WITH individual and team medals within reach, Ireland’s cross-country team manager, Anne Keenan-Buckley, made no effort to hide her excitement when she introduced some of her athletes at Santry yesterday ahead of Sunday’s SPAR European cross-country championships.
Mary Cullen who missed out on a bronze medal by just two hundredths of a second at last year’s championships in Brussels was not present to enjoy the sunshine at Santry Demesne where Athletics Ireland will host the event for the very first time but the team manager who competed in the event five times in all and won a silver team medal in Edinburgh was clearly optimistic that the Sligo woman will get the medal which was savagely snatched from her grasp by fast finishing Ines Monteiro of Portugal last year.
“The two Portuguese runners who finished second and third last year, (Jessica) Augusto and Monteiro, are back again and both are running extremely well,” she said, “And they will have a strong team to defend that title.
“But Mary (Cullen) is also running very well and she has to be a big possibility for an individual medal. The senior women’s team is definitely very strong with the likes of Linda (Byrne), Deirdre (Byrne) and Fionnuala (Britton) – Fionnuala is a former U-23 silver medallist while Linda has a great pedigree, she was fourth in the junior race and top 10 in the U23s twice in those championships.
“I think definitely this year we have the strongest senior men’s and senior women’s teams to have represented Ireland in the European championships. All the work is done and we are keeping our fingers crossed that they all remain healthy until Sunday.
“I think the fact that the championships are being held here in Ireland and with the support the athletes will have and the fact that they are used to this particular terrain – the going is going to be tough – I would definitely be confident that the senior women’s team can medal.
“The French women’s team who were third last year have three of the athletes who competed but they have lost their top two and Great Britain who sneaked into second place are not as strong as last year. I would like to think that we can do what Britain did in Brussels.
“The team has prepared well and the athletes themselves are very motivated. Financially we got extra support from the Irish Sports Council so we were able to bring bigger squads to international events and that was of huge benefit to us in the preparation of the team. I think this complemented the enthusiasm that was there from the athletes.
“It’s a huge benefit to be competing before the home crowd. Obviously when you are racing at that level it’s quite tough but it’s amazing how some athletes will lose a little bit of concentration. I don’t think they will be allowed do that on Sunday with the home crowd roaring them on. They will be seriously motivated.
“Sometimes it can be a bit of a disadvantage because you can get carried away early in the race and I’ve talked to them about that. It’s all about pacing yourself. You are going to have everybody screaming at you so it’s basically about not allowing yourself to be distracted by the spectators.”
Martin Fagan and Alistair Cragg were snowed in at their respective altitude training camps in the US earlier in the week but the good news was that both were en route. Cragg is due in from Mammoth Lakes today while Fagan will be a late arrival tomorrow.
“Speaking to Martin Fagan last night, he’s happy enough to come in at that time,” she said. “Obviously coming down from altitude there are different times that you can come in at – you can come in early or come in quite late. He’s obviously happy to come in quite late. Andrew Ledwith arrived in the day before the national championships and it certainly did not have a detrimental affect on him.
“It’s an individual thing and it’s hard to generalise because different things suit different people and I think Martin, in particular, has travelled across the Atlantic a good few times and he is confident that coming in late will suit him.”
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