An eight-year-old schoolgirl is in class, looking out the window, miffed.
Outside her male classmates are kicking a ball, because, well, they’re boys, and boys are allowed play football for an hour every Thursday during school hours.
She’s inside, knitting, just like the other three girls in her class, because well, they’re girls, and needlework, not running around in the free fresh air, is deemed more appropriate for them.
As young as she is, she knows something’s not quite right: Sport should be for everyone.
So she takes a stand, downs tools and challenges the powers-that-be, but the revolution is neither successful nor televised. Sit down, be quiet and knit! Welcome to Ireland, 1984.
All these years later and that same girl is now sitting down in a coffee shop in Coachford, Cork, reflecting on the strides she and sport in this country have made since.
Last month a contented Olive Loughnane retired from competitive athletics as a four-time Olympian and a former world championship silver medallist. Last Thursday she spoke at an EU conference in Dublin Castle about the economic and social value of sport. The sporting infrastructure in this country still leaves quite a lot to be desired, especially at schools level, but she points out that at times we need to remember the needlework days and just how far we had to go.
She’s always been mindful of her own beginnings. Olive Loughnane was your classic late developer. In the early Parish Sports days she’d hope one of the other three girls in her class would be out so she’d be guaranteed a medal. Throughout her teens she was by a distance the fourth of four team members on the Loughrea Athletic Club relay teams in her age group. The same four girls did every event together: sprints, hurdles, cross-country, jumps, throws. In all but cross country Loughnane was their weakest link and even in it she was hardly special.
Luckily for her she had a coach who believed sport should be for everyone.
“Ours was predominantly a sprint group and two of the girls were absolute stars, winning everything around them at national level. And I’ve often thought that if it wasn’t for our coach Mary Barrett I’d have just drifted away. It would have been so easy for her to zone in on just the two girls. But the fact I wasn’t the next Sonia was completely irrelevant to Mary. She gave me just as much encouragement and coaching as the other girls.
“I’m sure if you talk to today’s prominent athletes a lot of them wouldn’t have been the best in their age group yet they’re the ones who stayed on and excelled. The reality is you have kids who win from a very early age and you have kids who try to win from a very early age. Both can be very successful. Sometimes the kids that are early developers can sustain their advantage. It depends on how they react when they are challenged. Some relish the challenge of seeing off the competition. Others can’t hack when they’re beaten and don’t bother anymore with it.
“I can even see it with kids at my [six-year-old] daughter’s school. Some of them have so much physical natural ability but they just couldn’t care less and then you have other kids who just want it.”
Loughnane had that grit. In her prime a few years ago she was probably the mentally toughest competitive walker on the planet and one of the mentally toughest competitors in all of Irish sport.
This is a woman who was swimming up until the day she gave birth to her daughter Eimear and was back in the water within 10 days after undergoing a C section.
She had to endure hard, lean years too. In 2007 she finished 17th at the world championships, a respectable but disappointing position, and in the mixed zone afterwards a journalist asked a drained-looking Loughnane why she continued to put herself through all the hardship. She was 30, the mother of one-year-old Eimear. It had been her sixth major championships, between the worlds and the Olympics, and each time she had failed to crack the top 10. Why was she still doing this?
“The inference seemed to be ‘Are you mad, like?’ and I remember looking at him as if to say, ‘Well, are you mad?’ As far as I was concerned I hadn’t reached a peak and I was on my way to that peak.
“It wasn’t an unreasonable question he’d asked but I had so much belief in myself that there was more in me.”
It would turn out she was sure right to be so sure about herself. The following year she would finish in the top seven at the Beijing Olympics, the year after that she would win silver at the worldchampionships in Berlin. She remains only the fourth Irish athlete to medal at an athletics world championships, which is some going for someone who was once only the fourth-best member of the those underage Loughrea AC relay teams.
