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Ireland Ireland together standing tall !!

Craughwell AC’s history making U20 women’s team enjoyed a fantastic weekend at the European Club Champions Cup held in Leiria Portugal. Months and months of preparation finally came to fruition last Saturday in the biggest team event in the club’s history. Having qualified in June 2018 for the 2019 edition of the U20 European Clubs Champions Cup, athletes and management have juggled family, work, leaving cert, junior cert, college exams, other sports, injuries, holidays etc to finally get to the big day.

The travelling party comprised team management Mike Tobin and Aisling Keady, team physio Sinead Gaffney, team gear sponsor Celia Miskella of PM Technical, team photographer Daithi Cronin, team captain Laura Cunningham and vice-captain Lorraine Delaney and squad members Ailbhe Miskella, Alisha Larkin, Aoife Kelly, Arlene Earls, Ava Finn, Caoilin Milton, Ciana Reidy, Ciara Sheppard, Ellie Cronin, Eva Whyte, Freya Bohan, Lauren McNally, Leanagh Gilligan, Sarah Woods, Shauna Tobin, Siona Lawless along with coaches and family members including Lisa Thomas, Eddie McNally, Alison Finn, Rita Kelly, Kevin Larkin, Lucy Cunningham, Maeve O’Toole, Caroline Earls, Joe Delaney, Mary Delaney, Declan Sheppard and Emily Miskella.

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Competing against the cream of European athletics from right across the continent, the Craughwell AC girls put in a superb performance to place 8th in the competition. For a club from a small village in rural Ireland, it was an incredible achievement to be competing at the top level of European athletics and one that the athletes will remember forever. Very few athletes from any club make it to this level and the club is immensely proud of the 18 girls who represented Ireland with distinction and with great composure at these championships.

A lot of pieces of the puzzle fell into place in the last couple of weeks. The fabulous set of gear designed by team manager Aisling Keady and sponsored by Celia and Paul Miskella of PM Technical/D&S Construction had all arrived, the last piece just 2 days before we were due to fly; our pole vault and javelin equipment was confirmed as acceptable oversized baggage by Aer Lingus; the Portuguese organiser confirmed our accommodation arrangements; a few injuries cleared up particularly team captain Laura Cunningham’s knee injury. Everything was falling into place and worries were starting to fade.

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Eddie and Kevin size up the photographer before agreeing to get on the bus with him

Departure day arrived. We met at noon at Jody’s Spar/Topaz who were sponsoring our team bus to and from Dublin Airport and allowing us to park in the rear yard for the weekend. After several photos and some admin work, we got ourselves organised to depart on the bus around 12.45pm with a police escort from local custodian of the peace Willie O’Connor to whisk us out of Craughwell before Irish Water dug up the road!

departure

The gang before departing from Jody's who sponsored our bus transport
pictured with Jody and also Paul Miskella of PM Technical who sponsored our gear

Our flight was at 7pm from terminal 2 but we were giving ourselves plenty of time to get there as the group was so large and as we had oversized baggage to check in. After a brief stop at Applegreen, we got to the airport with 3 hours to spare and headed to the oversized baggage area with the bag of poles and javelin. The bag was quite light but very long … almost 4 metres. To our horror the chap at the oversized baggage check-in whipped out his measuring tape, measured the length and slowly shook his head from side to side – his conveyor belt could only take something 2.7 metres long. We protested that we had explained this to the group booking department but unfortunately that was not enough to magically make his conveyor belt capable of taking longer items – but he said we’d have to go to Aer Lingus help desk to check it in as cargo.

