Ciarán Ó Lionáird, 26, is an Irish middle-distance runner who has demonstrated that he belongs among the world's elite. Currently recovering from a long-term Achilles injury, SPIKES brings you the ups and downs of a truly modern athlete.
Ciarán Ó Lionáird was born on a dairy farm in County Cork, Ireland, and took up competitive running aged seven. He broke Irish middle-distance age records at nine and ten and, aged sixteen, won the 1500m at the 2004 British Schools International in Chelmsford, England. The following year he finished tenth at the 2005 World Youth Championships in Morocco.
“It was the first time I’d been exposed to global competition,” he explains. “It made me realise that although I was some way off those guys, I was still on track and all I needed to do was improve.”
Ó Lionáird opted for the path followed by many Irish athletes, and headed stateside. Based at the University of Michigan under the guidance of coach Ron Warhurst, he joined a powerful and experienced endurance group, led by New Zealander Nick Willis, who had recently been crowned Commonwealth 1500m champion.
The enthusiastic Irishman launched himself into the training with too much gusto, and almost inevitably, injuries followed.
“Through my own fault, I jumped into things far too quickly,” he says. “It was a steep learning curve.” He suffered, first with a back problem and later an Achilles issue. Struggling to realise his potential, his career hit a crossroads.
Escape to the sun
Desperate for a change of scene, Ó Lionáird travelled south to Florida. Here, coach Bob Braman took a gamble on the talented but injury-ravaged athlete. He took up a scholarship at Florida State and the outlook began to look brighter before injury struck again.
In early 2010 he chose to take a six-month break from the sport. He focused on studying, started his masters, worked part-time and enjoyed a normal life away from the track.
“I thought, okay, I’m going to disappear for a while and give my body a full mental and physical rest. After five or six months, I came back a new athlete. It was a complete rejuvenation.”
Coach Braman kept the faith, and Ó Lionáird returned to full training in 2011.
All set to "call time" on the 2011 season, Ó Lionáird was in Belgium when an opportunity arose to run in a paced 1500m that had been put on to help Canada's Nate Brannen acheive the qualifying standard for the world champs.
"When we arrived at the track it was set in the middle of some cornfields," says Ó Lionáird. "It had a rickety old grandstand with a pub on the corner of the track. It was like a throwback.
“I remember the perfect weather: 18-20°C and no wind. I went through the first lap in 59 seconds and was dead last. Then I ran the middle two laps in 1:51 or 1:52. I remember running the 600m to 400m section super-fast and passing about six guys.
"The race was run in almost total silence. I hit the bell in 2:37 right on the shoulder of the leader and finished second [behind the Ethiopian Dawit Wolde]. I remember crossing the line, looking at the time and thinking: did that just really happen?
"Nate, who had finished just behind me, said, ‘man, you’ve just changed your life.’ It was only when the news filtered through to Ireland and I got messages on my phone that I realised what had happened. It was amazing.”
Ó Lionáird had set a new personal best of 3:34.46, hacking an incredible six seconds from his previous record to qualify for the Daegu 2011 World Championships.
The mullet man in action in the heats of Daegu.
After powering through his heat and semi final in South Korea, Ó Lionáird achieved and impressive 10th place in the 1500m final. It was some international debut.
“In Daegu I was the new man,” he says. “It was fun. I’ll never be in that position again. It was as good a senior championship debut as I could have imagined.”
Having moved to Oregon under the guidance of new coach Mark Rowland, Ó Lionáird entered Olympic year with lofty aspirations. It was 'medal or bust' for the London games, which proved unrealistic. He crashed out in the heats, finishing thirteenth after an injury-plagued preparation.
“I’d finished tenth in the world [in Daegu]. I was guilty of making the transition to becoming a professional athlete and overdoing it in my first year. I said in 2012 I had to medal. Everyone told me it was unrealistic, but I was stubborn.
"It was my own fault. I wasn’t living a professional life or getting enough sleep. I wasn’t mature enough to handle it and I paid the price in London. I realised being professional doesn’t just mean training hard, but training and living smart.”
Healing the heel
Even hampered by the longstanding Achilles injury, the Irish athlete was good enough to win 3000m bronze at the 2013 European Indoor Championships. But after spending the summer sidelined, he finally opted for surgery. His plantaris tendon was swollen to six times its usual size.
The tendon, which serves little practical function, was removed. The extended lay-off allowed Ó Lionáird to refocus, and rethink his goals as an athlete:
“I thought, right, I have three years until Rio, I have to be rebuilt piece by piece. If it means running seven-minute miles for the first six months, then let’s do it.”
Now, following a structured and systematic rehabilitation programme, Ó Lionáird is adopting a disciplined long-term approach. For now, success at the Europeans in Zurich is important, but the chief priority is Rio 2016.
“I don’t want to over-reach,” he says. “I’m focused on the path to Zurich. It is important I put down a foundation for 2015 and 2016. If we have to put in conservative steps, fine. The goal is to be ready for that final in Rio. I have to do it right. There can be no short cuts.”