It was 5 am on Friday morning when Jerry Kiernan first woke. The adrenaline was starting to flood his system a full 12 hours before his most talented protégée, Ciara Mageean, took to the track in Amsterdam.
“I couldn’t get back to sleep,” says Kiernan. “The thing with me is: if Ciara failed I would blame myself. That makes me a failure, and that would be a difficult thing to live with. I’d be questioning absolutely everything and I’m at the stage in life where I don’t like to be questioning myself too much.”
Ever since the day Mageean approached Kiernan at a national relays event in 2013, asking him to take control of her career, he has felt the burden that comes from handling such a special talent.
“It’s a huge pressure,” he admits. “The upside now is everyone is saying well done and patting you on the back, but if Ciara was blown out in the heats it would have been a bad time.”
Kiernan was in his familiar pundit chair in the RTÉ studio at Montrose when Mageean ran her qualifying round on Friday and back there again for her final on Sunday.
“The cameras were on me in the studio and I was going ape shit, but that’s the way I am,” he admitted. “When I watch Barcelona play I shout at the television and sometimes throw my glasses. It’s really temperamental stuff, but you have to control yourself, conduct yourself with a little bit of decorum.”
That was difficult. Along with considering Mageean a friend, Kiernan knew firsthand the challenges she has faced and overcome. Three years earlier, he sat with Mageean in a Dublin café as she shed tears, explaining how surgery seemed the only option to remove the bone spur in her heel that made running impossible.
“I didn’t think surgery was a great idea,” recalls Kiernan. “The idea of opening a person’s ankle and messing around, when the success rate isn’t great, seemed risky. “When she had the operation we realised the damage the spur had done was even worse than we thought, but the surgeon did a wonderful job.”
Kiernan met Mageean daily during her comeback - and still does - walking with her as she hobbled around on crutches. They chatted their way through her first five-minute jog. The day after that she did six minutes, then seven. Baby steps which progressed to giant leaps.
“She does all the right things, an awful lot more than what people see,” says Kiernan.
Mageean returned to competition towards the end of the 2014 and re-emerged better than ever last year, running an Olympic 1500m qualifier of 4:06.49 in Rieti, Italy. This summer, Kiernan had three targets in mind. “Number one, a European medal, number two, an Olympic final, and number three, a two-minute 800,” he says. “That’s one of the boxes ticked.”
The night before her final, he slept much better than the previous two, knowing what he had seen in her as she cruised through the qualifying round, trusting her ability to get it right in the final. “I knew she was equipped to handle any eventuality,” he says. “By and large she did the right thing in the final and was always in the right place.”
Kiernan isn’t one for building false expectations, but he sees no reason she won’t be an even better athlete when she competes on sport’s grandest stage next month.
A final place, he says, looks realistic. “I expect she’ll improve from this weekend and I hope there is an extra five metres in her. She’s in shape now, so it’s just a case of not doing anything stupid.” And, adds the coach, “she won’t be doing anything stupid.”
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