THE age-defying achievements of three-time Olympian and world champion runner Eamonn Coghlan are the stuff of legend. At 22, he set a record for running a sub-four-minute mile, then did the same again at 41.
That’s just one of the reasons the 63-year-old has the perfect credentials to present Setanta’s Super Fit Seniors series. In that, he’s a veritable boy amongst men, training as he does with some of Ireland’s oldest athletes.
“After you retire, you can sit on your ass and potter about feeling sorry for yourself, but the athletes featured on the show illustrate by example the positive benefits of pursuing hobbies and interests as we age,” says Coghlan.
“Meeting these gentlemen, getting inside their heads, trying to understand what it is that has an 85-year-old running a marathon or an 84-year-old riding 300 or 400 miles a week on a bike, has been an absolutely fantastic experience for me.”
The gentlemen concerned are veterans such as marathon runner Phonsie Clifford (85), racing driver Brian Cullen (72), power-lifter Gerry McNamara (65), cyclist Kevin Sims (84), sailor Leonard McKay (82) and Cork’s own indoor rowing champion Richard Morgan (85).
Coghlan says they share an inner competitiveness. “They push to meet goals they set for themselves; striving to beat their own records. All have a refreshing attitude to life. All get a certain happiness from being so heavily involved in pursuits they enjoy.”
Like them, Coghlan has embraced life full-on with energy and zest.
When asked what has been his biggest challenge he has faced to date, his answer was surprising, given the high-level competitions at which he has excelled: “When I was 19 I went to school in America at a time when I was the second-rated guy coming out of Ireland. Because I had dyslexia, math nearly killed me. With that, I was staying in a carpetless room that was like a prison cell. There was big pressure to pass the exams. So tough was that for me that I quit after six months and came back home.”
Coghlan’s trainer told him to go back, saying that was the route to becoming a champ. His father urged him to return as did Yvonne; who is now his wife. “But I wouldn’t go,” he says. “I was comfortable in Ireland; happy riding around on my motorbike; content with my job at the PMPA. Even so, I knew my challenge was to return, get my exams and beat the guys on the team.”
Within a year he did just that.
Enthusing about Coghlan’s skill at motivating, Morgan says: “Eamonn had me rowing 2,000m seven seconds faster than my normal. Before he came along, I thought I was giving it everything I had, every time. But he has the skill of a good jockey, one who can always get that bit more from a horse.”
Coghlan was equally impressed by Morgan: “I fell in love with Richard when I met him. What a gentleman he is! Every day, he goes into his shed and there among paint tins, brushes and hundreds of books, gets his blood pumping by training on his indoor rowing machine for regional, national and world championships.
“He holds the 2,000 metre record for his age group, but prefers not to talk about his successes.” While that’s true he’s open about the health challenges he has faced: “In my teens, I was an asthmatic, and my lungs wouldn’t be tip-top,” he says. “With that, I have an artificial right knee, as does my wife, Rita. We got ours done together last year.”
Asked whether there’s a deep streak of self-discipline within him, he admits only to being ‘rigid in certain things’. “I wouldn’t allow myself to do anything that would impair keeping my body and mind in the best shape I could,” he elaborates.
He does plenty to stay fit. Before winning the World Championships in 2007 he was clocking up 25,000m per day training on his rowing machine. “I couldn’t do that now,” he admits, “but I do 10,000m most days and that takes about an hour.”
While ill-health prevented him from competing in the Irish championships at the beginning of the year, Morgan still went to Boston the following month to compete.
“On the day, I felt physically strong, but because I had been so sick up to that, I didn’t expect to do well on the day. While racing, the weak link as in reduced lung capacity brought about by years of heavy smoking in my past, meant that when I finished the race I was totally breathless; I could hardly breathe.”
Respiratory issues aside, his Trojan endeavours resulted in glory when he bagged himself a thoroughly well-deserved silver medal.
Asked for his wife’s attitude towards his rigorous 10k daily training schedule and his constant competing, Morgan is philosophical: “I don’t think Rita approves. She thinks it will kill me. But I know different.”