That sounded ok – so off went myself Ciana and Kevin to the help desk. We were dealt with by a wonderful lady who spent at least 30 minutes and 10 phone calls trying to sort out our problem and get several different management approvals to redirect our equipment to terminal 1 where she hoped it would be accepted on a different type of baggage check-in/x-ray belt. There was no guarantee that it would work though, but she got a colleague to tag the bag and go with us to terminal 1 saying that if anyone could make it work, he would as he had a way with people. So over he comes, let’s call him Joe (not his real name) a giant of a man at least 6’6” or more … should have been a pole vaulter himself! … and without doubt the most popular man in all of Dublin Airport for at every twist and turn on the way to terminal 1, his colleagues had a big welcome for him “Howya Joe!”, got a thumbs up and a witty greeting or whistle or wink back. We couldn’t go wrong with him on board. As we got near the oversized baggage check-in, four terminal 1 baggage handlers were walking four-abreast towards us, looking suspiciously at Joe … tensely saying “Hey Joe, a little out of your territory here aren’t you mate, heh heh” as they drew their shotguns … it looked bad … “Howya lads how’s it going? Having a ball! Here’s where it all started!” ... came the reply as they joked together … no problemo … onto the check-in and of course the poles flew through, Joe escorted us back to terminal 2 and shook our hands, and we sighed a big sign of relief. The people we dealt with are a huge advertisement to Aer Lingus and Dublin Airport – fair play to them – so helpful and so friendly – customer service at its best.

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The team on arrival in Lisbon Airport

It was ‘plane-sailing’ after that as we got on the flight with no worries. The flight got into Lisbon close to 10pm and we got a little lost on our way to baggage reclaim but eventually got there with all 35 people accounted for and we collected the bags and popped over to the oversized conveyor belt where our 4m wonderbag popped out just as we arrived. Off we headed out to arrivals for our bus to Leiria – we had been told to look for the guy in the red t-shirt standing next to the Vodafone store. A quick glance at the nearby Vodafone store came up empty but he found us as we were late and he had wandered around looking for us. We stopped off for a few photos and then headed onto the bus. It was around an hour and 45 minutes to get to the hotel in Leiria to the north of Lisbon, around 20km from the coast and pretty close to Fatima. We were staying in the Eurosol Hotel in Leiria where the staff were exceptionally friendly and helpful. The only tiny issue was that the hotel was comprised of two adjacent buildings and our group was so big, they had to split us between both buildings – but nothing could be done about that at this stage. We got checked-in and it was quite late at this stage so an early night was had by all.

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First from the club to set foot in the stadium !

The following morning, the first thing to do was to sort out the accreditation for the team, their ID badges, race numbers, lunch/dinner vouchers etc – which had to be done at the athletics stadium. So myself Aisling and Sinead headed off under Aisling’s googlemaps navigation and got to the stadium handy enough in around a 20-minute walk. We arrived around 11am nice and early before other teams, which was good as it meant we got all our athlete accreditation done in an hour and any questions we had answered. Plus we had the honour of being the first from the club to step into the stadium 😊. After sorting out all that admin work, we waited for the others to arrive as they were getting the bus at 12.30pm from the hotel to the stadium and we would get lunch and then do a light training session. Noon arrived, followed swiftly by the team with lots of excited oohs and aahs as they entered the stadium. We took some snaps and handed out the team badges and lunch vouchers. And headed upstairs to the canteen to sample the local cuisine. With the canteen accommodating 32 teams with perhaps a 1000 or so people in total as well as 100 or more officials, it was understandable that the food would be simple and mass-produced. It was grand – I won’t say anymore as I don’t want to knock the effort of providing it ... but we ate in restaurants nearer the hotel on the remaining days.

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Second from the club to set foot in the stadium !

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After lunch we sat around for a while and then did a light training session from around 3pm with the warmup led by Sinead and then we split into groups for relays, distance, throws, jumps, hurdles etc just to get a small bit done at everything. While just a light session, it still took quite a while as we had only a few coaches to cover all of the events. Most of the group were finished up by 5pm and headed back on the bus. But a few of us were delayed finishing up on javelin, shot putt, pole vault, long jump etc so Aisling Laura Sinead Lorraine Caoilin Ciana Shauna and myself headed back at 6pm. Conditions had turned wet by then unfortunately as you might see in the background below.

