The Big Interview: Shane Healy - From an orphanage to greatest show on earth

Olympian Shane Healy reflects at his home in Ravensdale, Co Louth, on an amazing 50 years.

The Cathal Dennehy Interview: From a very challenging childhood to the Olympic Games, and the pursuit of his long-lost mother, life has taken some strange twist and turns for Shane Healy. But the 50-year-old is now ready to write a new chapter.

He finds a way. He has to. Doesn’t have any other choice. Never did.

Sitting in the kitchen of his home in Co Louth, Shane Healy’s face shifts from smiling to solemn as he prepares to dive into a chaotic, callousing past. The lush green hills around Ravensdale give this place a Tuscan feel, a serene setting in which to unspool a story of an ultimate scrapper.

Fifty years. Fifty fun, ferocious years, and Healy takes you through them the only way he knows how: At breakneck speed. His accent — a curious blend of American extravagance and Irish lilt — is the first giveaway to his vagabond past, a way of life he explains through techniques that could best be described as Healyisms.

Like his attitude to a turbulent childhood, which saw him ricochet around Dublin like a pinball.

“We were survivors,” he says. “Growing up in the ’80s, we were hardcore. Today, kids need lifts 100 metres down the road.”

Or his attitude to injuries, even now, with his hair long turned a salt-and-pepper grey: “I get loads of ailments but I run through them, even though it hurts like f***.”

Or his philosophy on racing: “You’re better off running up the front with pride than running at the back in pain.”

We could go on, but his is a life that can’t be condensed into one neat cluster or sexy soundbite. A tale of toughness: the of early abandonment and loss, the pursuit of late attachment and gain. Aimless adventure, stubborn survival and an unwavering willingness to roll the dice out into the world and see what it brought back. “I took a chance all my life,” he says. “You just have to have the courage, the guts.”

It’s best to start here, with a moment that set off a butterfly he may never fully grasp, at least in the absence of any closure.

Shane Healy is four-years-old, and after continued fighting between his parents he awakes one morning to find his mother has left their home in in the dead of night, taking his older sister Lorraine with her.

“To this day,” says Healy, “I’ve never seen or heard from them in 46 years.”

It wasn’t for want of trying.

As Healy’s athletics career blossomed in the mid-90s, he made constant efforts to track them down, utilising his profile to send messages through the media. He was featured in the London Times, The New York Times, always making the same pleas — hoping they were reading — and during an appearance on RTÉ’s Kenny Live, he ended his interview with a heartfelt message.

I said, ‘look, Mum, I know you didn’t get on well with Dad, but you brought me into this world. I’d love to see you and my sister Lorraine again.’

He never heard back, and there’s a resigned acceptance in his words this week. “My mother would be 80 now, I don’t know if she’s still alive,” he says. “I don’t know.”

If that wasn’t enough tumult for a young child to bear, not long after Healy’s father took off to Manchester to find work, taking oldest son Brian with him and placing Shane in Dublin’s Goldenbridge Orphanage.

“It was tough,” says Healy. “It wasn’t easy, but I could understand it.”

Each weekend his aunt Noreen would drive to Dublin to take him out for a couple of days, but Healy feared the worst when, on one particular Saturday, she never turned up. “She had a massive brain hemorrhage,” he says. “She died at 37.”

Healy’s father returned from England for the funeral and decided to relocate back to Dublin, taking him out of the orphanage and settling in Rathmines where he enrolled in school at Richmond Hill. “I absolutely hated it,” he says. “There was lots of bullying, lots of scumbags.”

One day, after witnessing one of his classmates get a particularly brutal beating, Healy decided he’d had enough. “I said, f*** this, I went on the hop, mitching, doing bob-a-jobs.”

He was 10-years-old, and would steal newspapers from bundles outside shops, selling them half- price to motorists at traffic lights, the start of an adolescence spent scrapping for survival. A few months later, he came home one day to find his father asking how school went. “Great,” said Healy, who barely drew breath before he felt the full force of his dad’s best swing. A phone call from the principal had been his undoing, and Healy was soon switched to a school in Harold’s Cross, where he began to thrive.

But a move to Whitehall a couple of years later saw him lose interest in education, Healy dropping out of school at 13 and working various jobs throughout his teens.

At the age of 18 he met an American couple — Ryan and Sheri Roberts — in a bar at Harold’s Cross, who told him to get in touch if he ever made it to Florida, an invitation he accepted, rocking up to their home in Tampa, Florida a few months later.

Not wanting to overstay his welcome, he soon set off hitchhiking across the country, sleeping rough at the side of highways. “One time I got a lift with a big guy in Alabama or Tennessee,” he says. 

I dozed off in his car and woke up with him feeling my leg. I freaked out and he goes, ‘oh, would you like a blowjob?’ I said, ‘stop the car.’ Lucky enough he left me out.

