand a chance. It’s heartbreaking watching an Olympic final seeing girls who would have medalled at previous championships only able to finish fourth, and I’d imagine it’s a very bitter feeling for them, but it’s not against the athletes — that’s how they were born.

The nature of sport is that it has to be a bit more black and white, but it’s a very tough ethical question and obviously rulings from CAS [Court of Arbitration for Sport] showed it was unfair to ask athletes to take supplements to change their hormone levels. It’s something that’s going to be topical for a long time and eventually our governing bodies will have to step up. I wouldn’t like to be on the board that makes the decision, but it has to be addressed.

Q: How have you found the transition to life as a full-time athlete?

A: I handed in the last of my paperwork in December so I’m now a qualified physio, but I won’t graduate until September.

At the very beginning, it was difficult because you go from having a structured timetable to this day that’s completely fluid, and that can be hard. I like to be slightly busy and seem to perform better when I’m more fulfilled in my life.

Jerry would give out to me when he heard I was out and about doing stuff, telling me to sit in the house and do nothing, but I manage it much better now occupying my time.

People often say you have a fantastic life as a full-time athlete, you’re so lucky, and I know I am, but you have to learn to manage your day.

To get the most out of your training, the most out of your sleep, to rest and optimise your diet.

You also want to keep your mind active so I try to keep on top of what’s happening in my profession.

Q: The World Championships are in London in August. Relative to Rio, does that bring an added pressure?

A: Every major championships has that weight behind it. A world medal — I’d give my right arm for it. In London, it’s the closest we’ll have to a home championships so it means a huge deal.

I’ll have family and friends going over, and to be able to compete on that stage with them in the crowd is something really special.

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