martes, 27 de marzo de 2012

Fionnuala Britton also wanted to Run the World Cross Country Champs

Fionnuala Britton leads Gemma Steel in muddy Antrim
Photo: Mark Shearman 

              Thumbs up, if you missed watching the World Cross Country championships last week end. Thumbs down for all the people who made possible that disappointing decision of changing the oldest annual international track and field event in biannual. Until this year only World Wars had stopped a race which had been held since 1903 but I guess we will have to get used to it. Once an Olympic event, once the most prestigious race in the yearly athletic calendar, which used to join every world class runner from the 1500m to the marathon, nowadays it seems to be in plain decadence. This winter we were supposed to focus in area championships. It was amazing after all to watch the bunch of Ethiopian-born athletes who have become Bahrain flag-bearers sweep the Asian Cross medals for their adopted country. Otherwise every long distance star still belonging to this East African athletic powerhouse, or to the neighbouring Kenya, understandably deserted the newly introduced regional championships. What is the point of running the African Cross when you should be attending the traditional global race? And what could have offered the World Cross this year? I believe after three consecutive runner-up positions Linet Masai was motivated enough to grab at last the universal title, beating Vivian Cheruiyot, the woman who won everything in 2011. Actually she defeated her the only time they clashed during the winter at the Cross Itálica in Seville. Yet she will have to wait until next year. It would also have been interesting to see the possible return to the competition of the most successful Ethiopians of the century, Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele. Yes! Next year. The only area championship worth watching this winter was the European Cross, in which Fionnuala Britton achieved a sensational victory for Ireland. This athlete has reached a new level this winter, winning the classic races of Edinburgh and Antrim as well. Yet, like the African specialists also did, Fionnuala expressed her disappointment for not having the chance of proving herself at the World Cross Championships, when she was in the shape of her life. She could claim the title of Cross Queen of this winter, though Nazeret Weldu won all five cross country races she entered. However the Eritrean youngster could not face many of the long distance standouts in those five races in Spain. Anyway there was no race where you could face every long distance standout last winter.      

               For a small island of scarcely 4 millions, Ireland has a pretty fine tradition in athletics and cross country in particular. Actually, track and field is the most successful sport in the history of the Olympics, along with boxing, with 4 gold and 2 silvers of the 23 overall medals Irish athletes have won. Precisely, the last two in that list in climbing to an Olympic podium, John Treacy and Sonia O’Sullivan, runner-up at the marathon in Los Angeles 1984 and at the 5000m in Sidney 2000 respectively, were previously world champions in cross country. Treacy triumphed in challenging conditions in the 1978 and 1979 editions and O’Sullivan in 1998, when she struck double gold after winning both the short and long course. They succeeded pioneer Tim Smythe, who had brought the first victory in 1931 in Dublin. Also noteworthy were the 4 silver medals in a row Catherina McKiernan obtained from 1992 to 1995. Finally, the country also won in modern times two team bronze medals in female category in 1997 and 2002, which proves their depth in the specialty. Now Britton has become in Velenje the second Irish who conquers the Euro Cross after precisely McKiernan who won the first edition of the contest back in 1994. That is great news Ireland has another long distance world class prospect after a long wait.

Fionnuala Britton competing at the 3000m steeplechase final at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka
Photo: Michael Steele/ Getty Images Sport 
                Since the great Sonia O’Sullivan’s decline, Irish press has been talking about national crisis in track and field. However it is not really fair. No more Olympic medals were achieved and the same O’Sullivan and Eamonn Coghlan remain the only world champions for the shamrock country but David Gillick grabbed gold at the 2005 and 2007 European indoor champs at the 400m, Derval O’Rourke accomplished another marvellous victory at the hurdles at the 2006 World indoors in Moscow and race walkers Gillian O’Sullivan and Olive Loughnane struck silver at the summer world champs in Saint Dennis 2003 and Berlin 2009 respectively, besides other minor medals. However, only victories seem to make an impact in an Irish public more devoted to hurling, soccer and rugby. (1) Silver medals and minor victories in track and field pass almost unnoticed. When Gillian O’Sullivan success I was living in Galway. In the West Coast, and I suppose in the rest of the country, is quite popular among men and women a very fast stroll by the seaside. I never experienced in Spain or France such passion for sportive walking and it does not surprise me those two female world medals and it would not be strange another one by Robert Heffernan, who has been quite close a couple of times. By the way, when Athens Olympic were close I pointed out Gillian as favourite for the Olympic gold medal but none of my acquaintances knew her and even one fellow stated she was Sonia O’ Sullivan’s sister. Unfortunately, the Irish race walk record holder was left out of the Games because of injury and my friends never had the chance of celebrating her Olympic medal.
Equally unnoticed has been until her victory at the European Cross Fionnuala Britton, who had participated in nine occasions with solid results and also in Beijing Olympics at the steeplechase. However, thereafter the tiny athlete has become suddenly popular and the audience is asking for more. “I just think it is really weird. You are doing what you always did and then suddenly you win a race and then people are interested in it. It is not really any different in what you are doing. I think the biggest thing is that all the sports are not looked at in the same light. The soccer team, I know it is great that they qualified for Europeans and I know that it is a really big deal — but it is Europeans. In minority sports, unless you do something really big, you are not looked at. And then if you do something, you are expected to do something again. The expectations and the coverage are not the same. It is the same with women’s sport. It is not big until you do something really big, and then you are expected to keep doing it like poor Katie Taylor.” (2) And now Fionnuala can become as big in County Wicklow as “poor” Katie, who has been an invincible female boxer all over the world for years and also footballer, who now intends to become Olympic champion since women will be allowed to make their debut in this sport at the upcoming Olympic Games.  

