The thing she misses most is the company, that chorus of support from training partners as she heaves a barbell in the air or suffers through the last rep of a lung-bursting session.
Ciara Neville has continued on as best she can, lifting weights in her back garden and ripping across the green outside her home in Monaleen, Limerick, but it’s just not the same. Not even close.
If things were normal, coach Noelle Morrissey would cast an eye over her every movement, offering subtle cues on technique. Fellow athletes Sarah Lavin and Evan Crotty would roar her on, making the training load of an Olympic-level sprinter all the easier to carry.
“Definitely being on your own is the hardest struggle,” says Neville, who was just 19 last summer when clocking 11.33 seconds to win the national 100m title, the second-fastest time ever by an Irishwoman.
When the world went wonky in March, the gym at UL was quick to shut its doors and not long after the track was also a no-go area. As the concept of racing became remote, Neville felt her motivation slip-sliding away.
“At the start, I was struggling with that: ‘What is the point of doing it when there’s nothing to compete in?’ But as the weeks have gone on I’ve found it getting better and I’m more into a routine.
Now, after the announcement last week, there’s some chance of having races this year so it’s boosting everyone’s mood.” Athletics Ireland recently gave the all-clear for limited club training to resume this week, with groups of four allowed to train together outdoors where social distancing can be maintained.
For Neville that one small step is a giant leap towards normality.
“We all live within 5km of each other so we should be allowed to train, four of us, together in the park,” she says. “Obviously social distancing.” In recent weeks Neville has roped her younger sister, Aoife, into doing many of her sessions, giving the 16-year-old a head-start on each rep. While she has a flat green to train on, its slightly uneven surface can prove risky for an athlete who, at top speed, covers 10 metres a second.
Each morning, her coach will fire the day’s training into their WhatsApp group – “we wake up to a lovely surprise or ‘oh my God, what are we in for?” – and Morrissey’s approach has been to back their training up a couple of months, training now as they usually would in March or April.
“She tells us to get on with it and that it’ll make us all the better when we come out of it,” says Neville.
From conversations with staff at UL, Neville remains unsure when the track will re-open. “Hopefully it’ll be sometime soon because I don’t think we’ll race if we don’t have access to the track for at least six weeks (before). You’d get landed with an injury if you went straight into competition season without track access.”
Last week World Athletics announced a revised schedule for the Diamond League and Continental Tour – the top two tiers of the sport’s one-day meetings – which would run from mid-August to mid- October. Earlier this month Athletics Ireland stated all events from May, June, and July will be postponed until at least August, and it’s understood plans are in motion to stage the National Championships at a later date.
For Neville, that chink of light was a boost to morale but she’ll tread with caution if racing does resume. “It gave me something to look forward to but if I don’t feel ready to race, I won’t race. I’ll see at the time because you don’t want to jeopardise next year.”
Right now she is 55th on the world rankings dropdown list in the women’s 100m, with the top 56 set to secure a place at the Tokyo Olympics when the qualification window closes in June 2021. Due to the varying ways the pandemic is affecting different regions, World Athletics paused its world rankings system until December, a move Neville supports.
“Some countries are back training on their tracks and we’re not and they’re the people we’ll be competing against next year,” she says. “It’s the fairest (way) to give everyone a chance.”