Athletics: Steeple girls make history
THE best women's race ever seen in this country - that's what many are saying about last Friday's women's steeplechase race at the Letterkenny Sub-4 Minute Challenge that produced Olympic qualifying times for Kerry O'Flaherty, Michelle Finn and Sara Treacy.
For race director Daragh McDaid, watching his plans coming together on the night brought particular satisfaction.
"It was incredible for us to see it all come together. The field was totally stacked, not just the Irish girls, but also the Americans, who were all looking for fast times, as well as the Scottish girl Lennie Waite, who just missed out on the Rio qualification."
A year earlier, McDaid was trying to persuade England-based Sara Treacy and his old college pal Kerry O'Flaherty to run a mixed 3000m race.
"Sarah pointed out that there was a serious lack of steeplechase races for women and that if we put one on to give her a shout."
Kerry said pretty much the same thing, while around the same time, the agent for a group of American steeplechasers approached him for a race.
"At the top end, there are steeplechase races for women at the Diamond League events, but there isn't much at the next level - for women who wanted to make qualification times."
For the Letterkenny organisers, there was one small problem - although the track at Letterkenny is open for ten years and has a water jump, no steeplechase race had ever been run on it.
"We didn't even have barriers! So over the winter, with the help of some funding, we went about getting barriers and did some adjustments to the water jump."
Closer to the day there was another stroke of good luck when Polish steeplechaser Matylda Kowal agreed to act as pacemaker.
"We were asking for someone to go through 2km in 6 mins 25 secs and Magda has a best time of 9 mins 39 secs. She was perfect."
All was set for a magical night. From the start, it was a ding-dong battle. After Kowal dropped out, Treacy pushed the pace.
"Sarah went to the front first and then Kerry. With 600m to go, Michelle came into it seemingly from nowhere."
After the Ugandan Juliet Chekwell pushed on, the American Jamie Cheever made her move and pulled the Irish girls with her. She won in 9 mins 40.99 secs, with Kerry passing Michelle for second in 9:42.61, Michelle third in 9:43.44 and Sarah fourth in 9:44.14. Four more broke 9 mins 50 secs.
So what now? "We'll definitely have the women's steeplechase again next year - an Olympic year. And we're also looking to have a men's steeplechase," concluded McDaid.