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Mike Laura Lorraine Sinead Aisling Ciana and Caoilin finish training in the rain

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Lauren, Alisha, Siona, Arlene and Leanagh at the stadium on Friday

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Ailbhe, Ciara and Sarah at training in the stadium on Friday

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Alison and Eddie put the 4x100 relay team through their paces on Friday

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Leanagh, Shauna and Siona being ID-checked by the local Garda 

Aisling and myself had to do a quick turnaround at the hotel at that point as there was a technical meeting at 7pm in the stadium for the team leaders to receive information on the following days competition. So we got a taxi back down for 7pm for that meeting. It turned out to be a lengthy enough meeting with lots of information communicated and some interesting parts to it – in particular negotiation of the opening heights for high jump and pole vault by the different team managers and also a partly political debate at the end of the meeting about the future of the event. European Athletics are reviewing its format for future years and there is a fear that it will not be held – the clubs who have been at this event regularly were very strong on making the point that this event is vital for the future of athletics in Europe as it gives official European competition opportunities to a lot more club athletes than the individual European championships. So back to the hotel after the meeting and everyone hit down to nearby restaurants for some food. The hotel was in the centre of town so it was relatively easy to find good options for eating out which were not too far away. Bed early then for everyone as we had a busy day ahead.

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Sinead and Aisling represent the club in the opening ceremony

We had agreed to go in a few waves to the track on Saturday to suit competition times – Lorraine and Ellie were on early so myself and Daithi went with them at 8am, again it was nice to be there early as it took the pressure off. Both had to be in the call room around 9.30am. For those reading who not clear on what a call room is, for the bigger competitions athletes do not go straight to their event, instead they warmup as normal and around 30 minutes before their event (there is a strict timetable for it), they must be in the call room where they get checked in, numbers check, spikes check etc and put on their spikes and then they exit the call room to the track around 10 or more minutes before their event depending on which event, e.g. field events come out earlier to warmup at the event.

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Lorraine and Ellie our first competitors of the day, looking nervous on their way to the call room

So we familiarised ourselves with the location of the call room and Lorraine and Ellie warmed up. Unfortunately, it started raining at this point as they entered the call room and the rain persisted for their event making it a little more formidable as the 400m hurdles which Lorraine was doing and the high jump for Ellie are events where a slippy track does not at all help the performances. But it was the same for everyone, and perhaps we are a little more used to the rain than our opponents! 

There was a short opening ceremony where 2 leaders from each club were involved in a flag-carrying ceremony. Aisling and Sinead represented Craughwell in this and proudly waved the Irish flag and the Craughwell AC flag as they walked in procession with the other clubs onto the track.

Lorraine had the privilege of being the first athlete from the club into action where despite the rain streaming down during her event, she ran a 2-second PB for a time of 71.77 in the 400m hurdles – a super performance from an exceptionally dedicated athlete. Lorraine was followed quickly by Ellie in the high jump … with the rain pouring down at this point, conditions were very difficult for jumping but Ellie put in a fantastic performance with a 1.50m clearance which tied with 2nd and 3rd place but put Ellie 4th on countback of knocked bars. A tiny bit of luck at 1.55m would have seen Ellie take 2nd place in Europe!

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Lorraine in lane 6 at the start of the 400m hurdles

The second wave of athletes had arrived over from the hotel at this stage. Caoilin was next into action for the club in the shot putt which was being held in the adjacent National Throwing Centre … a 500m walk from the stadium. Caoilin had made a return to the sport earlier in the summer after an almost 2-year absence due to Leaving Cert and college but fantastic to see her back and in the squad and willing to take on the shot putt, not her preferred event as sprints and hurdles are her forte when she is back at full fitness. It was doubly hard in the throws as the Europeans are very proficient in the throws and it is the weakest group of events in our club due to spending more time on jumps, sprints, hurdles and distance running. Nevertheless Caoilin demonstrated great spirit to take it on and heaved the 4kg shot out to a PB of 6.95m to score a point for the team.