Fionnuala Britton is honoured at the Sports Woman of the Year
at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin
                    Fionnuala Britton, who will be 28 years old the next 24th September, is a native of Kilcoole, just a couple of miles of Brittas Bay one of the most popular and scenic places of County Wicklow, which 4km of sandy dunes are home of rare vegetal and animal species, notably birds. Fionnuala grew up in a close-knit family of six members, amateur of sport. As an example the whole family ran last Great Ireland Run in Phoenix Park together. (3)  She joined the track and field local club as soon as 7, after her elder sister. Since then she has been involved with Slí Chúlainn AC, coached for a decade in turn by John O’Toole and Pat Diskin. Then she moved to Dublin City University where she has recently graduated in sport science and health. Fionnuala ran for years just because she liked it without any other ambition but as she progressed it was clear she was good enough to aim for the Olympic Games and then tried hard for it. Eventually, it has been more her dedication through the years than her sheer talent which has brought the runner to success. The champion in Velenje is well-known as a fanatic workaholic. She never miss a single session and even the day she received her masters degree she found time for training between the graduation ceremony and a celebratory lunch with her parents. (3)

As a junior, Fionnuala had limited success. Her first international medal would be accomplished no sooner than the winter of 2006 at the European Cross championships U-23, where she placed second after Turkish Binnaz Uslu. It was a huge boost of confidence and the 2007 season would be excellent for the young Irish. After beating at the national senior Inter Club Cross Country Champs the more fancied Mary Cullen at her rival’s hometown of Sligo, the Kilcoole girl headed for the World Cross in Mombasa. In a race under extremely horrible conditions of heat and humidity, Britton fared quite well, ending 14th and second European. (4) It was the day Kenenisa Bekele was beaten for the first time in a Cross Country race by Zersenay Tadese and the heat and Lornah Kiplagat obtained a resounding victory over Tirunesh Dibaba. It was also the day some young European athletes: Jessica Augusto, Fionnuala Britton, Hattie Dean and Charlotte Purdue, made the limelight for the first time; quite remarkable because of the tough conditions. The Irish athlete ended that successful year making the steeplechase final at the Osaka World championships, along with her compatriot Roísín McGettigan, where she would finish in 12th place. Her 9:41.36 PB achieved in Heusden qualified her for Beijing, but at the Olympics she was unlucky in her heat.       
            Much was expected from Fionnuala Britton alter her excellent 2007 campaign. However her post-Beijing Olympic years were rather disappointing. The Slí Chúlainn athlete did not make the standard for Berlin Worlds and finished in a poor 11th place in Barcelona the following year. Even her performances at her pet event, Cross Country, were far from satisfactory. In the winter of 2010 Fionnuala travelled to Iten for a 3-months stage with Irish-African glory Brother Colm O’Connell but results were not still seen. She had just stagnated. Then for a change she left her lifelong coach Pat Diskin and moved to Welshman Chris Jones, the director of Dublin triathlon high performance centre. Thereafter her athletic career started to take off. Jones states in her new charge’s improvement the key has been the engagement of a world class team of professionals in behalf of her: John Cleary, the strength and conditioning coach of Ireland’s top boxers; Karen Jones, DCU nutritionist; Enda Fitzpatrick, DCU track and field head coach, who had already worked with Fionnuala for many years; Dr Brian Moore, a haematologist with previous experience with Paula Radcliffe, Mo Farah and Oregon Track Club. "Brian is a huge influence. He does all of Fionnuala's bloods and I get a call from him immediately if he spots that she is being over-reached in training. Enda is my eyes when I cannot be at training sessions and he sends me great feedback on her workouts." (3) Jones also gives credit to the athlete itself who he believes it is a pleasure to work with because of her honesty, commitment, thoughtfulness and generosity. 
Fionnuala Britton leads Sarah Treacy, Ciara Mageean and other hopeful local girls 
              When she started to work with Fionnuala, Jones saw huge potential in her but also some limiting factors which were affecting to her performance. Notably her cadence was too slow and her power per stride was lacking. Jones devoted himself to build first the right aerobic capacity with power and good functional movement, making emphasis in technical work and short hills. Once aerobic capacity and anaerobic power were achieved was the time to work in longer endurance type development, moving to event-specific speed, aiming to challenge the extension of the repetitions, increasing the time spent at this velocity. (5) Visible results were already observable in early 2011. Fionnuala ran an awesome race at the World Cross in Punta Umbría, crossing the line 16th as the first European in the race. During the summer, the athlete improved at last on her steeplechase PB from 2007 to 9:37.60, had some remarkable performance at the Diamond League meetings and narrowly missed the final in Daegu. Nonetheless, according to Fionnuala’s workouts, Jones stated further progress was expected at the steeplechase. Now the coach concluded it was not Fionnuala’s best possible event. Being just 1,56m tall, her protégée needed an extra effort to overcome barriers almost her size. Besides she had not a fast 1500m time as most of the elite steeplechasers.         

