WHEN things get hard, when her legs are failing, her lungs burning, and her stomach feeling ready to unpack its contents, Ciara Neville thinks of one thing: Tokyo.
What was once a distant dream now seems a tangible reality, and the thought of the Olympics is what helps the 20-year-old sprinter churn up the grassy hill by the track at the University of Limerick, or through a series of 150m reps that leave her with vicious nausea.
Tokyo. A place that is far from promised but is now a possibility for the Limerick sprinter. The top 56 ranked athletes will secure a spot in the women’s 100m and, accounting for the three-per-country rule, Neville is currently 60th on that list.
At this weekend’s Irish Life Health National Indoor Championships, she hopes to bolster that ranking with a victory and a fast time over 60m. Neville will be hard to beat. In January she opened her season with her second-fastest ever time for the distance, 7.33. That followed a breakthrough 2019 in which she smashed her 100m PB to win the Irish title in 11.33. The day before that race, Neville had coasted to victory in her heat in 11.40, a time that would have been an Irish U23 record were it not for an error from officials, who failed to turn on the wind gauge.
“Initially after it, I was annoyed, but I knew I could run faster the next day so I was just hoping everything would be working and the weather would stay the same,” she says. “I just left that out of my head and used it to motivate me.”
Her time was behind only Phil Healy’s 11.28 on the Irish all-time list. But few who followed her progression were surprised. During her teenage years at Castletroy College and with Emerald AC, Neville had carved up the underage record books.
Her first major international final was a painful experience. In 2017 she went to the European U20 Championships as one of the favourites after running 11.52 to win the Irish schools’ title, but in her heat in Italy, Neville could only manage 11.73. That left her a bundle of nerves for the semi-final and final, questioning her own ability as she settled into her blocks. In the final she finished seventh in 11.98 and her Irish teammate, Gina Akpe-Moses, took gold. “That would really fuel me for the years to come,” she says.
The following year, Neville was a semi-finalist over 100m and 200m at the World U20 Championships in Finland, where she also helped the Irish 4x100m team to silver. In 2019 she got better again, lowering her 200m best to 23.60 along with that 100m breakthrough.
This winter, she has been lifting personal bests in the gym under the guidance of John Cleary, while coach Noelle Morrissey has now guided her for almost 15 years. “If you didn’t know her properly, she (seems) very scary,” laughs Neville. “But she says it is how it is and that’s kind of how I am.”
Morrissey was on holidays for Neville’s big breakthrough last year, but she’ll be there every step of the way in 2020, wherever that road takes them.
The Europeans in Paris at the end of August will be an obvious aim, but Neville sees no reason not to aim higher, to hack another lump off her PB and become faster than any Irishwoman in history.
Do that, she knows, and Tokyo will turn from a thought into tangible reality.