Saturday 25 January 2020

McCormack to the fore again

Medal haul for Irish in Lisbon event

Efrem Gidey of Ireland, centre, competing in the Men’s U20 event during the European Cross Country Championships. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Efrem Gidey of Ireland, centre, competing in the Men’s U20 event during the European Cross Country Championships. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

In this sport, at this event, it was Ireland's greatest day, the reasons running far deeper than mere performance - a diverse collection of athletes standing proud on the podium, glistening in green.

Four medals in total from the European Cross Country Championships in Lisbon: two bronze through the individual brilliance of Efrem Gidey and Stephanie Cotter; two silver through the superb collective courage of the senior and U-23 women's teams.

And there at the heart of it all, pouring herself into each stride, attacking each hill with wrought-iron will, was Fionnuala McCormack. The two-time former champion finished fourth in the senior women's race, outgunned on the final run to the finish by Sweden's Samrawit Mengsteab.

And for all that the team medal provided an antidote to her agony, she's far too ambitious an athlete to be anything less than upset.

"It's brilliant to win a team medal but I am gutted," she said. "I don't want a record for coming fourth at the European Championships. I don't want to be here for the 16th time without an individual medal."

Yasemin Can of Turkey took her fourth straight title with ease while Norway's Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal was a cozy runner-up, but the battle for bronze went down to the wire.

On the penultimate lap, it seemed McCormack had it within reach as her rivals dropped away like bowling pins, but stuck in her slipstream was Mengsteab. On the downhill run to the finish the Swede made her move and McCormack had no answer. "I tried hard, I had to try hard," said McCormack. "I don't know what else I could do, I just wish it worked out differently."

Further back, Aoibhe Richardson had the race of her life to finish 17th, with Ciara Mageean rounding out the Irish scoring, the 1,500m specialist running herself to a standstill as she crossed the line in 20th. Britain took the team title with 26 points with the Irish second with 41, two points clear of Portugal.

"If anybody wants to see how tough athletics is, they just have to watch Euro Cross - I thought I could have died," said Mageean.

Seán Tobin led the Irish in the senior men's race, the Clonmel man taking his third straight top-20 finish in 18th despite running the entire race in severe pain because of blisters.

The day began in brilliant fashion for the Irish with Efrem Gidey winning a surprise bronze in the U-20 men's race. The 19-year-old fled Eritrea in 2016 and spent six months at a refugee camp in Calais before arriving in Dublin in March 2017, and he has since matured into one of the most exciting prospects in Irish athletics.

There was heartbreak for his team-mates in the U-20 race, with the Irish awarded bronze but later demoted to fourth. They finished level on points with Portugal but lost due to the Portuguese having the higher third scorer.

In the U-23 women's race, Stephanie Cotter announced herself as a star by winning a brilliant bronze, the Cork athlete running a fearless race that saw her challenge favourite Anna Moller of Denmark. She was out-kicked for silver in the end by Dutch athlete Jasmijn Lau.

"I did go out to try and win it and that might have cost me the second place because I was definitely dead on my legs the last 200 metres," said Cotter. "I believed in myself and if it didn't pay off that was fine, but I knew I'd regret it if I didn't go for it."

Backed up by sisters Eilish Flanagan (9th) and Róisín Flanagan (17th) - college team-mates of Cotter's at Adams State in Colorado - the Irish claimed silver in the team event.

Brian Fay was the leading Irish finisher in the U-23 men's race in 22nd, Jodie McCann led the U-20 women in 46th, while the mixed relay team of Nadia Power, John Travers, Amy O'Donoghue and Eoin Pierce finished seventh.

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