Turning the Rio dream into reality

This week’s European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam is a final chance to book a place on the plane to the Rio Olympics, writes Derval O’Rourke.

Turning the Rio dream into reality

Firstly a confession, I love the European Athletics Championships. There is no point in me pretending otherwise.

I competed in them as a junior, an under 23 and a senior athlete. Those races defined different parts of my career. The first time I competed at the European Senior championships was in 2002, I was very young and had no chance. I didn’t make it past the first round. I cried about it and tried to explain to anyone that would listen that I was better than that (I’m sure I was no fun to be around!). The next times I competed, I won medals and broke the Irish record. Those memorable nights were in Gothenburg and Barcelona. They were entirely magical for me and I’ll always feel very privileged to have experienced such career highs.

I’m really excited to see what the Irish athletes can do on the track in Amsterdam this week. The team is the biggest ever sent. Originally this wasn’t supposed to be the case but thankfully Athletics Ireland backtracked on its selection criteria and opted to send a full team.

A massive team doesn’t mean there will be more medal chances but it does mean more athletes will get championship experience. I believe athletes should be given a chance to gain championship experience. It will either make or break them and that’s what is needed if you want future medallists. The European Championships are a sniff at the world of elite athletics and that sniff might be enough to spur on some future medallists.

Most athletes wearing the Irish vest won’t be thinking of medals but there are a few who will be quietly looking to the podium. The team doesn’t have any medal favourites going into these championships but there are certainly a few athletes with the ability to get in the mix if things go their way.

Ciara Mageean was a hugely talented junior athlete over 1,500 metres. She was contending at a world level in the junior ranks before an injury ravaged few years. Magaeen will be making her senior championship debut and if she can navigate the rounds she should make it to the final. The women’s 1,500m final will most likely be a tactical affair but if Magaeen is at her best she could challenge for the podium. That would be a massive step forward for the UCD talent.

Thomas Barr has had an interesting past 12 months. He became the World Student Games champion and smashed the Irish 400m hurdles record running 48.65 in 2015. He was a consistent performer on the European circuit last year and just missed out on a world final. This year he’s been trying to overcome an injury problem. Barr made his season debut at the national championships 10 days ago, the late start to his season due to the injury.

He ran 50.2 seconds, a time that shows he has lots of work to do but more importantly it shows he is within touching distance of his world-class form. Hurdles races require technique and rhythm that only racing can provide, thus Barr needs to race to find his fastest times. Racing a heat, a semi-final and a final at the European Championships will be the ideal way to get his hopes of a successful Olympic Games back on track. Barr is talented enough to get on the podium in Amsterdam but his lack of race fitness might prevent this. Let’s hope for some Irish hurdle magic for him.

Ireland will be represented well in the relays. The main relay of interest will be the men’s 4x400m relay. The team will be racing to try to secure a place in the Rio Olympics. The recent national championships showcased that the men’s 400m is the most competitive track event in Irish athletics this year. Five athletes ran under 47 seconds in the final.

No athlete has qualified individually for the men’s 400m at the Rio Olympics but if the relay can gain qualification, it means six Irish 400m athletes will get themselves a ticket to the Rio Olympics. Such a carrot offers a huge incentive for the relay lads in Amsterdam. I predict they can be top five and hopefully take a medal home.

Ten years ago I came second at the European Championships in Gothenburg. That night I was beaten by Swedish athlete Susanna Kallur, It was an amazing experience, Kallur is a hero in Sweden so to take her on at her home track was amazing. Kallur is one of the greatest athletes I’ve competed against. This week at the European championships she will line up in a bid to regain her title and to book herself a ticket to Rio with the Swedish team. A full 10 years after being European champion.

She suffered a horrific shin injury in 2008. This led to eight surgeries and years of rehab. Through it all, Kallur never retired from athletics. She kept on trying to make her way back to being one of the best in the world. It’s an incredible story of resilience and determination.

It underlines the magnetic appeal of an Olympic year. The focus might be Amsterdam but the dream is Rio. Here’s hoping some Irish athletes make it happen this week.

Here's a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis: Euro 2016 - Can Wales win Euro 2016?

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