Three years ago, Ciara Mageean was unable to run, beset with injuries and staring down the barrel of career-threatening surgery.
But in the space of four minutes and 33 seconds last night, the Portaferry native made all that feel like a distant memory.
Mageean became just the third Irish female to win a medal at the European Championships when sprinting to bronze in the 1500m final in Amsterdam behind Poland’s Angelika Cichocka and Dutch favourite Sifan Hassan.
Her immediate reaction, befitting an athlete whose world class talent comes with a hefty dose of perfectionism, was one of dissatisfaction.
“If I had a clean run I might have a different coloured medal,” she said.
“I wish I had an extra 10 metres in that home straight. Me being me, I’m a little bit disappointed, but I’ll take everybody’s advice and just enjoy it.”
On what was often a frustrating week — Fionnuala McCormack finished fourth in the 10,000m final and Thomas Barr exited at the semi-final stage of the 400m hurdles — Mageean’s run proved a necessary tonic for Irish athletics with just a month to go until the Olympic Games.
When the gun fired for her 1500m final, few expected a swift early pace, but what ensued was borderline comical.
The 12 finalists jogged through 800m in 2:46.05 playing right into the hands of the kickers, an area in which Mageean has always been formidable.
At the halfway point, Mageean was content to nestle behind the leaders, aware that at any moment, the decisive surge was coming. “I thought: ‘fantastic, girls, keep running this slow because I’m happy to try to outsprint you at the end,’” she said.
“I have the kick. I know I’ve had that since my junior career.”
With just over 600 metres to run, race favourite Hassan charged into the lead, the entire field changing gears in an instant behind her and jostling for position, an exchange which left Mageean nursing two deep scrapes down the front of her leg.
The Irish star became trapped in a bunch with a lap to run, forcing her to risk a daring run up the inside on the final turn.
As she surged from fourth to third, the door was quickly shut by Norway’s Ingvill Makestad, so the Irishwoman checked her stride, moved wide and finally hit full throttle with just 80 metres remaining.
Poland’s Angelika Cichocka surged clear to win in 4:33.00, while Hassan found herself bankrupt back in second and getting chased down by Mageean, who she edged in a photo finish to leave the Irishwoman with bronze, 4:33.76 to 4:33.78.
Despite the frustration at missing silver, Mageean was able to reflect on a comeback story that sometimes seemed impossible, except perhaps to those closest to her, like coach Jerry Kiernan.
“Whenever I was going through my injury, at no point did I think I was going to stop being a runner even through other people probably did,” she said.
“It was disheartening going to events and hearing people say: ‘she used to be a good runner’. I never took time off from my gym work and rehab because I thought: ‘no, I’m coming back. I’m not going to be a has-been.’”
With her reputation now firmly reestablished, Mageean can look forward to next month’s Olympic Games, where a place in the 1500m final is realistic.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the Irish men’s 4x400m team. The quartet of Brian Gregan, Craig Lynch, David Gillick, and Thomas Barr finished a creditable fifth in the final in 3:04.32, an agonising 700ths of a second outside the time they needed to secure a top-16 ranking and place at the Games.
“We gave it our best shot,” said Barr. “Each one of us put our heart and soul into this, but today was very tough.”
Michelle Finn led home a Rio-bound trio of Irish athletes in the 3000m steeplechase final, the Leevale athlete running a lifetime best of 9:43.19 to finish seventh. Sara Treacy ran 9:45.19 to place ninth, while Kerry O’Flaherty was 12th in 9:45.88.
Kevin Batt (DSD) finished 17th in the men’s 5,000m final in 14:20.50.
On the roads, Paul Pollock put in an impressive showing in the men’s half marathon, finishing 17th in 64:58 to lead the Irish team to seventh overall. He was backed up by Mick Clohisey in 32nd (66:00), Kevin Seaward in 34th (66:20) and Sergiu Ciobanu in 57th (67:46).
In the women’s half marathon, Claire McCarthy was 48th in 76:02, with Gladys Ganiel 71st in 78:06.
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