A text message at 9:33am yesterday morning from Derval O’Rourke signalled the end of a glittering career for one of Ireland’s most medalled athletes.
Having trained with Derval sporadically the last couple of years, she sent me a message to let me know there was a press release being sent to announce her retirement and that she didn’t want to do any media as she was feeling too raw.
The announcement was a sad day for me, and more importantly Irish athletics and the sporting public, but she has provided many great memories and inspired a host of athletes to believe in themselves and compete on the world stage.
Derval followed on from Sonia for over a decade to keep athletics in the public eye for all the right reasons and provide some much needed cheer and silverware.
There was no one more emotional than her coach Terrie Cahill, who, along with her husband Seán, has formed the cornerstone as she describes “Team Derval.”
“It’s an emotional day,” said Cahill yesterday after picking up her three children Ciarán, Killian and Niamh from school – “a young auntie for my three kids,” gushed Cahill of the close bond they have formed over the past nine years.
“It’s been a fantastic nine years,” continued Cahill, who was only home from the European Team Championships in Estonia as coach of the women’s 4x100m relay team.
“It was a learning curve with plenty of highs and lows. She’s an exceptional athlete: five major medals and fourth in the world championships.”
The world indoor title over the 60m hurdles in 7.84 seconds in Moscow in 2006 launched O’Rourke into the public consciousness and into the mind of her competitors as an athlete capable of upsetting the form book come championship time.
The Cork hurdler may not have dominated the European circuit like Sonia O’Sullivan but she managed to raise her game like no other for the majors, which developed her tagline as a “championship performer” and drove other athletes such as David Gillick, Paul Hession and Mary Cullen to greater heights.
There has been no Irish athlete who could prance and preen behind their starting blocks with a pout and strut and back it up. Hands on hips with a steely stare down the track, the belief and determination was visible and provided that extra bit of excitement to proceedings.
“She inspired us to compete with the best in the world,” said Irish 400m record holder David Gillick, who, alongside O’Rourke, produced one of the greatest days for Irish sprinting at the 2009 world championships in Berlin. Gillick finished sixth in the final of the 400m with O’Rourke a fantastic fourth – arguably her best performance.
“She was able to produce her best times when it really mattered and Derval was able to park all the crap from the previous nine months come the championship,” continued Gillick.
That fourth place finish at the world championships in Berlin may be somewhat forgotten due to her four European medals, two silver outdoors over 100m hurdles (2006 and 2010) and two bronze indoors (2009 and 2013) over 60m hurdles, but Terrie Cahill believes it was the championship where she showed her true class.
“She was against the creme de la creme of world hurdling,” said Cahill of a field that included 2012 Olympic champion Sally Pearson who finished a place behind O’Rourke in fifth.
“Every year Sean and myself would sit down with Derval and devise the plan for the year. She always brought great professionalism and 110% to the track everyday regardless of the weather and the session.”
Leevale clubmate Ailis McSweeney, joint Irish record holder for the 100m (11.40), was a longtime training companion and went through all the highs and lows with her.
“It was a pleasure to be her training partner for so many years. She was beyond professional in her approach to training and competing. We had a lot of fun through success and disappointment, hard training and championship outings. Her medal haul is something really special as are her world-class Irish records.”
The word “bouncebackability” has come into modern sporting talk and O’Rourke was an athlete who typified this. After a disappointing Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 she bounced back to win a bronze medal at the European indoors in Turin alongside Mary Cullen who won bronze over 3,000m.
“When I saw her come out at the Euro indoors in 2009 in Turin after Beijing not going to plan for her, the determination to get it right there was inspiring and made me more determine to come away with a medal that weekend,” said Cullen.
“To see the way she handled medal hopes allowed me to adopt some of that into my final. It was nice to share our bronze medals that weekend. March 2009 was a good month for Irish sport with Bernard Dunne, the Grand Slam in the rugby and sharing that moment with Derval will always be a great memory to have.”
Derval set out on her voyage as a young athlete with Leevale Athletic Club and setting sights on Sonia O’Sullivan at the Cork City Sports inspired her to compete on the world stage.
“I always remember Derval telling me how as a young Leevale athlete she got to carry the gear basket at the Cork City Sports and she saw me running fast and winning and how this inspired her to do the best that she could so that she could also run fast for Ireland and win medals,” said O’Sullivan from Australia.
One of those athletes to be inspired by O’Rourke is UCD’s Sarah Lavin, who will compete over the 100m hurdles at the European Championships in Zurich in August.
“I have looked up to her since I was seven and it's sad to see her go,” said Lavin. “I'd just really like to thank her for her contribution to the sport and for breaking down so many barriers for me personally. If I have half the success and medal count at major championships as she has I know I will be successful.”
Derval’s influence will not be lost on the next generation. She will be in Dublin today alongside her coach and friend Terrie Cahill to help out at Ciarán McDonagh’s, national long jump record holder, coaching clinic.
It’s at clinics like this where her achievements will have a long lasting affect and as O’Sullivan says: “It's the little thought that enters a child's mind that can inspire and with determination and persistence produce future champions and record breakers.”
This is Derval’s legacy and all we can do now is wish her the best and thank her for the memories and add to the sentiments of Athletics Ireland CEO John Foley: “All of the Irish Athletics community wish her the best. I would also like to commend Sean and Terrie Cahill for the contribution they made to Derval’s career.”
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