It’s been quite a road she’s travelled, one less travelled. Back when she was 17 the club used compete in a Division 2 Midlands league in Tullamore and needed someone to take part in the 3k walk. Barrett suggested that such a taxing and technical sport would suit both her body and mind, so Loughnane gave it a shot and came in third. Watching her that day was the national coach Michael Lane, who urged her to stick with it.
She would, the commitment gradually increasing through the years. In her second year in college she was working part-time in a jeweller’s shop in Galway. Recently she met the boss of that shop and he could recall vividly the day she said it was time to give this walking lark a real go.
“To be honest for a few years there I was enjoying it but not enough to want to put the level of effort it would take to make an Irish or Olympic team. The girls who were better than me were better for a reason: they had more talent but they were also training harder than me. So I became very goal-oriented. I wanted to win an All-Ireland medal, so I won an All-Ireland medal. Then I wanted to beat the girls who were making it onto trips with the national team. When I saw Deirdre Gallagher, who I knew from the varsities scene, making the Atlanta Olympics, I started to really think ‘if she could then I could’.”
A turning point was discovering that the Olympic distance was changing from 10km to 20km. With the distance increasing, so would her level of commitment. By then work and love had brought her to Cork, where she had spent the first four years of her life as well. One of her training partners was another late developer, a chap called Rob Heffernan.
“I can remember going training with Rob one evening and him saying [she then impersonates his thick Cork northside accent] ‘There’s no great mystery, like! You put in the time and it happens!’ He was just real matter of fact about it. And it was so true. In 1999 I made a conscious decision — I’m going to make the Olympics.”
She didn’t actually write it down as a goal. What she did start writing down was exactly how she was going to go about it.
“Before I might have thought ‘I think I’ll go for a long run next Tuesday. Maybe another one then on Thursday.’ Instead it was ‘On Tuesday I’m going to be up at 6.15[am], on the road at 7 and do a 20k in at least x amount of minutes. On Wednesday I’m going to run for 30, on Thursday for 40 and on Friday I’m going to do 45.’ When you write it out like that you’re more likely to do that then say ‘I’m going to run five times next week.’
“I got very specific in my goals. To make the Olympics I needed to be able to cover the distance in 96 minutes. The year before my best time was 105 minutes. In September ’99 I ran an Olympic B standard. That was progress. Then in Olympic year I did it in 95 minutes.”
In Sydney she would finish 35th, around the middle of the pack, which wasn’t great but wasn’t bad either for someone who had entered the race ranked outside the top 50. Athens was a blur. She didn’t even finish the race. Athens was a massive lesson.
“The feeling I had after London  was that I couldn’t have done anything more, that I hadn’t done anything crazy. Before Athens I just went mad. I went full-time for a few months and instead of thinking ‘this allows me to recover and rest more’ I just viewed it as ‘This allows me to train way more’.
“I remember reading Sonia later talk about how before Atlanta she didn’t see the value in recovery mileage. I made the same mistake. It was just bang, bang, bang. ‘Because I’m so tough’. It’s a tricky one. Because for a while there you’re going to see a wonderful upward curve and that’s intoxicating. But the problem is if you kill yourself in training every day you’ll eventually pay a price.
“I trained too hard in the lead up to Paris and didn’t learn from it for Athens either. There was just two years there of self-flagellation. It was a matter of having the sense and confidence to recognise that when you ease off you’re making a wise decision as opposed to taking the easier route.”
She would learn. In 2006 she and Martin Corkery had Eimear. A balance finally came into her life.
“I just learned to chill out a bit!” she smiles. “Before I was a bit too self-absorbed. I’d be analytical by nature [and profession, her job is as a statistician with the Central Statistics Office] but I was probably overly-analytical. After Eimear, I didn’t analyse training so much. I spent my free time with her. When she’d have a nap, I’d have a nap. I learned to switch off.”
