Ciara Mageean: 'I tried to see this period as an opportunity, a blessing in disguise'

The Opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympic Games was due to take place today in Tokyo. Then came a global pandemic and a change of focus for athletes like Ciara Mageean
Ciara Mageean: 'I tried to see this period as an opportunity, a blessing in disguise'
Ciara Mageean Mandatory Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

If all had gone to plan, I’d be doing my last hard sessions this week, putting the finishing touches on my Olympic preparations – ready to pull on that green singlet in Tokyo.

But instead I’m still in St Moritz, training at altitude in the Swiss Alps. I’ve been up here for the past two weeks, and have made sure to comply with the restrictions in place both here and at my usual training base in Manchester.

This was to be my pre-Olympic camp, but instead of competing in a packed stadium in Tokyo I’ll now be toeing the line in Bern, racing over 800m tonight.

It’s my first competition in five months and I can’t wait. I think this is the fittest I’ve ever been.

What was my reaction when the Olympics got postponed back in March? If I’m honest, it didn’t hit me that hard. By then it was expected. 

As much as I held out hope they’d go ahead, the logical part of me said not to get too set on being there this summer, that it’d only come crashing down if I did.

What upset me more was when the European Championships in Paris were cancelled, an event that was due to take place in August that now won’t be rescheduled. 

They were the last track championships standing this summer, the final chance to pull on the Irish vest.

But I didn’t get too down about it. I know I’m lucky. As a full-time athlete, I was kind of used to the lockdown life: being in the house all day, training, and not doing too much else.

It can be a lonely, in some ways a selfish, way to live.

For the past two years, I’ve been based in England, sharing a house with other professional athletes who run for Team New Balance Manchester. 

The only major interruption we faced was being unable to train at our usual venues, but we knew so many others were in worse positions.

I tried to see this period as an opportunity, a blessing in disguise.

When I walked off the track in Doha last year after finishing 10th in the world final, I was shocked to hear what time Sifan Hassan had run to win the 1500m: 3:51.95.

I had run a personal best of 4:00.15 and as soon as I left the mixed zone and met my coach, Steve Vernon, I asked him: “What do I have to do to close that gap?” 

I realised I had a lot of work ahead of me, which was going to take time. You can’t rush these things.

When the Olympics were postponed, I thought, ‘Okay, this is the perfect opportunity to work on my weaknesses.’ To get stronger, faster, and close the gap on the best in the world.

I’m now doing 60-75 miles a week consistently – more than I ever have – and feeling the strongest I’ve ever felt. It’s been winter work in the summer, which is weird, but I never question what my coach gives me. I have complete faith in Steve’s plan and it’s been so far, so good.

In a way, there’s a slight frustration about the lack of major races because with my current fitness, I’d love to be out there running a championship right now. 

But I just remind myself that another year down the line, I should be even stronger and in a better position to get into that Olympic final.

The past few weeks, my phone has been popping up with memories from 2016, the build-up to the Rio Olympics. It was my first Games, and kind of a strange one.

Coming off London 2012, which everyone seemed to say was the best Olympics ever, my expectations for Rio were sky-high. 

Ciara Mageean: "As an athlete, you build your whole career for major championships and the Olympics is the pinnacle. I’m 28 now, I’ll be 29 next year, and I feel in the prime of my life." Photo: INPHO/Oisin Keniry
Ciara Mageean: "As an athlete, you build your whole career for major championships and the Olympics is the pinnacle. I’m 28 now, I’ll be 29 next year, and I feel in the prime of my life." Photo: INPHO/Oisin Keniry

They did their best as hosts, but some parts of it just didn’t have the feeling of an Olympics with half-empty stands.

I was also not happy with my performance, which didn’t help. I was knocked out in the 1500m semi-finals and felt like I didn’t produce my best. I left with unfinished business, knowing the experience would stand to me.

There’s just something different about the Olympics. I’ve been to the Commonwealth Games and a couple of World Championships, but the Games have a special hold. The media go mental, as does everyone at home, and I’ll be a lot more prepared for all that next time around.

That is, if they go ahead. 

There’s still doubt about them taking place in 2021 and while I’ve thought about what it would be like if they’re cancelled, I try not to dwell on it.

As an athlete, you build your whole career for major championships and the Olympics is the pinnacle. I’m 28 now, I’ll be 29 next year, and I feel in the prime of my life.

If I didn't get the opportunity to put on the Irish vest on and return to another Olympics, I’d be absolutely crushed. 

There's not many things in this sport that make me cry, but that would.

But I’ve tried to stay optimistic. 

The past few months have made me hungry again for the thrill of racing. In the past I often got so nervous and put so much pressure on myself that I didn’t enjoy racing very much. I’d step on the line with fear, worried how it might go.

But now I have a different mindset: I’m excited to see what I can do. 

There are many possible races on the calendar in the months ahead but as with the whole sporting landscape, it’s all a little iffy. 

If anything, though, that will make me savour whatever races I do get to run.

I’ll probably wrap up my track season in September, then get back home to Portaferry to see my family for a few weeks. After that, I hope to target the European Cross Country Championships in Dublin in December.

Nothing is certain in 2020, but if that goes ahead, and I get to toe the line alongside my Irish teammates, it would be a great way to end a very strange year.

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