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Ciara Mageean: ‘People dubbed me as the next Sonia, breaking her record meant a lot to me’

A fourth-place finish in the World Championships proved bittersweet but the Portaferry native is ready to give her all again in pursuit of a medal on the world stage

After the race is run and kind words exchanged, the only thing left for Ciara Mageean to do is get out of there. Some people say there is no place in sport as sad and lonesome as fourth, especially on the global stage, and in the moment this is exactly how it feels.

At the exit gate back to the warm-up track, on the banks of the Danube, Mageean spies her coach Helen Clitheroe standing against the wall. They walk towards each other and embrace, then it properly hits.

The three women who’d just finished ahead of Mageean in the World Championships 1,500 metres final are being ushered out in another direction, towards the medal podium. A night of celebration in Budapest awaits.

“Is that my chance gone?” Mageean asks, crying now into her shoulders, and Clitheroe doesn’t quite know how to respond.


Before the crown of the last bend, Mageean looked poised to win a bronze medal, possibly silver, until Sifan Hassan passes her, and made sure to stay ahead. By then Faith Kipyegon had it won, finishing in 3:54.87, the Kenyan later in the week winning another gold over 5,000m, and after also setting three world records. Kipyegon would end the year as World Athletics women’s track athlete of 2023.

The young Ethiopian Diribe Welteji, at 21, won silver in 3:55.69, Hassan taking bronze in 3:56.00, four years after the Dutch woman won this title in 3:51.95. Then came Mageean in 3:56.61, the fastest time of her life, improving her own Irish record from last year when she first broke the mark which had stood to Sonia O’Sullivan since 1995.

And with that Mageean’s chance to join O’Sullivan and Eamonn Coghlan as the only Irish medal winners on the track at a World Championships, joining racewalkers Gillian O’Sullivan, Olive Loughnane and Rob Heffernan, had passed.

The following night, Rhasidat Adeleke was left with somewhat similar feelings, finishing fourth in the women’s 400m final. At age 20, and in the 39th race of her exhaustingly long season, her future chances look bright.

Now, four months on, Mageean is reflecting again on that moment at her home away from Portaferry in the quiet town of Stockport, just south of Manchester. Only this time with a different perspective.

“Just like that, I finished the race, stepped off the track, and spoke in interviews about it being bittersweet, to be disappointed with finishing fourth best in the world,” she says. “Then I got my stuff packed pretty quick, that’s when I met Helen in the tunnel, and just started crying. I really was that disappointed, heartbroken.

“Because I went into those World Championships truly believing I could win a medal on the global stage like that. For the first time, since I was a junior, back in 2010, probably. I had done everything to get myself into shape to be competitive in this field.

“So to just miss out, and you do only get a handful of chances, I honestly felt this one had slipped away.”

Then came the closer reflection which brought that different perspective, one which, if anything, has left Mageean even more gunning for 2024, an Olympic year. Turning 32, it will realistically be her last chance to leave a mark on that particular global stage.

“Later that night, I was telling my boyfriend Thomas the same thing, that I felt so, so sad to finish fourth. And he was the one who said, ‘I think you should watch that race back again’.

“So the next day, when I did watch the race back, I honestly felt like I had done absolutely everything right, tactically raced the best I’ve ever run.

“Looking at my splits, from 300m to 200m to go, I ran 13 seconds, was operating at the highest speed I can operate at. My last 300m was one of my fastest, and there’s only so much you can ask of yourself.”

So no part could or would have been run differently?

“It does still play on me a little bit, and I suppose the only thing I still really wish for is one less person in that race. Like if Hassan hadn’t gone for the treble . . . and if we didn’t have possibly the greatest middle-distance women of all time [in Kipyegon]. But I’m still proud of that run, knowing the work I put in, knowing there was nothing else I could do, it was still only good enough for fourth.”

Despite this unprecedented high watermark in women’s 1,500m running, Mageean has good reason to believe that chance can come at the Paris Olympics next summer. Two weeks after Budapest she improved her Irish record again to 3:55.87, finishing second at the Brussels Diamond League to old rival Laura Muir, who won in 3:55.34.

Paris will be Mageean’s third Olympics. Injury crushed her hopes of progressing beyond the heats in Tokyo, and she was typically hard on herself after running short of her best in the semi-finals in Rio.

Most Olympic talk, however, is still in the currency of gold, silver and bronze, and fourth becomes especially tricky, which in mind games alone makes Paris an entirely different prospect.