The hard, “mad” years hadn’t gone to waste either. She had built up a huge endurance base in that time that just needed a bit of polish and rest to maximise. In Beijing she would finish seventh in a time that would have got a medal at any other Olympics. After that she was pretty sure she would medal at the following year’s world championships.
“I was working with a couple of sport psychologists at the time like Canice Kennedy in Cork and a few days out from the race they asked me how I felt. And I told them straight, ‘Well I don’t think there’s three people in the world better than me’. It wasn’t arrogance, just pure confidence. I had been training with a Spanish girl who had finished third at the Olympics and I was just annihilating her.
“With 6k to go I was out on my feet, but I had this trigger, ‘my last 5k is always my strongest’. At that the adrenaline came back and I pushed on to finish second. When I crossed the line a journalist pointed out that it was fitting such a historic moment was right in front of a historic setting like the Brandenburg Gate.
To be honest, I was totally oblivious to it. I arrived at that race and it was just a road. A week later I was watching the marathon on TV and Martin said, ‘That was your course’. I didn’t recognise it. I thought it must have been a different part of Berlin. For that race I was just in the zone.”
That would be the climax of her career. There would be other fine performances, including London where she finished 13th, but after Berlin there was subtle but sure slippage.
“I just got old!” she laughs again. “That’s why I’ve finished up. I wasn’t happy with where I finished in London and yet I know that I couldn’t have prepared or ran any better. My body just couldn’t take the same level of training.
“In the second half of the race in Beijing I was the quickest of all the athletes and I was just able to dig, dig, dig. Over the last few years I just didn’t have that sixth gear.”
She’s at peace with her decision to retire. She was never going to stay on for another Olympics and to just hang in to win another national championship or be in the middle of the pack at another Europeans or worlds didn’t interest her. She’s actually at peace with everything, especially her conscience. She’s not sure everyone who finished ahead of her was clean but what counts is knowing that she was clean.
“People ask all the time about drugs in our sport. The way I looked at it was that I didn’t care whether they were clean or dirty, I was going to maximise my potential and if I did I could medal. I had seen Gillian win cleanly [at the 2003 world championships] so it wasn’t an issue for me. My job was to beat them regardless of what they did. To me there were things inside and outside my control. If I could control it I would take the necessary action. If it was an uncontrollable, I couldn’t waste my energy and time over it.
“I would say I would like if the standards of dope testing we have here in Ireland were applied globally. There were times when I had chaperones and testers while I was on the school run, at medical appointments with my daughter. It was quite onerous and people need to realise that but the upside of that is now that Ireland has a very good reputation for being clean. If you’re dirty or suspected of being dirty, it’s not ignored. You are actively pursued and regularly tested. I sincerely hope that we can reach a situation where that becomes worldwide.”
Now she can go on the school run uninterrupted. Next month she goes back to work in the CSO after being practically a full-time athlete for the past five years but it’s not like she’s giving up her active lifestyle. She’s yet to break into a power walk, the mind demands a break and a change, but every day she gets out for a 45-minute run. She’s content, centred, balanced. But then she felt like she has been that for years now.
“I had a lot of good days. There were also tough days but I think that’s what makes me appreciate the good days. There were days it was miserable and I didn’t want to go out but whenever I went out I found the more miserable it was the better the kick was.
“Eimear grew up with me. I used to be embarrassed being on the treadmill while babysitting her in the evenings but to this day she loves that treadmill.
“I’ll always remember when I won silver in Berlin, calling Eimear who was in Macroom with her gran, and she said to me, ‘That’s great news, Mummy, well done. Now I have to go back to the slide!’
“Then after London I was hugely disappointed but when I put Eimear to bed that night in her hotel I asked her what was her favourite part of the day. She had a nosebleed during my race so she told me it was getting to meet a nurse in the medical tent!”
For a few years there Olive Loughnane was one of the best in the world at what she did without letting it become her world.
The rest of her life started some time ago. With her there’s no fear as she takes her next step.
She’ll power on just like she did on all those roads over all those years.
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