Veteran athletes prove they're still masters of their craft

The Munster Indoor Masters Championships drew a wealth of experience to the Nenagh track last weekend. Stephen Barry was there to watch veteran track and field stars who remain forever young.

The vibrancy of the Irish masters scene was on full display at the Munster Indoor Championships, with the Nenagh stadium filled by the hubbub of racing and general chatter as rivals and friends met-up for the new year’s first big event.

Of the 213 athletes and 436 race entries across junior, senior and masters categories on Sunday, 70% were lining out in masters events. Starting at over-35s, the categories went all the way up to 84-year-old Míchéal O’Beirne in the over-80s shot putt and 28-pound weight for distance throwing events.

“I’m doing those two events because I’m not able to run anymore and I’m not able to jump. There were events that I did but knees and back, and wear and tear (stopped that),” said O’Beirne, wearing his yellow and black Dundrum AC singlet under a woolly jumper and jacket. He started competing in 1952, has sampled running, jumping and throwing events since then, and won his 17th and final Tipperary senior championship in a relay aged 59.

“Last year I got 11 masters medals altogether, between the county, indoor and outdoor, and Munster. This year, if I survive,” he laughs, “I’ll maybe go for more.

“In this category, I don’t think there was anybody against me. I suppose the competition gets lighter on the ground… But I have some great contests just the same.

“I like coming to meet the crowd and you make great friends.

“People recognise me for being here over the years.”

Over-70s champion in O’Beirne’s former high-jump category is Brendan Dennehy, from Mallow, who won four events in all.

“I played football until I was 40, loved every minute of it, and then got involved in athletics. I haven’t stopped since. I’ve always loved going training. It was never an effort,” says Dennehy.

The Rising Sun AC man is joined by his sons Michael and Breandán, who compete against each other in the over-40s age group. The third brother, Donnacha, would make up the Rising Sun relay team only for being away in Glasgow to watch Munster in action.

“My wife, Eileen, is our backroom team. She travels everywhere with us, does the most of the work and she’ll be there sitting down watching us all day long – no complaint. She’s just outstanding altogether.

“We all go together, we love going together and there’s no generation gap – we’re all like brothers.”

The family don’t have to travel far to train either, with a school football field just out the back of their house in Mallow.

“It’s very convenient,” insists Michael. “A lot of people probably have to hop into a car to go training but we’re very lucky. We just have to climb over the back wall, cross a field of cows, go in between the fence and we’re into the field.”

Breandán Junior, who officiates at the long jump in between his events, jokes: “You’re always watching for the fellow who’s breaking during the sprints in training!”

Second to Brendan Senior in the high and long jumps is Jim O’Shea, who joined Farranfore AC in 1960.

“He’s only a young fellow because he had a birthday in November which brought him into the 70 age-group and next May I’ll be going out of it. I’ll be getting rid of him,” laughs O’Shea.

“I’ll be turning 75 so I hope to compete in the over-75s for a few years anyway. I’ve gone to England on a few occasions and won the British Masters in my age group, over-65 and over-70. The British Championships are on in June, a month after I turn 75, so it suits me... Perfect timing,” he smiles.

He already has an eye on the 2018 European Indoors in Madrid too, all going well.

“I still have as good an interest today as I had when I started. Unfortunately, the years are catching me but I still train regularly – four times a week.”

Terri Gough, from West Waterford AC, is the only competitor in the women’s over-70 sprints. Only two days after Christmas she completed her 112th marathon in Portumna.

“It’s not about competing – it’s about keeping going and keeping healthy really,” she says. “It’s about the community and representing the club, and just keeping the categories going because they might let the categories go if we don’t compete in them.

“I wouldn’t be going off to France or wherever like my namesake, Joe Gough.”

Her West Waterford clubmate already has his eyes on his next trip abroad, the World Indoors in Daegu, South Korea: “I’m going back to defend my title but I’m 64 so it’ll be challenging. People say ‘I don’t go places because I’m at the end of the age-group’. It’s funny because the more people say that the more I want to go. It’ll be a very big challenge against people who are 59 going on 60 by March, but that’s what it’s all about.

“It’d be easy not to do it and wait for next year. But I think as a master you have to hold that standard the whole time because you lose it very quickly otherwise.

“It’s gas because I ran faster over 40 than I did as a 20-year-old.”

All the events take place under the watchful eye of Sean Naughton, who led the development of Nenagh’s indoor stadium despite rarely receiving funding. He pulls yellowed pages from an old diary out of his suit pocket with a list of the names, dates and companies that helped out.

“When we started out we hadn’t a penny,” he recalls. “People stood on their heads to help us out. The community spirit was amazing.”

That community spirit continues as the stadium was recently extended to include an area for field events.

“I wasn’t going to come but there was something telling me to come,” says Marion Lyons, a former competitor in the World cross-country championships. “I’m so overwhelmed and delighted for them to be redeveloping it and if anyone deserves it, they deserve it.”

The St Finbarr’s AC president lists off the many reasons that she’s still running and coaching at 60, having taken up the sport at 17: “Confidence, self-esteem, wellness, everything from being involved in athletics. You meet lovely people throughout your life and if we can all encourage others to get involved and enjoy it, coach them and support them, that’s how you get people to stay involved in the sport.”

She spreads her arms wide and wears a beaming smile as she exclaims: “Oh, it’s great – it’s like medication! I love it, I love it.”

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