The Kilkenny girl who put her nursing career on hold to train for these championships has added an exciting new dimension to Irish athletics.
She is the first woman to represent Ireland in a field event at a major championship since Patricia Walsh from Waterford, a student at Tennessee, made the discus final at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
Ironically, O’Keeffe’s early career was dominated by the discus. As a schoolgirl, she broke the discus record which was set by Walsh 23 years earlier - before she was even born.
She turned to hammer throwing by accident after her older brother, Michael, bought an instructional video in The Pound Shop in Kilkenny.
She was 18 then and her rise to the top was meteoric. She qualified for the World Junior Championships, then made it to the European Senior Championships in Munich before finishing fourth at the World Student Games in South Korea.
Ireland has a great tradition in hammer throwing going back to the late Dr Pat O’Callaghan who won Olympic gold medals in 1928 and 1932. Dr Pat did his training off a home-built circle in the haggard at the back of their farmhouse in Kanturk while Eileen’s father and brother built a concrete circle on the family farm where she could work on her throwing technique.
Over the past year she has improved the Irish record by more than four metres. When she set it at 64.66m at the League finals in Tullamore last August, it was more than a metre further than her previous record. In the first round of this year’s national league at the same venue, she threw 68.14, and less than a week later at the national championships in Santry, she threw 68.36.
“I think she will throw beyond 70 metres here if she gets to the final,” Stephen Maguire, the Irish coach, predicted last evening.
“The qualifying mark is set at 70 metres for tomorrow’s qualifying rounds but I would be very surprised if more than three or four beat that. If she keeps it together she could get through. We were able to get to the training circle yesterday and she was pretty focused. She went through all the implements that will be in use and was very happy.”
Whatever Maria McCambridge may have lacked in the past, she made up for it with sheer courage, and one abiding memory of the lean DSD runner will be her supreme effort at the world cross-country championships in Leopardstown which eventually won the bronze medals for the Irish team.
Since then, her career has taken a dramatic turn for the better. She married marathon runner, Gary Crossan, and his coaching has resulted in a massive transformation that has enabled her to bring that courage with her onto the track.
Only Sonia O’Sullivan has run faster than her over 3,000m and her performance at the world indoor championships in Budapest last year was exceptional. That is the form she will be looking for when she goes in the heats of the 5,000m here this evening when she will be hoping to put last year’s Olympic experience behind her.
“After the Olympics I had difficulty coming to terms with having run so poorly but now I think I am a better athlete because of my experiences there, although I must admit I had a lot of soul searching to do to get back running afterwards,” she said.
“The big difference this year is that I had the qualifying time and was able to fully focus on Helsinki. I have done a lot of work and I have been benefiting from an altitude simulation machine in Sandyford. I want to make the final in here.”
High hurdler Peter Coghlan is the most experienced member of the Irish team and he will get his campaign underway in this morning’s heats of the 110m hurdles.