The 23-year-old Leevale athlete finished sixth in 3:40.41 which gained him automatic qualification for tomorrow’s semi-finals but those who watched the race will have witnessed a young man who has come of age at a time when Irish middle distance running is desperately in need of a lift.
It was a tactical race, coming off a modest 58.26 second opening lap and Ó Lionaird was a victim, fortunately not a casualty, of the pushing and shoving over the opening 400m.
“I stayed calm,” he said. “There was a lot of jostling for position and I thought if I got involved in that kind of thing I would be wasting far too much energy so I decided to be patient and see how things developed.”
He tried to work his way up from the back as the 2009 silver medallist, Deresse Mekonnen (Ethiopia) battled for pole position with Hamza Driouch (Qatar) and Silas Kiplagat (Kenya) with champion, Youssef Saad Kamel (Burundi), struggling deep in the pack.
Ó Lionaird was two from the back of the bunched field at the end of another slow 62.08 sec lap but the pace was winding up for the final lap with the Irish man behind a wall of runners.
“I had wanted to be in a good position at 800m and I felt the way the race was being run I was able to react to the moves. I knew it would open up in the home stretch.”
At the bell he moved inside, picked off a couple of the runners and then moved to the outside to unleash his own run.
“I knew I was never going to pick off the Moroccan, Amine Laalou, once I saw the top four breaking away but I felt comfortable in the home stretch and I ended up taking it easy over the final 50 metres.”
Laalou won in 3:39.86, from Mekonnen, 3:40.08 and Kiplagat, 3:40.13, with Saad Kamel, getting up to finish fifth in 3:40.27. All the fastest losers came from this race.
“I have run a lot of tactical races this year and that experience paid off,” the Corkman said. “Those races where there are no pacemakers teach you the tactics. You can go to the Milers Club races for personal bests but they teach you nothing in the way of tactics. I have gone back and done a lot of speed training — intervals at race pace and picking up at random — so that I would be able to respond to the moves. I had built up a good level of fitness. It all paid off.
“I think I have arrived at a position in my career where I am ready to run with the top guys — especially heading into London where I want to race against those guys. Since I ran the 3:34 there has been a lot of pressure on me but Tuesday has taken all that pressure off and now I will be giving it a lash in the semis. I feel that I have earned my place and I deserve to be here. I really think between my coaches Der (O’Donovan) at Leevale and my college coach, Bob Braman at Florida State, and myself we have come together and figured it out. Immediately after the 800m at the National Championships I went back to the States and the first thing I did was a tempo run as that buys me a few weeks speedwork.
“Then I came to Daegu and it was just some fine tuning and resting. I am lucky to have Alistair (Cragg) here and the management team have been great, Patsy (McGonagle), the coaches and the Head of High Performance, Kevin Ankrom. They have been very co-operative and have been helping me to stay relaxed and ready to go. Having people like that around helps me to maximise every little bit. It’s nice to be where I am after being away — I came back a new runner. I’m not scared of anybody because I’ve been out of the scene. If I am coming back after all this time out I am going to make the most of it. It has worked out well and I believe I can make it in those races.”
Tomorrow Ó Lionaird will line up alongside his former college team mate, Nick Willis, in the second of the semi-finals which gets under way at 12.05pm (Irish time). The Olympic champion, Asbel Kiprop (Kenya), who was promoted to the gold medal position in Beijing after Rashid Ramzi tested positive for a banned substance, is also in the field along with the silver medallist from Berlin, Deresse Mekonnen.