Going through Texas he was picked up by a musician who was more formal with his offer. “He found me very attractive and said, ‘I’ll look after you for the next few years if you’ll be my lover.’ I said, ‘no, you’re okay.’”

Days later, standing by the side of the road in Houston, he felt a sense of dread as the mother of all storms loomed ahead, but Healy was rescued in the nick of time by a trucker who took him all the way to San Diego, where he trained to be an electrician. It never quite worked out, so he then flew to Hawaii, working as a waiter for a year before returning to California, and eventually back to Ireland.

But with the economy on its knees, Healy set off again in 1989, hitchhiking through France and Spain and eventually landing work on the catchments on the coast of Gibraltar.

He found a way out by working as a deckhand on a yacht headed for Guadeloupe, keeping watch through the night for super-tankers and passing the afternoons playing chess with Danish stewardesses.

Healy leads Dublin Track Club members Paul Robinson, Brian Fay, Andrew Coscoran and Daniel Stone during a training run at Santry: ‘I keep telling them not to give up hope, to stick with it.’

At the end of the trip the captain gave him $1500, which Healy used to travel through the Caribbean to Canada, which proved far too cold for his liking. He sneaked across the US border into Washington, made his way to California, and used some creative licence to enrol at Contra Costa Community College, just outside San Francisco.

Home was a Volkswagen Camper which he bought for $1000, and each day he’d use the showers in the college’s sports centre, where he was soon made an offer he couldn’t refuse. Hearing his Irish accent, the athletics coach said he had the look of an Eamonn Coghlan or Marcus O’Sullivan and offered him $50 to run a mile.

Healy never had been a runner, but in beat-up tennis shoes he clocked 4:52, enough for the coach to offer him a place on the team. “That’s where I found the American dream,” he says.

Keen to move on to a university, he called renowned distance-running guru Joe Vigil, who was then head coach at Adams State in Alamosa, Colorado. Vigil laughed him off the phone when Healy told him his mile best was just 4:17, but the Irishman kept calling, kept working, kept improving, until he was eventually offered a place.

Those first few weeks, he trained so hard that he began to urinate blood, but his improvement was rapid, relentless. In 1995 Healy was running 3:39 for 1500m, just one agonising second shy of the Olympic qualifying standard.

But he felt like he had reached a plateau, returning to Ireland to find a complete lack of support for athletes of that level. A chance encounter with Eamonn Coghlan at a road race the following year would ultimately change his fate, Coghlan agreeing to coach Healy on the condition that he did everything he was told.

Early in 1996 he moved into digs with a couple in Fir House, Bernard and Ann Somers, and reached a new level of fitness through long, lung-bursting runs in the Dublin Mountains. While racing in that spring, word came through that Bernard, one of his biggest supporters, had died from a heart attack. “I went on more determined than ever,” he says.

At that point, Niall Bruton and Marcus O’Sullivan had already qualified for the Atlanta Olympics, leaving one spot on the Irish team in the men’s 1500m. “I said my name is on that f****** ticket,” says Healy.

His final chance to qualify was in Madrid, a race Healy got into by harassing the meeting director with phone calls, who eventually relented and said he could run if he found his own way there. In oppressive heat, Healy smashed his personal best, running 3:36.58 to secure a place in Atlanta. “The happiest day of my life,” he says.

Shane Healy running in the semi-finals of the men’s 1,500m at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Games. Picture: Inpho

Six weeks later, he walked out in front of 85,000 people for the Olympic semi-final, watching trackside as Michael Johnson’s gold spikes whirred past en route to a 200m world record. What was Healy thinking about in that moment?

“Shit,” he says. “Don’t run bad in front of this crowd.” Having advanced from his heat in fifth place, he bowed out in the semi-final after finishing 11th, a sense of pride lingering after arriving at his ultimate destination.

“I want to get the message across to young people,” he says. “You can never ever give up on your dream.”

There is a story he tells that sums up the problem, the conundrum facing so many aspiring Olympians, then and now. In the summer of 1996, shortly after achieving the Olympic standard, Healy was handed a cheque for £10,000 by Pat Hickey of the Olympic Council of Ireland.

“Take this,” Healy recalls being told, “and tell them we looked after you.” As welcome as it was, it arrived when it was no longer necessary.

“I needed it the year before, for the build-up,” he says. “I feel for up-and-coming athletes, it’s really tough. These kids need support.”

On that front Healy has a personal insight, and indeed a plea. At the Dublin Track Club, a collection of promising Irish middle-distance runners, overseen by Feidhlim Kelly, athletes listen to Healy’s word with reverential worship.

He has trained with them for the last couple of years, ever since deciding to launch his comeback in a bid to break world records in the over-50 category.

“It’s great I can give them a bit of knowledge about making it to the greatest show on earth. I keep telling them not to give up hope, to stick with it.