With that Mageean rolls up her right sleeve to reveal the Olympic rings discreetly tattooed down her lower arm, a reminder not of what’s to come. But what she’s already been through.

“Of course the Olympics are special, because of what it means to athletes, to everyone else watching in. I’m looking at them now more objectively, that it’s the same as another World Championships, not to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of it.

“Earlier this year, down in Flagstaff, I was talking with some of my older team-mates .We’ve all had disappointment at the Olympics, why would we even get the tattoo? Then you think, ‘we’re Olympians, it’s still a beautiful thing to be part of that small group of people’. So we all went and got the tattoos.

“It took a little convincing, but there’s always something you think is not perfect, and my approach is different now. I have some unfinished business, in that I just want to go and perform at the best of my ability. I’ll do everything I can to do that, give myself every fighting chance, same as I did for the World Championships this year.”

After taking back the Irish 800m record at the start of the summer, then in July improving the Irish women’s mile record to 4:14.58 (almost three seconds off the mark which had also belonged to O’Sullivan since 1994), Mageean has never run a faster season – eclipsing 2022 when she won silver medals at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships.

It’s even more promising, given Mageean started this year off on a difficult footing – as in a protective boot – after tearing the peroneal tendon in her foot last December. An altitude training camp in Flagstaff in January was effectively snowed under, she ran one indoor season and didn’t finish it, and still ended up putting two seasons of considerable improvement back-to-back.

“Maybe it is a blessing in disguise, leaves a little more fire in my belly. Going into an Olympic year, having just finished fourth in the world, yes that’s a bittersweet place to be. But it’s also exciting, because I’ve never gone into an Olympic Games in that position before.

“I know how much faster Kipyegon can go, I can’t control that, but I’ve run 3:55 and think I can still improve in some of the tiny little things you have in your life. And I still believe I’m getting stronger, every year.

“But I felt last year was a breakthrough in terms of my confidence, breaking the Irish record for the first time, winning a Diamond League, those two silver medals, showing maybe I was someone to be feared on the track now.

“With that came some pressure, can I emulate that this year, do even better? I remember chatting to someone about it too, and they said that’s only pressure if you make it become pressure. Look at that instead as confidence. Now, I’m at that level, that’s what I’ve tried to frame in my own mind.

“Before 2022, people would ask me what I thought I could run for 1,500m, on a really good day. And I thought 3:57, maybe 3:56. Then you go and run it, and now the only person I’m trying to be better than is myself.

“Then I went out and ran 3:55 . . . now I’m like, ‘ah here, can I run 3:54?”

This change in mindset comes in part from that Irish record set of times which for Mageean brought a different set of pressures.

“Since I was junior people had dubbed me as the next Sonia, I always saw that as a great privilege, just to be compared to her. But some pressure too, because it did mean I had to try to surpass some of the best Irish records ever run, by a real hero of Irish athletics, of global athletics.

“That’s why breaking that record in Brussels last year, people saw what it meant to me, it had been the monkey on my back for years. But the sport has moved on too, new technology, new spikes, new tracks, all of that. So I had to try to move those records on in not just a small way.”

She still does and always will take considerable heart from her former coach Jerry Kiernan, who more than anyone else nurtured her through that difficult transition out of the junior ranks, when a troublesome bone spur in her ankle at times left her wondering might she ever make it back.

“Jerry was a very wise man like that,” she says of Kiernan, who died suddenly in January 2021, aged 67. “He gave me a lot of that faith in myself, especially now that I am running into my 30s.

“Maybe my thought process might have been different, whereas I always had that belief in his wise words, that it would all stand me, that I was actually a younger running age, because of those years I missed.

“I believe too all those tough years, dealing with injury, setback, not getting an Irish vest for a whole load of years. All that resilience I had to build up makes me the athlete I am today. Sometimes I look back on what I put up with, around that time, and think ‘fair play’. Because I wonder if I came up against those challenges now, would I be as resilient?

“And I didn’t want to be that flash in the pan, that was the biggest thing in my head. That does happen, athletes have great junior careers, then never make it as a senior.

“The thought of stopping never occurred to me, that just wasn’t in my mindset. Because I knew I had a talent for running, I’ve got to keep trying. And I did always enjoy it. But I was very lucky to have that support, the likes of Jerry Kiernan, who was that rock for me.”

And in some ways will always be, until her last race is run.

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Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics