Irish Under 23 European Cross country medal winners Darragh McIlhenney (UCD AC) and Keelan Kilrehill (Moy Valley AC) with their coach Emmett Dunleavy.

An extraordinary season for Mayo athletics

‘WHAT'S Another Year?' sang Johnny Logan when he won the Eurovision Song Contest for Ireland back in 1980.

And in the current pandemic-induced memory fog, you'd be forgiven for asking about the last two years.

'Not another year' was a familiar refrain last January. And there wasn't a whole lot of singing.

Right across Ireland in 2020 and 2021 sports events were cancelled, postponed and some cancelled again.

With restrictions in place and reduced competitions, athletes found training and motivation difficult.

However, human spirit and resilience brought hope.

For 2021 restrictions were gradually lifted, enabling the sunlight of sporting spirit to break through and dispel some of that gloomy fog.

Thankfully we have dedicated officials and volunteers who worked tirelessly as usual to help organise events across the county, the Connacht region (which includes Longford) and nationally.

All of this took place under the the Covid-19 guidelines set out by Athletics Ireland.

For many clubs, the reality was of a drop in club membership and finances amid the ongoing fear factor of Covid-19.

In 2021 juveniles, juniors and adults welcomed increasing opportunities to meet and, more importantly, to compete again.

Against this background, 2021 was an extraordinary year for Mayo and the wider Connacht region.

It was the most successful season in decades for Connacht athletes, according to many.

Some road runners were frustrated and disappointed that the national championships over 10k, half-marathon or marathon were not held.

However, as the year progressed those who looked for them found opportunities to race.

Underage and schools competition were organised and heartily welcomed by youngsters and parents alike.

Clubs such as Swinford and East Mayo put on a series of 5k events in the summer and early autumn, using pod starts which gave adults a chance to measure their form.

Some of these were held in venues which had never seen a road race in action.

In addition, East Mayo AC hosted their annual 10k in September and held a successful inaugural half-marathon in October.

There was lots of evidence of runners wearing those 'magic shoes' with their giveaway pointy toes!

Marathon runners were disappointed that Dublin was cancelled for the second year in a row.

However, the London, New York and Berlin marathons went ahead in the autumn.

Some runners went abroad to complete marathons in Rotterdam and Florence, but there was continuing frustration among the athetics community as they saw thousands of supporters attending other sporting events around the country.

Juvenile athletes had lots of success this year, winning national medals in Community Games and Athletics Ireland championships.

It was great to see the excitement and joy they found in competing again and winning medals.

In Mayo, winners included Niall Duggan and Ted Murphy from Claremorris AC in Under 10 60m, Niamh Walsh, Erris AC, in Under 12 turbo javelin, Moy Valley AC's Anna McDonnell in the Under 15 3,000m walk, Seamus Clarke in the Under 15 2,000m walk and Tomas Gallagher in the Under 12 60m, St. Colman's South Mayo AC's Iarlaith Golding, who won gold in the junior 110m outdoors hurdles, and Louise King, who won the Under 23 high jump. Swinford AC also had juvenile medal winners, including Caitlin Hughes, who won gold in the Under 15 3,000m, and Emma Nolan and Hannah Forkan, who medalled in the turbo javelin. Westport AC twins Freya and Holly Renton won a number of Under 13 medals at regional and national level.

Elsewhere, Sarah Quinn of St. Colman's South Mayo AC had another excellent season.

The Ballinrobe athlete competed in the IAAF World Athletics relays in Poland in May, and in the 4 x 200m relay she helped Ireland's women to silver.

In June, Conor Cusack of Lake District AC threw a personal best 72:13 in the javelin at the AAI Games in Morton Stadium, setting a new national Under 20 record.

Swinford AC's prolific medal winner Michaela Walsh took gold in the national senior hammer and shot put events.

Her club-mate, Shane Bracken, had an excellent season Stateside at St. Leo's College, Florida. He ran 3:41.53 for 1,500m in April, and in November he won the South Region NCAA individual cross country race over 10k in 30:21.

That qualified him to represent St. Leo and compete in the 2021 NCAA Division II National Championship, where he finished 16th – the highest place in the history of his college. He was awarded US T&F Cross Country Coaches South Region Runner of the Year.

The achievement of the year was the performance of Sinéad Diver at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

From the boreens of Belmullet in northwest Mayo to the streets of Sapporo in Japan, her short but amazing athletics journey is the stuff of dreams.

Sinéad is an elite athlete and global star. She has been well supported and embraced by Athletics Australia and her achievements to date are an inspiration to all athletes, especially women.

In 2021, representing her adopted Australia, she crowned a magnificent career in August with a 2:31.14 10th place in the Olympics marathon in brutal conditions in Sapporo, with temperatures reaching 30 degrees and 69% humidity.

This made her the leading all-time Irish-born woman finisher in the Olympics event. Eight weeks later, she ran an excellent 12th place in the London Marathon in 2:27.

Irish athletes are inspired by her achievements and rightly proud too, especially at Mayo AC where she has been a registered member since 2014.

Ireland won four medals in the European Under 20 Championships in Tallin in July.

Rhasidat Adeleke won gold in the women's 100m and 200m, while Nicholas Griggs won the 3,000m and Longford AC's Cian McPhillips won the 1,500m.

In the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in July, the Irish mixed 4 x 400m relay team of Cillín Greene (GCH), Phil Healy (Bandon), Sophie Becker and Chris O’Donnell (North Sligo AC) clocked a time of 3:15.04 to finish eighth in the final.

In October and November, hundreds of juveniles, juniors, seniors and masters competed in the Connacht Cross Country Championships.

For the seniors, the competion was held over three legs at Sligo, Mayo and Galway courses. Mayo AC's formidable Over 50 women's team won gold and Colette Tuohy and Angela O’Connor won individual silver and bronze respectively.

There was brilliant success for Ireland's Under 23 men at the European Cross Country Championships in Abbotstown in December.

Two Mayo club athletes were in the team of six. Darragh McIlhenney (UCD AC) won silver individual and led the team to gold. He was well supported by Keelan Kilrehill (Moy Valley AC), who ran the race of his life to finish sixth overall, and by Thomas Devaney (Castlebar AC), who finished 67th.

Both McIlhenney and Kilrehill are coached by Emmett Dunleavy of Sligo AC.

The year ended on a high note for a huge and enthusiastic crowd of spectators at the Euro Cross Country.

Combined with the success of all of our athletes in 2021 – from Under 9s to masters – and inspired by the unique Olympics achievement of elite star Sinead Diver, we can look forward to 2022 with renewed hope, optimism and excitement in these challenging times.

*The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of Mayo Athletics Club.