                Fionnuala went in November to Font Romeu for training in altitude in order to prepare the European Cross champs. The precedent edition of the contest had had a shocking ending for the Irish athlete. Running at home in Albufeira, Jessica Augusto produced an unrivalled solo performance. After a noteworthy race, Fionnuala was in contention for the silver medal but she was defeated in the last rush, again by Uslu and also second Portuguese Dulce Felix by a whisker. Besides she had beaten soon afterwards those rivals in Brussels, including Augusto, in a race where she finished second. Britton remembered with bitterness that competition in Albufeira and she promised to himself she would not be left out of the medals again in Velenje in another sprint. On the other hand, this time she knew and every one involved with her too she was in exceptional shape. This time around she wanted gold. Fionnuala followed simple tactics. (6) Around 1500m she took command of the race and pushed the pace throughout. The long relaxed and powerful indeed stride she had developed was taking its toll in her contenders. Soon only Italian Nadia Ejjafini and Ana Dulce Felix were in contention, then the Portuguese was dropped and eventually the demanding pace was also too much for Ejjafini. With every rival eliminated, the Kilcoole girl kept her floating and hot rhythm in her lone cavalcade but there was a last obstacle. Gemma Steel had progressed coming from behind to runner-up position. Fionnuala could hear the increasingly excited British supporters and knew Gemma was getting close to her at the beginning of the last lap. Then, little sister Una, who had raced in the U-23 category, appeared at the side of the track to cheer her: “You want it more than the rest.” Una’s encouraging words reinvigorated Fionnuala, who found some extra energy to push again and increase the gap over the British runner. She romped home unopossed, while Dulce Felix overcame Steel for second in a last effort. Fionnuala Britton had obtained at last the prize for her endeavours and confidently she kept on the victory trail at the Edinburgh classic cross. Her impressive front running gained her a massive 20sec difference at the line over the in-form Steel. Then the European champion had her only low-key performance of the season in Seville, ending just 8th in her opportunity to match world class Africans as Masai and Cheruiyot, but returned to her best in Antrim, Northern Ireland. On a muddy track she was challenged all over by winter-fellow Gemma Steel, but eventually she managed to drop her in the last stages of the race to grab her third victory of the season.   

                Currently, Fionnuala Britton is concentrated in Albuquerque in order to prepare for the summer campaign and the Olympic Games. Despite she has made the standard for London in the event, Chris Jones has convinced the Irish athlete the steeplechase is unsuitable for her. (9) According to it she will try to qualify at the 5000m and 10.000m, almost virgin territory for her, but her coach believes after her demonstration in Velenje, where she kept a 3.05 pace, she has stamina and toughness enough to challenge the East Africans at the decisive race. Ultimately, her endurance training should bring her to the marathon, but this is a long term target for Rio de Janeiro 2016. As for now, Fionnuala’s challenge is to be able to translate her inmense talent for cross country to the track in London.       

European XC champion Fionnuala Britton and children get fit for the 2012 Great Ireland Run 

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