Broken hearts, ailing bodies, anxious minds – for Irish 1500m runners Ciara Mageean and Sarah Healy, the Olympic dream turned into something more like a nightmare in Tokyo this morning, both one and done in their respective heats, both holding viable reasons, not that either wanted them held up as excuses.
For their teammate Phil Healy, there was nothing all that bad about her run in the 200m heats, clocking a season’s best of 23.21 to finish fifth, but nor was there all that much great about it. She knew it, too.
For Mageean, the reason for her underperformance was straightforward, although it’s one that had to be coaxed from her afterwards, the two-time European medallist initially noting only that she had “a rocky week” on the build-up to it.
In the end she came out with it: on Sunday, July 25, while completing her last big track session, she tore her calf.
Being a physio, Mageean knew she was looking at a two-week spell on the sidelines. She had to race the world’s best just eight days later. She didn’t run a step for the following five days, then did some light running over the weekend. She had to give it a go, but it was no surprise it went badly, Mageean having nothing left when the wheels started to turn up front in her heat, trailing home 11th in 4:07.29.
“I’m really disappointed,” she said. “I’ve proven I’m a world-class 1500m runner and that wasn’t to the level I know I am.”
It has been a turbulent year to date. In January her former coach Jerry Kiernan passed away, and Mageean admitted today it had hit her “pretty hard”, a loss over which she still sheds tears.
In April her body started to fail her, a tear in her glute costing her weeks of training. “The doc was like, ‘I’ve never seen this in a runner, never mind an elite runner.’ It was very strange, on the MRI, a big tear and blood and everything.”
She had still turned things around before coming to Tokyo, clocking 4:02.48 in Monaco last month. “I took (the injury) in my stride at the start but as the week went on I got a little anxious,” she says. “It’s not ideal, you don’t want that going into an Olympic Games.”
For Sarah Healy, there was a similar level of frustration, even if the 20-year-old Dubliner couldn’t point to any similar physical issues after coming home 11th in her heat in 4:09.78. What she did point to, however, was a lack of tactical commitment, and an awareness that perhaps the big stage had played its part in being (slightly) off her best.
“I usually get nervous but never out of control but I think today, I let it get the best of me,” she said. “That was on me. I mean, the best athletes perform when it matters most so that’s what I need to do next time.”
Healy also regretted her decision not to go with the hard pace up front during the second lap. “I knew going in if I was going to commit to it and not half-commit and I couldn’t make up my mind and I just checked out. It’s short-term relief from a hard pace but the long-term consequences of not going with that are so much worse to deal with. I don’t know if I’ll watch it back. I’m obviously really disappointed, I wanted to run to my potential and I didn’t do that today.”
The obvious thing in the aftermath was to look ahead, given her age, and point to how this experience will benefit her in the years ahead. But Healy is too ambitious to cling to such a get-out clause.
“Everyone says that they’ll be back next time, but I’m here now and I felt like I could make a semi-final if I ran to my potential,” she said. “I treated this like my Olympic final. Obviously, yeah, I want to be back for Paris but it’s not going to take away from the disappointment I have today.”
For Phil Healy, elimination at the first stage of the 200m was not a massive upset, but what left her down afterwards was the knowledge she’d been well off her best, even if she’d had two hard 400m races in her legs in recent days due to the Irish team making the final of the mixed relay.
“I obviously wanted to go quicker, but coming in, to an extent, I had to sacrifice my individual (chance),” she said. “If you asked me a couple of weeks ago if I’d like to be an Olympic finalist of course I’d take it over any individual. But when you turn the focus you want to progress. It is disappointing initially; I was coming in in PB shape but there was that fatigue factor.”
Healy will compete in the 400m heats tomorrow. “I’m going to go out there and give it my all,” she said. “It’s a new day, a new race.”