Feidhlim is doing a wonderful job, putting in 40 or 50 hours a week with those kids, but they need support. They could do with a nine-seater minibus so we could drive them to training, and it’d be great if someone could come on board to sponsor that. But whether it’s gear, equipment or treatment, any help they get would be very much appreciated.

Despite all the creaks that reside in Healy’s legs, he still trains almost as hard as he did at his peak, fitting 70-80 miles a week around his work as a carer with the National Association of Housing for the Visually Impaired.

Last year he clocked a mind-boggling 4:04 for 1500m at the age of 49, and this year, he wants the over-50 world record of 3:58. On Thursday evening he clocked an Irish over-50 5km record of 15:20 in Armagh, and this afternoon, at the National Senior Indoor Championships, he will toe the line as by far the oldest competitor in the men’s 1500m heats.

“I’ll put a few scares into those young bucks,” he says with a laugh, though he admits a few concessions to father time. “I have a teenage mind but the body of a 50-year-old man and I’m starting to understand that. But if you stop for every niggle as a masters runner you’ll never get a good block of training in.”

He runs now like he ran then. Without fear. If there is any single race that could stand for the whole, it was Brussels, August 1997. Healy had been crocked most of that year with a bulging disc in his back, and soon realised he was at risk of losing his £10,000-a-year grant. The biggest meeting on the circuit was approaching in the Memorial Van Damme, an invitation-only event where Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj was about to chase the 1500m world record. Healy had run a dire season’s best of 3:53, but after one solid session in Belfield he figured he was starting to come good.

“I said, ‘f*** it, I’ll take a chance, get on a plane and go to Brussels.”

He didn’t have an agent, so confronted meeting director Wilfried Meert in the lobby of the athletes’ hotel, telling him he needed to run his race.

“Excuse me?” said Meert. “Who are you?” After Healy bluffed about his best times that season, Meert told him to sit in a chair in the lobby and not move, and it was several hours before Meert finally re-appeared: “Okay, you’re in.”

“I said, ‘okay Shane, don’t f*** up, whatever you do.” The following night, he began to wonder just what the hell he’d signed up for as El Guerrouj ripped through 800m in 1:48, Healy holding on for dear life out the back as he passed in 1:52. As the Moroccan powered to the finish in 3:28.92, Healy emptied his energy reserves up the home straight to come home 12th, smashing his personal best.

“Lo and behold, I ran 3:35.29 with shite preparation,” he says. “But the thing is: When my back is against the wall, I’ll produce the goods. I hope I can open people’s eyes to never ever give up faith, to chase your dream. Don’t ever give up.” …

On the wall of Healy’s living room at home, looming high opposite the wood pellet stove, sits a large painting, replete with all the anxiety of an Edvard Munch masterpiece.

It’s by a local artist in Dundalk, and depicts a swirling vortex, into which Alice in Wonderland, an angst-riddled rabbit and one of Salvador Dali’s surrealist clocks are gradually disappearing. A grave-digger’s spade looms in one corner, with a beating heart in the other, and two words are printed above and below the vortex: Tick, tock.

Healy loved it the moment he saw it, how it seemed a pastiche of his own path. A few years ago, tormented that he could be running out of time to find his mother, Healy travelled to Huddersfield, the place of her birth. He still had one cousin in England, but his mother’s sole sibling had died of cancer in 1991. He tried everything, followed every lead he could, and came up empty.

Shane Healy with his "Olympics passport" at Dublin Airport. Picture: Sportsfile

“It was a dead end,” he says. His father passed away a couple of years ago, and over time Healy has come to accept that he may never find his mother. Not that he’ll ever give up hope.

In 2005 Healy met the love of his life, Jennifer, who he married last year. “She’s been the rock,” he says. “We’re like two peas in a pod.” Their house — spotlessly maintained, with photos of Healy’s Olympic appearance dotted around the walls — sits on the side of a hill on the Cooley Peninsula, and Healy knows every trail and road in the area for miles, having traversed them all on foot as he builds fitness for his next adventure.

Next month he’ll tackle the World Masters Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland, and after that he’ll launch an assault on the over-50 world records at 800m, 1500m and 5000m.

His speed and power may be in decline these days, but toughness is a trait without expiry. In life, in athletics, it’s hard to separate who he is on the track with what he always has been off it. Resilient.

Resolute. Bashed around a bit but still in there, scrapping ‘til the bitter end.

A product of his past, but far from a prisoner of it.

As the sun begins to set over the hills, I ask Healy one final question: how does he feel his upbringing shaped him, given all that came after? He pauses for a few moments, gathering his thoughts on one of those bright spring days that seem to sing with optimism.

“I was very adaptable,” he says. “No matter what, I never got lost and I never gave up hope. There was always something to keep me going.”

And there still is. The kind of guy who will always find a way.

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