A spectacular day for Ireland at the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam ended with five athletes qualifying for the later stages, and four of those reaching finals, writes Will Downing.
Three of the progressing quintet will compete in Sunday’s women’s 3000m steeplechase final, with Michelle Finn, Sara Treacy and Kerry O’Flaherty all making waves at the Olympisch Stadion.
Finn took fourth place in the opening semi-final, while Treacy was fifth and O’Flaherty sixth in the second race.
Never in any trouble, Finn - of Leevale AC - clocked 9:45.93 in a contest taken by a regular winner on Irish soil, Gesa Krause of Germany, in 9:43.81.
The aggression was carried on by Treacy and O’Flaherty in the second semi-final, where the Irish pair floated in the top six throughout, ultimately taking fifth and sixth respectively.
Treacy’s time of 9:42.16 was a new lifetime best for the Dunboyne AC steeplechaser, with O’Flaherty a place back in 9:45.53, a season’s best.
Newcastle AC athlete O’Flaherty may have been outside the automatic qualifying places, but was under no pressure by qualifying as the fastest loser, and she has praise for the team ethic that surrounds the Irish trio for Rio.
“For the three of us, only two seconds separates our PBs, and that’s great,” O’Flaherty said.
“We all come from different areas – me from 1500m and working up, Michelle 5000m and working down.
“We all bring something different to it. We all take different approaches, but the three of us from getting the Olympic qualifying time in the same race in Letterkenny, have been spurring each other on.
“It does feel like a team.”
After her PB, Treacy said: “I was aiming for top five, and was there or thereabouts for most of the race.
“Going into the middle part of the race where I’ve traditionally been weak, I was saying to myself that I had to push it on.
“I knew I would be strong at the end, so happy to hold onto that big ‘Q’ and take the automatic spot.”
For Finn, it was all about maintaining her momentum and avoiding pitfalls: “I wanted to stay in contention. I knew it was top five (to go through).
“I stayed out wide to keep out of trouble and felt good towards the end.
“Until last year, I hadn’t really done very many big competitions.
“After having the World Championships behind me, I could look at the start list and though I wasn’t in the top five in advance in terms of times, it was very close and I thought it was very possible.”
Ciara Mageean put years of injury trouble behind her by qualifying automatically for Sunday’s women’s 1500m final.
In her first Championship for Ireland for five years, Mageean stepped sideways at the bell while in sixth place to avoid being boxed in, and pushed through on the outside to take a creditable third place in 4 minutes, 13.61 seconds.
“I’m delighted,” Mageean beamed, “The aim was to come here and get into the top four to have the automatic qualification and be able to walk off the track not wondering about whether I had done enough to reach the final.
“Now I’ve secured my place I have to get ready for the final.”
On checking her progress just before the bell, Mageean explained: “I found myself at the very front of the race to begin with, which is not where I was planning on being.
“It’s hard when you want to get out fast and everybody else wants to go out slow.
“In races like this, girls are constantly rejigging. I was on the inside, which is where I want to be as I want to run the shortest race.
“But if others are moving around you, you can find yourself boxed in, so I decided to move myself around and get myself into a position I could use.
“So I slipped back and pushed myself back up there.”
Christine McMahon continued Ireland’s impressive run by taking a fastest loser’s place through to the semi-finals of the women’s 400m hurdles, having finished fourth in her first-round heat.
The Ballymena and Antrim AC athlete’s time of 57.73 was just about good enough by a quarter of a second, despite losing her rhythm somewhat approaching the second-last hurdle.
McMahon is happy her wobbles didn’t cost her: “It was a good heat to be in. I dropped off a little bit, especially in the final 100 metres, and a few girls caught up on me.
“The legs were definitely feeling a bit lethargic in the last 50 metres or so.
“With the first round, I was able to blow some cobwebs out, but I should be a bit fresher for the semi-finals tomorrow.”
Two sprinters who had performed so excellently yesterday in reaching the semi-finals, departed at the penultimate stage.
Carlow star Marcus Lawler of St Laurence O’Toole AC and Amy Foster of City of Lisburn both finished seventh in their 200m and 100m semis respectively.
That was the same finishing position for Ben Reynolds in the men’s 100m hurdles.
The Netherlands’ biggest athletics star set the Olympic Stadium alight with a blistering victory in a high-quality women’s 100m final.
An impressive 10.90 from the world 200m champion saw her enjoy a large margin over Bulgaria’s double champion from 2012 Ivet Lalova-Collio in second, with Mujinga Kumbundji of Switzerland third.
It made up somewhat for the victory and subsequent disqualification of Churandy Martina in the men’s 200m for three lane violations.
100m kingpin Martina had won in 20.37 seconds, but his post-race red-carding saw Spain’s Bruno Hortelano take gold instead.
Under the spotlight for “country-hopping”, two more imports won gold for Turkey – Cuban-born Yasmani Copello Escobar in the 400m hurdles, while a farcical 10000m final saw Polat Kemboi Arikan defeat fellow former Kenyan Ali Kaya in a Turkish 1-2, with both over 100 metres clear of the rest at one stage.
But Aras Kaya was beaten down into second in the men’s 3000 steeplechase by colourful and controversial Frenchman Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad.
The 400m titles were retained by Britain’s Martyn Rooney and Italy’s Libania Grenot.
Heavy throwing late on in the women’s hammer final saw Anita Wlodarczyk retain the title for Poland ahead of her perennial foe, Germany’s former world champion and former world record holder Betty Heidler. 78.14 winning it for the Pole.
Her Polish compatriot Robert Sodera sensationally won the men’s pole vault with an effort of 5.60 metres – but everybody who tried 5.75 missed, including world record holder and Olympic favourite Renaud Lavillenie, who only came into the competition at that point.
The Frenchman’s failures at that height saw him fail to register a mark, and so a shock gold went Sodera’s way.
Sandra Perkovic – who regularly receives treatment in Carlow - won another women’s discus crown, coming from behind to edge out Julia Fischer, as Germany finished second, third and fourth.
Serbia’s Ivana Spanovic added the European outdoor long jump crown to the indoor one claimed in Prague last year, as she leapt out to 6.95 metres.