It was both a look back and a glance forward — an appreciation of a past great and the heralding of her successor. And through all of yesterday’s National Athletics Awards in Santry, there was an excited sense of expectancy with an Olympic year starting to loom on the horizon.
Towards the end, two women remained on stage, shooting the breeze about all things athletics. For Ciara Mageean, the 2019 Athlete of the Year, it was a chance to again meet one of her childhood heroes. For Sonia O’Sullivan, who entered the Athletics Ireland Hall of Fame, it was a chance to pass on some encouragement to the woman who’s following the trail she so brightly blazed.
Few in Irish sport can dispatch advice from such a prestigious pedestal, and with Tokyo on the horizon O’Sullivan had a key lesson to pass to Mageean: don’t change.
“As long as she stays healthy and fit, that’s the hardest thing to do: get to the line in one piece,” said O’Sullivan. “Everyone can go out there and train hard and have great aspirations but the thing is to keep yourself together. The mistake I made (ahead of the Olympics) in 1996 was thinking I had to train harder and you don’t. You just have to do another layer of the same thing, make the foundation stronger so when it comes to that race your base is strong and you can go out there and get yourself in the position you want to be.
“Ciara had a great year and she’s edging the bar up for herself, doing this gradual progression to get where she wants to be. I’m sure she won’t be happy until she gets the big medal on the big stage.”
Mageean was thrilled to be honoured after a breakthrough year which saw her rewrite her personal bests over 1500m and the mile and finish 10th in the world 1500m final in Doha. “This will be cherished on the top of the mantelpiece,” she said. “Everything we did last year was to get me ready for 2020 and making a world final was step number one. It was a glistening world final and it showed me where I have to be. I’m going to go out and work super hard to be in a better position than top 10 in 2020.” Mageean revealed she is already laying solid foundations, recording her highest volume week in training last week with 81 miles covered. “I’m delighted because I’m coping with that mileage better. In the past I would have done 70 and been absolutely exhausted but I’m feeling good and I’m enjoying it. I’m feeling a more robust athlete and it’ll stand to me. There’s room for me to improve and I’m excited about it.”
Mageean will race the European Cross Country in Lisbon on December 8 before spending Christmas at home and then taking flight to the US on December 27 for a month of altitude training in Albuquerque.
Ciara’s career has long been intertwined with O’Sullivan’s, given Mageean drew comparisons with the all-time great when breaking on the scene with global medals at underage championships. Indeed one of her chief goals in the years ahead is the national 1500m record of 3:58.85 which O’Sullivan holds, a mark she fell just shy of in Doha where she clocked 4:00.15.
“I’d love to get an Irish record, it’s there in my sights,” said Mageean.
“It’s such an honour to be compared to Sonia. I get emotional talking about her. I don’t think Irish people realise how lucky we are to have an athlete of that calibre. Sonia blazed a path and what a path it was.”
On what was O’Sullivan’s 50th birthday, her birthday cake was delivered to the stage by teenage star Sarah Healy, who won 1500m silver at the European U-20 Championships in July. Brendan Boyce was crowned endurance athlete of the year after a superb year, in which the Donegal man finished sixth in the 50km race walk at the World Championships. Eilish Flanagan took the U23 prize, Kate O’Connor scooped the U20 award while Raheny Shamrock won performance club of the year.