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‘You dust yourself off and get on with it’

Ciara Mageean is no stranger to sports magazines and the back pages of the newspapers, but she has recently featured in hardback for the first time, with the publication of Jacqui Hurley’s book, Girls Play Too – Inspiring Stories of Irish Sportswomen. In it, Mageean joins a host of female sports stars from Ireland who are celebrated for identifying their dreams and going for them. But, in making these dreams come true, you must take the good with the bad, Mageean tells Bernie Commins

We catch up two days after her Diamond League performance in August, the one that ‘didn’t quite go to plan’ and, if ever there was an appropriate time to talk about inspiring the next generation of Irish athletes, specifically young runners, this was it. Over a few short weeks, Ciara had experienced the sweetest of highs followed by a bitterly disappointing low. But, this is a reflection of real life where good is partnered with bad – and being an inspiration for the next generation of young girls and boys means showing them just that, particularly as we navigate a global pandemic that has changed life as we know it.

Running high

In Bern, in July, Mageean became the first Irishwoman ever to run a sub-two-minute 800m, setting a national record with a time of 1:59.69. And, just weeks later, on resumption of the Diamond League in Monaco, Mageean smashed the 27-year-record set by Sonia O’Sullivan in the 1,000m. Claiming bronze on the night in a time of 2:31.06, the 28-year-old Portaferry star shaved 3.6 seconds off O’Sullivan’s record and, in doing so, set another national record. Following months of Covid-19-enforced lockdown, restrictions, and lack of competition – most notably the Olympic Games – Mageean was hungry for it.

"I probably couldn't have had a better start to the racing season, running a sub-two in the first race out and setting a national record in the 800m. This is something that I wanted to achieve for a very long time and to be the first Irishwoman to do it is something that nobody can ever take away from me. I was over the moon.

“And then to go run such a good time in the 1,000m in Monaco and to be so competitive […] although I finished that race slightly frustrated because I got a little boxed in and I thought that I could have come second, at least.”

Fast and furious

But, fresh from the glory of those two spectacular performances, and still hungry for competition, Mageean, perhaps, didn’t give her body and mind the chance to rest and recover. 

“I was on such a high from them, that I maybe didn't fully appreciate the energy that it took to run the two fastest times I have ever run, and the impact both physically and mentally.” Three in a row was too big of an ask and Mageean faded to 12th place (of 12 finishers) in the 1,500m at the Stockholm Diamond League meeting on August 23. Her time of 4:10.99 was a blow – no way around it. 

“I think that the energy and the buzz from the first two races… I didn't fully appreciate what it took from me, or the recovery that was required. I feel like I was just under recovered and a bit tired going into that. These are all lessons that I learn as I progress through athletics. I am always disappointed when I have an underperformance and that was a huge underperformance and I hadn't had a performance like that in such a long time. But I take strength from the bad performances in the sense that I know that I am not a finished product, I know that I have areas and room to improve on, and I am excited to see where I am, even with room to improve. 

“This year, in some ways, is a blessing in disguise, I have had time to work on my weaknesses and I would much prefer a performance like that happen this year than next. I will continue to learn. I am disappointed, it was a hard blow especially after the first two races.”

In the weeks that followed, Mageean’s performances have been mixed. She came fifth in the 800m in Ostrava in a time of 2:01.40, and she finished 13th (of 13 finishers) in the 1,500 at the ISTAF meeting in Berlin, in a time of 4:12.82. Neither performances nor times represent her true ability – other performances and times prove that. But Mageean has a level-headed approach to racing, ‘taking strength from the bad days’ to carry on. This is an important lesson to learn – and to teach.

“I try to be a role model for people at home, for different athletes, and how you recover from your down days is so important. It just shows that you are only human. And, it means that your fantastic performances are even better. To be a role model for young girls and young boys means that we show them we have some good days and some bad days, and when we do [have bad days], we pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and carry on.”

With the dusting off comes the necessity to process those thoughts that tend to dwell on the negative. This, for Mageean, involves consulting with well-known sports psychologist, Dr Kate Kirby who is head of performance psychology at the Sport Ireland Institute.

“I think the mental side of life – not just in sport and performance – is so huge, but it can be overlooked. For me [after that race] I was in touch with Kate Kirby and she asked if I would like to chat and I thought that would be good. It was still very raw at that stage, so it was fantastic to talk to her; she is a great sounding board, and being a sports psychologist, she could help me reason with some of the emotions that I had from the race. 

“She pointed out that I should look at all the data around my performance, and that I should look at that race as a random outlier. Yes, there may be areas that need to be improved, but something just went wrong, that I hadn't recovered from the previous races.

“Having a performance like that is a major blow and I know that I need to work on the recovery of that, mentally. The unfortunate thing about our minds is that we remember the bad things much more strongly than the good.” 

Missing the nationals

Mageean’s race commitments in Europe meant that she missed the 2020 National Championships, but she was keeping a close eye on things back home.

“I always wish I am there. I love being at home, racing in front of an Irish crowd, even though there was no crowd this year! It was fantastic. I was able to follow the coverage through Athletic Ireland's streaming. The men's 1,500m was fantastic, especially for Paul Robinson, after Paul had such a rocky few years. Myself and Paul would have come up through juniors together, and I know how hard he struggled with fitness and injury to come back. 

“I loved seeing all the girls race, Phil is always banging it out and Sarah Lavin was back racing after having a terrible ankle injury. I saw all the struggles that each athlete has gone through and I loved seeing them and relishing their performance back home.”

Girls Play Too – Inspiring Stories of Irish Sportswomen

Mageean is a most worthy participant in Jacqui Hurley’s recently published book, which celebrates female sports stars in Ireland, as well as the legends who paved the way, and the rising stars who are following in their footsteps. To be included in something like this is a ‘huge honour’ she says.

“It is humbling to be part of what is referred to as ‘inspiring stories of Irish sports women’. It is so lovely that all of us have the opportunity to put our stories on paper, and for young girls to read our stories and see that they too can be sports stars and that they too can reach for their dreams. These dreams might be in sport, or they might be somewhere else, in education, science or music. It is important for young girls to see that there are strong, powerful women out there who are paving the way and representing our country. It has been a great honour and I am really thankful to Jacqui. It is fantastic to inspire young girls – and young boys. I believe that young boys can look up to women as well because we are forging the way.”


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