Five years ago, Ciara Mageean had the world at her feet, her rivals in the rear-view mirror, and a bright future looming on the horizon.
The next Sonia O’Sullivan, they said. Destined for stardom. But then her heel started hurting, and suddenly, it all turned grey.
“I don’t want to bring back those memories,” she says, only half-joking, when asked to recount the injuries that for so long derailed her promising career.
It’s no wonder they’re erased from her memory, because today, she’s in a very different place.
This weekend, for the first time in five years, Mageean will compete at the GloHealth National Senior Indoor Championships in Athlone.
It was at the same event in 2008 when she first announced her outrageous talent, routing the field in the 1500m, making established Irish internationals look like hobby-joggers. She was 15-years-old.
Underage success, though, proved a double-edged sword, challenging her to steer the path through the minefield of adolescence and emerge, triumphant, as a successful senior.
As Mageean learned, it’s not that simple.Her problems began with a dull whisper of pain in her heel, one that eventually grew into a debilitating scream, a calcaneal bone spur.
“I was very foolish,” she says. “I ran for a good while in pain. Looking back, you wonder how could I be that stupid, but you get blindsided by the prospect of championships. You never want to stop running.”
Two years earlier, Mageean had won the silver medal in the 1500m at the IAAF World Junior Championships, but her chances of emulating that as a senior began to look remote.
“I was meant to be an international runner, and I couldn’t even trot across the road to catch a bus because it hurt that much. I had downtime where I was feeling: ‘will this ever go away? Is the best of my athletics behind me?’”
Around that time, she asked former Olympian Jerry Kiernan to coach her, and sat opposite him in a Dublin café with tears in her eyes, her future uncertain.
“I was asking what on earth I should do,” she says. “When I went into surgery, I was told there was an 80 percent chance it would work, and a 20 percent chance it won’t go away at all.”
In such situations, most athletes retreat from their sport, but Mageean was different. “I would go along on training days and act like an assistant coach so I could feel I was still in the athletics world.That gave me the motivation to get back.”
After surgery, she worked hard in the gym, becoming the leanest she’d ever been despite not being able to run for several months. During her year-long recovery, her belief was kept afloat by family, friends, but most of all, by coach Kiernan.
“He used to come up to UCD to watch me do a five-minute jog, and at no point would he complain,” she says.
“He was there at every single session and asked for nothing in return. I’m blessed to have a coach like him.”
Under Kiernan’s guidance, Mageean progressed steadily over the last two years.
“I can finally say I’m on the other side [of the heel problem],” she says. “It’s the first winter I’ve been able to put in a good base in a long time.”
In recent weeks, that consistency allowed Mageean’s talent to flourish once more. In Karlsruhe, she broke the Irish indoor 1500m record by running 4:08.66 and two weeks later she claimed the mile record in New York, running 4:28.40.
Though she qualified to run at next month’s World Indoor Championships, she and Kiernan decided not to push their luck. Instead, she’ll close her indoor season this weekend, head home to Portaferry in Co. Down for a week, then start laying the foundations for the outdoor season.
“It’s a long running career,” she says. “I need to make sure I don’t fall back into that trap of being ignorant towards my body.”
Mageean makes weekly trips to the physio, and sandwiches an afternoon nap between morning and evening runs to boost recovery.
In March, she’ll return to UCD for the final semester of her physiotherapy degree.
Injury may have taken much, but it also helped her discover an important truth. “You have to have a very stubborn mind to be a runner,” she says. “If you ever want to achieve at anything, you have to be committed.”
And if all goes to plan over the next five months, that commitment should finally see her showcase her talent on the grandest stage of all.
“Why would I go to the Olympics if I wasn’t aiming to make the final?” she says. “I’ll sure as hell do my best to be as high up as I can, and why be there if you’re not going to fight for gold? I can’t wait to get back out there and run for Ireland. It’s been a very long time.”
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