Bale force: Shane Howard happy to make hay on Rathcormac family farm

Shane Howard was only a kid the last time he jumped into one of the hay bales on the family farm in Rathcormac.
Bale force: Shane Howard happy to make hay on Rathcormac family farm

Long Jump athlete Shane Howard of Bandon AC training at the family farm in Rathcormac, Co Cork, while adhering to the HSE guidelines on social distancing. Following Government and Department of Health directives the majority of sporting associations have suspended all organised sporting activity in an effort to contain Covid-19. As a result of these restrictions, Shane is unable to travel to his usual training facility at CIT. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Long Jump athlete Shane Howard of Bandon AC training at the family farm in Rathcormac, Co Cork, while adhering to the HSE guidelines on social distancing. Following Government and Department of Health directives the majority of sporting associations have suspended all organised sporting activity in an effort to contain Covid-19. As a result of these restrictions, Shane is unable to travel to his usual training facility at CIT. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Shane Howard was only a kid the last time he jumped into one of the hay bales on the family farm in Rathcormac.

Turns out he was years ahead of his time.

Needs must in these strange times of ‘make do and mend’.

With the world on near shutdown, innovation has proven to be just as valuable to elite athletes as talent and hard work.

Howard had not much more than an Olympic bar and a few free weights to hand when the country was put under lock and key back in March.

It’s not that he needed much in the way of equipment in the first place but that still left him a little light.

A project engineer with Stryker NV in Cork City, welding a rack was a good start, the surrounding fields left plenty of room for running and those bales have provided a soft landing for a long jumper whose issue in recent years has actually been his take-off.

Howard is the reigning national senior long jump champion and yet he has been tormented by an acute case of osteoarthritis in his left foot for a number of years.

Not good for a man in his trade. Even worse was the fact that it was his jumping foot.

Long jumpers are not quite as fast as a 100m or a 200m sprinter but the need for speed is obvious.

So is an ability to find a consistent rhythm, especially in those last three or four strides before transferring that velocity from the horizontal to the vertical.

“I would be hobbling for days after an event, he explained this week.

“I changed my jumping foot last November so the gap at the moment with the shutdown has actually given me the chance to retrain.” This is no small thing.

Athletes, like golfers, can be notoriously fussy and exact about anything to do with technique. Jumping off one foot or the other may not sound much to the layperson but it’s a delicate operation with high stakes and it can take time.

That is something far more of us have these days. There was no pause pressed on Howard’s day job but the absence of competition and travel did allow room for him to adapt.

He can already see the benefits, not least the extra power generated as he propels himself off terra firma. It can’t help but be a source of huge encouragement for an athlete who has already hit some heights even while less than 100% fit.

His current PB is 7.61m but the target, as it is with all long jumpers with talent and ambition, is to reach that magical 8m mark. That is quite a leap in itself. It might not come this year but the hope is it can be ticked off at some point in 2021.

He has been striving for this for almost 20 years.

Sport was an ample buffet from which he tasted freely growing up. Among the influences was his granddad Dinny who lives next door and had an interest in athletics which he was keen to pass on.

His father, though more of a GAA man, was his long-time trainer before the decision was made to link up with Bandon AC and current coach Liz Coomey.

Long jumping isn’t exactly a staple of the Irish athletics diet but Shane found himself drawn toward it early on. A first title was claimed at U9 level when aged just seven but his body would do hold him back in those early days when he was still with the local Grange-Fermoy club.

“I’m 6’ 4” now but I was five-foot-nothing for a long time,” he said. “I grew up late so I had some catching up to do.” That delayed growth spurt meant he never had the chance to wear an Irish singlet at underage levels. A place at the World Student Games in 2017 was wrecked by a ruptured hamstring suffered whilst competing for UL.

If that all sounds like a debilitating and demoralising journey then it is only one side of a story that makes for more pleasant reading when digested in the whole.

Plenty of athletes have had to overcome similar setbacks and Howard did just that, not least in 2019 when he claimed a first senior domestic title at the Irish Indoors in Abbotstown, added that PB and then took the outdoor crown.

Rounding the year off was a first appearance for Ireland at the European Team Championships in Norway where he finished ninth in the long jump in difficult weather conditions and the team placed seventh overall.

The pandemic has since played havoc with everyone’s best-laid plans but more so in terms of dates than the targets themselves. Howard has plenty to reach for whenever the calendar does start to fill itself in again.

“Every athlete looks at the Olympics,” he said. “It would be in the back of my mind and I’ll keep trying for it but I’m still a bit off it. The qualifying distance is 8.22 but, with the new points system, five jumps over 8m in the right competitions could do it.

“I’m in the background tipping away there, really. My main goal this year was the Europeans before they were cancelled but I would be looking at the European Indoors next year as well.”

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