Just over six weeks ago, before everything changed, Ireland’s best masters athletes were gathering in Athlone for the National Indoor Championships.
In categories from over-35s up to over-90s, athletes came from all corners of the country to compete in the full range of events, from 60m sprints to 3000m walking and running races, from hurdles to high jumps, from relays to weight-throwing. Some continuing athletics careers dating back as many as eight decades.
Now that official coronavirus cases have risen from the 21 in Ireland that day to more than 15,000, those who were winning over-70’s races find themselves ‘cocooning’, minimising all non-essential contact with other people. It’s quite a change for our flying fit veterans.
Michael Hayes (St Mary’s AC, Clare) was the only competitor in the over-90s category at Athlone that day, winning gold in the shot put, with a 5.65m throw, and weight for distance.
“It wasn’t great — it was about a metre behind what I did in the Munster Championships a month earlier — but I think I set a new national record given that’s all I had to beat.
“All those guys that were competitors with me, sorry to say, are not with us anymore, so all I had to beat was the record.”
Michael’s love-affair with athletics goes back 72 years, although he had a brief flirtation with Gaelic football too, playing in three county finals, winning two, and receiving medals for none.
He won a Clare championship with Kilrush, but it was lost in the boardroom.
He won a New York Championship with Kerry, but couldn’t travel the 250 miles to receive the medal. And he lost a Dublin Minor Championship to a St Vincent’s team that contained subsequent All-Ireland-winners Kevin Heffernan, Ollie Freaney, and ‘Snitchie’ Ferguson.
The reason for Michael’s moves was study, going first to UCD, and then the USA to pursue a Chemistry PhD. There, he trained under Larry Snyder, who coached Jesse Owens and the 1960 US Olympic track and field team.
He worked at the University of Birmingham for 40 years before coming back to UL, where he continues to do research and mentor athletes to this day, organising the quadrennial athletics meet with Harvard and Yale at UL. “Harvard and Yale have come across the Atlantic 30 times since 1895 and I’ve been involved in 15 of them, a unique record.” He also took Limerick teams to the US, educating the locals that the city was not just a five-line poem.
Now, his research is keeping him busy through the lockdown.
“I have no interaction with people but I’m very busy writing research papers so, in a sense, my daily routine has not changed very much. It’s busy as always but I do miss meeting people. I am alone but with an absolutely beautiful view overlooking the Shannon Estuary and doing work and sitting out in the sun. That’s alright, I can put up with that.
“I still travel around the world but I can’t do that now,” he says. “As far as I can go is to the local village but that’s alright too.”
Patrick Naughton (Nenagh Olympic AC) won five golds in Athlone — the over-85s 60m sprint, shot put, weight for distance, high jump, and long jump, where he leapt 2.18m — bringing his collection of masters medals to 330 in his 48th season on the circuit.
A three-time Irish decathlon champion who also played senior rugby for Cork Con, he returned to athletics aged 39 for a one-off veterans’ race. “This official, he caused Sonia O’Sullivan trouble about her geansaí some years later, told me, ‘you can’t run because your entry wasn’t in in time’. I told him he’d have to pull me off the track if he was going to stop me from running.” Patrick ran and won the race too. A year later, the masters championships were founded.
He competed in the European Championships every five years from 45 on, finishing behind German athletes each time until, aged 75, he won his long-awaited medals in the high jump and pentathlon.
While his medals are now stuffed in drawers around the house, he’s kept busy fencing around the farm with his wife in preparation for 20 cattle due to arrive. He has cutting timber for his ‘weight training’.
“I’m busy gardening and doing a bit of farming and exercise so I don’t miss it that much.
“Going down to the track with the lads doing a bit of coaching or advice, that’s what I miss most. Otherwise, I have a fairly full life. I do all the things I always did in a way.
“I do 10 to 15 minutes of exercise every morning. I run up and down the hallway and do a lot of stretching and I do the movements for the shot and javelin. And I do five or six minutes every night before I go to bed. Even though I’ve rheumatism and arthritis in my neck for the last 20 years, I’m managing with it.”
Terri Gough (West Waterford AC) took gold in her four over-75s events — the 60m, in a time of 14.44 seconds, 200m, shot put, and weight for distance. An experienced distance runner, Terri would otherwise have been hoping to complete her 230th marathon this month, 30 years after she took up the sport.
“It’s testing yourself against yourself,” she says, although she would like to see more women entering, especially from her own club, to keep the categories going.
When asked about her training routine, she chuckles: “I just run the races and keep ticking over. If I trained seriously, I might frighten myself!”
Still, Terri has been able to maintain her fitness levels close to home:
There’s a track quite near to me, I’m there in three minutes, and I’m out first thing in the morning and do about an hour there. I don’t see anyone only me, myself, and the dog.
John Rice (Grange/Femoy AC) competed in the over-70s weight for distance, long jump, and high jump in Athlone, winning the latter by clearing a height of 1m.
He was breaking over-60s world records in weightlifting until recent years — deadlifting 212.5kg in 2015 — until he suffered a knockout last year, which saw him switch his focus to jumping events.
Four Rice brothers each collected All-Irelands in rowing and tug-o-war, with the local tug-o-war club training at their farm, although he laments the sport’s decline.
They were also founder members of Fermoy Rugby Club, his brother, Denis, represented Ireland in rowing at the 1980 Olympics, while John also won All-Irelands in sheaf-throwing.
“But sure, we’re all old now,” he says. “I still have strong legs for the jumps, I’m concentrating on that now, but with this virus you can do nothing.”
He cannot train in the warmth of the rowing club gym these days, although he is not too stuck with a gym at home.
“Myself and my wife are more or less cocooned. It’s a big change because I’d be heading off training. As you get older, you’ve to train more to stay in shape.”
The virus also brings family worries, with John concerned for his brother who is in a nursing home: “They’re shaking in their boots that the virus will come into it.”
Whatever about the return of sport, those are the real concerns. Still, whenever sport does come back, they’ll be ready to go out once more, for the craic and competition of it all.