For so long this year, injuries had kept his ambition shackled, but on the opening morning of athletics in Rio yesterday, Mark English finally broke free.
The 23-year-old from Letterkenny ran a patient, composed race in his heat of the men’s 800m, drifting into contention on the second lap and unleashing an impressive kick in the home straight to take third in 1:46.40.
It was a run which booked his place in an Olympic semi-final, a performance which reannounced his ability, but more than anything it was vindication of what many, most of all himself, have long believed: He belongs here.
For many years, English has been touted as a potential Olympic finalist, though that appeared a distant prospect earlier this year as a metatarsal stress fracture ruled him out of action for 11 weeks. Now, once again, he has the chance to make good on his talent.
“I knew I’d get back running, but it was just a case of whether it was going to be quick enough to get to the semi-final,” he said. “I treated that heat as a final. I knew I’d have to.”
The race was won by Canada’s Brandon Mcbride in 1:45.99, narrowly ahead of Marcin Lewandowski (1:46.35). English started controlled and composed, settling to the back as McBride towed the field through 400m in 51.83.
It was the same approach English adopted on his recent outing in London, and though he knew it would spark concern among some, trailing 20m behind the leaders, he trusted his judgment.
“I knew at 500m people would be worried about where I was, but you just have to worry about yourself,” he said. “Run to your own strength and trust the race plan. My coach [Steve Magness] said to go out and run the same race as London, so that’s what I did.”
English tracked Poland’s Marcin Lewandowski through the second lap, coasting his way into the top three automatic qualifying spots as the field turned for home.
With 50m to run, the Letterkenny man had enough time and energy to take a casual glance around, confirming that there were no threats to his position, any doubts he had before the race finally cast into oblivion.
“There were definitely nerves,” he admitted afterwards. “It was easy to not get nervous when it wasn’t a full stadium, but I kept telling myself this is the Olympics, because I wanted that adrenaline rush.”
In the early hours of tomorrow morning — 2.26am Irish time — he has a date with an Olympic semi-final.
English will line up alongside world record holder David Rudisha, former world indoor 1500m champion Ayanleh Souleimam, and European champion Adam Kszczot. A formidable field.
Only the top two will advance automatically to Monday’s final, but English will do everything in his power to make sure he’s one of them. “I’ll recover as much as I can and do what I’ve got to do to run 1:44,” he said.
“The pressure is off a bit now, but I’ll still go out, leave everything on the track and walk away with no regrets.”
There was no such joy for racewalker Alex Wright, who finished 46th in the men’s 20km racewalk in 1:25:25, held in hot and sunny conditions on Rio’s southern coast and won by China’s Zhen Wang in 1:19:14.
“I was hoping for a little bit better, but all my focus has been on the 50K,” said Wright.
“From the start I found it hard to get into the race, and I just found it very difficult. I feel more comfortable now, having gone through that, for next week’s race. Next week I can use what I learned out there.”
Looking ahead, there will be no shortage of Irish in action over the weekend. Kerry O’Flaherty, Michelle Finn, and Sara Treacy get their Olympic campaigns under way in the heats of the women’s 3000m steeplechase at 2.05pm Irish time today, while tomorrow morning, Fionnuala McCormack, Lizzie Lee, and Breege Connolly compete in the marathon.
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