Treading boards brings out our best

I’m counting down the hours to the weekend’s World Indoor Championships as Sopot in Poland hosts the most important event of the global athletics calendar.

Treading boards brings out our best

Indoor running has always been a lucrative venture for Irish athletes. There is something about the indoor track scene that brings out remarkable performances.

In 2006, I became world indoor champion. It was a massive breakthrough in my track career. I began that indoor season as a relatively unknown hurdler, I’d never even made top eight at a major championship.

I won every race I competed in that season and felt confident I would produce a very special performance at the championships.

After I won the final, I couldn’t believe how easy the race had felt. To this day I think it was the easiest medal I won. Not because I didn’t run fast or the competition wasn’t really tough but because of the ease at which I ran. I was such a newcomer to that level that I had absolutely no pressure. I ran with zero expectation or any kind of fear to run a big Irish record.

At the time, I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of my performance, now I look back and have a huge amount of pride in how I performed that day.

Before that indoor season, I hadn’t improved in three seasons. I was giving the sport one last chance before entering the real world. I’d started getting coaching advice from Sean and Terrie Cahill as a last ditch attempt to see if I could improve. They literally turned my career around. For me, the World Indoor Championships was the tipping point in my athletics career.

For a country that hasn’t had a major indoor facility until recently, we’ve always been right at home on the indoor boards.

Eamonn Coghlan was an incredible indoor runner and to this day people still refer to him as ‘Chairman of the Boards’. Marcus O’Sullivan won three world indoor titles. There have been five Irish world indoor champions and they have all been from Munster.

I grew up racing in the indoor facility in Nenagh. The set-up was basic but it did a huge amount for Irish athletics and still hosts it’s fair share of competitions. I have so many amazing memories of racing in Nenagh and also lots of cringeworthy pictures of me wearing a long-sleeved polo neck underneath my singlet, that’s how cold it was inside!

Sean Naughton is the man responsible for the existence of the Nenagh indoor track and he was a major pioneer for the sport. He also happened to be a serious hurdles enthusiast and coach.

From a young age, every time I raced there he would stand in the infield and shout as loud as he could “Drive” whilst I was jumping every hurdle. I did have a habit of hurdling in a very relaxed way, so he did his fair share in making me a more aggressive hurdler!

Last year, the sport was fortunate enough to see the opening of the Athlone Institute of Technology indoor track. This was largely due to the efforts of Ciarán Ó Cathain, Athlone IT president. The total cost of this facility was €11m and 90% of the project was funded through commercial activities. The track is one of the feel-good stories of Irish athletics. Like Naughton before him, Ciarán had a vision of a facility that would enhance Irish athletics and he made that happen.

The first indoor grand prix was held in Athlone a few days ago and it was testament to the facility that Ashton Eaton, Olympic champion for multi-events, competed.

To see the stadium packed to capacity and kids clamouring around trying to get Eaton’s autograph was an amazing sight. It’s just what the sport needs.

The Irish team that will take to the track in Sopot this weekend have already benefited from Athlone. All have competed there at some stage, with Mark English setting an Irish indoor record there a few weeks ago.

There are five athletes due to travel who all compete in distance events, 800m or 1500m. The team is a young one with many of them competing on the world stage for the first time.

The beauty about this World Indoor Championships is that it’s coming at a perfect time for this young team. It’s mid-Olympic cycle, just over two years from the Rio Olympics and this event can only help them gain experience in competing on the world stage. Indoor championships have a habit of throwing up unexpected surprises and there could be one or two from this team.

A place in the final is not beyond the realms of possibility for an Irish vest and I’m looking forward to watching them take their chances.

As a fan of the sport, I’m excited to see the event unfold this weekend in Poland, a tiny part of me is sad not to be competing but I can park that feeling and watch some amazing athletes perform.

The women’s hurdles should be exciting with Australian Sally Pearson in great shape and with a chance of getting close to the world record of Susanna Kallur. The Russian high jumper Ivan Ukhov is in amazing shape and has been hunting Javier Sotomayor’s world indoor record.

I’m excited to watch a host of athletes be crowned world champions this weekend, a feeling I’m lucky enough to have experienced. I’m looking forward to seeing the young Irish team find their feet on the indoor boards and step up to the mark like many distance greats before them.

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