In some ways, the class of the 2018 European Youth Olympic Festival and 2019 European Junior Athletics Championships are coming of age at these senior championships in Munich in recent days. Five Irish athletes from those highly successful underage teams — in Gyor, Hungary, in 2018 and Boras, Sweden in 2019 — are stepping up to the senior ranks with perhaps surprising ease.
Chief among them is Israel Olatunde, highlighted by his sixth place in the 100m final in a new Irish record of 10.17 seconds, still only 20, also the first Irish athlete in a European 100m Final. This is the result of patience, persistence and simply continuing to show up each day at training, added to the belief in those around him that in time with gradual progression and improvement success will come.
In the underage ranks Olatunde didn’t make the European finals, and with a lot less expectation on his shoulders was able to compete at senior European Indoors and World Indoors in the past year, never setting the track alight but all the time gaining experience that would lead to his breakthrough run on Tuesday.
That’s the thing with athletics and particularly in a country like Ireland, always looking ahead to what’s next when you are successful as a young athlete. With that, there is always pressure and expectation to deliver on the big stage. If you can go about your business quietly and take all the steps along the way, learning from every experience, there is a greater chance of building a solid foundation that allows an athlete to be more resilient and more durable.
In contrast, Rhasidat Adeleke, not yet 20 years old, has won medals at every underage championship to date and so she has found a different path to land her in the 400m final this week. Adeleke has taken the route less travelled by Irish sprinters, on an athletics scholarship at the University of Texas, where she trains with some of the best athletes over 100m, 200m and 400m in the NCAA Championships.
By going to the US Adeleke, now heading into her third year at the University of Texas, has diffused some of the pressure she would’ve experienced if she stayed in Ireland
It’s certainly not an easy route having already run 48 races this year before her final, but she realised the opportunity presented to her to turn up at the European Championships after narrowly missing out on the World Championship final in Eugene, Oregon, less than a month ago.
By going to the US, Adeleke, now heading into her third year at the University of Texas, has diffused some of the pressure she would’ve experienced if she stayed in Ireland and if potentially expected to be seen as the face of Irish athletics. She may be the best in Ireland over 100m, 200m and 400m but she knows that’s just the beginning when there are girls faster than her across all the distances on her team at the University of Texas.
[ Rhasidat Adeleke interview from 2020: 'I remember so well when they first closed the schools, everyone was so ecstatic' ]
There are many paths to choose from some more linear than others but all testing in their own way. All deliver obstacles and hurdles along the way that challenge each athlete physically and mentally. Physical development and growth fully influence how we react mentally to challenges in sport, how we overcome and move forward and ultimately how we define success and satisfaction.
This point especially hits home when I watch Sarah Healy hit a wall each time she has lined up in recent senior championships. Gold medal winner in 2018 and 2019, still only 21, she was one of the stars of the Irish youth and junior teams yet she is still trying to work things out on the track having qualified for every major championship available to her in the past year.
Maybe that order can sometimes be wrong, and so she didn’t get to progress up the levels. When the later sequence doesn’t always work out then there are holes in the foundation and your base is just not strong enough physically to face things head-on.
In order to compete, you have to believe you are taking the steps progressively, to put things in their box, learn and achieve as you go, and working these things out when you are trying to live up to the highest of expectations is not easy.
There is an anomaly in running world-class times and qualifying for championships yet not being able to match what got you to the championships, which is both frustrating and demoralising when it happens over and over again.
Yet how do you solve a problem when it is spiralling out of control? You break things down and keep things simple. You have to go back to your earliest days of competing and think about what you enjoyed most and find that happy place then break things down to the simplest form, the smallest pieces and build back up again slowly.
Sometimes when you break things down, you find that you need to make changes to rebuild stronger. The greatest asset a successful athlete has when they question things is their competitiveness. You have to re-engage the competitive instinct on a lower level and take baby steps back to where you want to be.
The clock is never the focus until after the race, the result is the most important
Fast times and records are just a small part of the equation. When you see the competition in Munich this week you see the sport in its purest form. The clock is never the focus until after the race, the result is the most important, qualifying through the rounds, winning medals or placing as high as you can.
We all know Fionnuala McCormack came for a medal but when she couldn’t match the breakaway in the final kilometres she kept fighting, seventh place is still better than eighth or ninth, doing everything you can to be the best version of yourself on the day.
There are many more out here still finding their way, Darragh McElhinney fading to 16th in the last 200m of the 5,000m when up in contention, but definitely another lesson learned along the way. For some, it takes longer than others. The talent and skills don’t go away it’s just working out the best path to take and where you want to take it.
Persistence is still the oldest ally in the pursuit of success.