Olympians plan pathway for brightest young stars

Olympians plan pathway for brightest young stars

Having been there, done that, Sonia O’Sullivan and David Matthews know all about the path — and indeed pitfalls — between underage and senior success.

So when the pair of former Olympic teammates sat down to brainstorm ways of helping the current generation, it wasn’t so much on-track management they discussed. Instead it was a way to ensure the brightest teenage talents have a support system when things go awry.

Which is how, with the backing of law firm Eversheds Sutherland, they created the Accelerator Academy, which yesterday unveiled its first four members: Patience Jumbo-Gula, Rhasidat Adeleke, Sarah Healy, and Sophie O’Sullivan.

All medallists at this summer’s European U18 Championships, all possessing that special combination of rare athletic gifts and Olympic aspirations.

A long way to go, of course, but this should prove an important leg-up along the way. For the next two years they will be given financial backing to cover costs incurred from training and competition, receive personalised training for public speaking, and also have the option of internships at Eversheds Sutherland or in other fields of interest.

The intent? To make their passage to the senior ranks a little smoother, and to ensure they have a fall-back plan if injury, illness or an unexpected change of direction lies ahead.

O’Sullivan may have got to where she did through a singular focus, but the Olympic silver medallist knows there’s an easier way and it’s one she hopes this quartet, which includes her daughter Sophie — a silver medallist at the European U-18 Championships — avail of.

“The easy stuff to see is in training and racing but there’s so many more hours to fill in the day,” she said. “If I was to backtrack I possibly would have focused a bit more on the other side of things as well because you do find yourself at a loose end at times: what to do in the off-season and what to do between training sessions?

“It’s important to have a balanced lifestyle and to have other interests and other friends, not just all athletics friends. This will help them spread their lives into other areas.”

For Matthews, a two-time Olympian and the Irish record holder over 800m, the idea behind the academy is not to step on the toes of Athletics Ireland or Sport Ireland, but to add a helping hand in guiding athletes towards the summit.

“We identified a little gap in the athletes’ lives,” he said. “It’s the off-track activities that are our aim. If it was around for us during our time we certainly would have appreciated it and it helps steady the ship and provide these young girls with direction.”

If the selection of four girls appears unbalanced, it merely reflects the gender that shone brightest for Irish athletics in the underage ranks this year, and O’Sullivan expects another group of inductees — with some boys among them — next year.

The annals of Irish athletics are littered with underage talents who fizzled out as seniors, and O’Sullivan knows the myriad factors behind that.

“At this stage there’s a lot of decisions to be made about what they’re going to do. These girls are on a very good progression but with that comes extra training, extra races and extra expense so they can qualify for these events. That’s where this comes in — it can help assist and offset some of those costs for the family and coaches and the girls themselves.”

An example: Dundalk-based Patience Jumbo-Gula may be one of the fastest teenagers in Europe, but she is still without a track to train on, forcing her father to drive her to Newry several times a week.

For distance-runner Sarah Healy, though, little more than a decent park is required.

“The main thing is a good coach and I have that,” said Healy, referring to Eoghan Marnell.

Healy’s medal tilt at last weekend’s European Cross Country Championships didn’t come off after a mid-race fall saw her lose contact with the leaders, but the 17-year-old says she will use that as fuel in the months ahead.

“It is a bit annoying because I worked really hard the whole winter but I didn’t get to see what it amounted to because of what happened,” she said.

“It makes me want to think about my next competition and to show what I can do.”

The Leaving Cert is now looming for both Healy and Jumbo-Gula — with both indicating UCD as their likely destination next year — but Adeleke and O’Sullivan will have another year of school before having to decide where the next step will take them.

One which, with some welcome help from this academy, looks set to be made that bit easier.

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