Caoilin was swiftly followed by Arlene who ran a strong 800m in a time of 2.27.49 – slightly down on her PB from 2018 but also an athlete who had to juggle leaving cert and athletics for the last 12 months and great that Arlene was willing to step up from her preferred event the 400m. Arlene later ran a blistering PB of 27.03 in the 200m. In the 100m races, Alisha raced to a fine time of 13.42 narrowly outside her PB with Ava and Siona both hitting PBs in their 100m race with superb runs of 13.53 and 14.08.

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Ava and Siona on their way to the 100m start line

Laura fired the javelin out to 19.16 and later leaped 4.97m in the long jump – super performances after having to ease back on training in the lead-in to the championships due to a bad knee injury and again super team spirit to take on the javelin which is not Laura’s preferred event despite being our club record holder in it. In the triple jump Leanagh leaped to a best of 9.95m – struggling a little with getting the mark right on the board but a very solid performance in elite European company. Ellie was back in action later when racing to a Craughwell club junior record of 16.97 in the 100m hurdles hitting the perfect 3 strides on each hurdle, a super achievement as Ellie had struggled to get the 3 strides the whole way in training but made it look so easy in Leiria.Freya knocked a whopping 1.5 seconds off her PB when placing an excellent 5th in the 400m in a time of 61.37 – a great reward for another exceptionally dedicated athlete who hardly ever misses a training session.

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Eva, Ellie, Siona (back) and Freya, Leanagh, Arlene (front) during the competition

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Ciana flying high over 2.40m in the pole vault

Ciana was another to exhibit fantastic team spirt in the pole vault. Ciana is our club record holder in the event which she had jumped in 2017 but again leaving cert and college got in the way of things and Ciana hadn’t done any pole vault training in almost 2 years but gamely restarted it this summer and had it not been such a wet day in Leiria, almost certainly would have jumped a PB. Ciana put together a string of nice clearances in Leiria up to 2.40m and exited at 2.60m.

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Sarah, Ciara and Ailbhe with coach Lisa

In the distance races, the club had more fine performances with a PB of 5.30.55 from Ciara in the 1500m and two incredible 21-second PBs of 13.06.89 from Sarah in the 3000m and 7.58.02 from Ailbhe in the 2000m steeplechase despite a fall at the water barrier. The strong performances continued in the throws with Aoife slinging the hammer out to 20.60 and Shauna spinning the discus out to a PB of 17.30 – again against formidable opponents from the European countries who dwarfed our girls in some cases.

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Rita and Aoife pictured after returning from the hammer at the nearby National Throwing Centre

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Mike and Shauna prior to the discus competition

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A rare picture of our fantastic team photographer Daithi with Ellie

The day wrapped up with two exhilarating performances in the relays with the team of Alisha, Freya, Ava and Laura racing to a time of 52.18 in the 4x100 and the team of Freya, Lorraine, Arlene and Ciana racing a time of 4.13.13 in the 4x400m. Arlene was particularly impressive in the relay, bombing around the track and closing in on the leaders – almost certainly Arlene’s preferred distance. The 4x400m is such an exciting race to watch as the race ebbs and flows depending on the relative strength of the athlete running each leg for opposing teams. Our girls’ time of 4.13.13 is a new club record – indicative of the standard of this event.

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Our 4x100m relay team of Freya, Ava, Laura and Alisha before heading to the call room

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Our 4x400m relay team in the mixed zone with Freya, Lorraine, Ciana and Arlene

When the team points were totaled at the end of the day, Craughwell AC placed 8th in the team event – a super performance with all the athletes close to or exceeding their best ever performances in their events. The club are immensely proud of the girls’ performances and their composure on the track when pitted against the best in Europe. It was certainly a step-up in grade for the club and the response of the 18 girls was tremendous. On a personal note, I could not have been prouder of the team as I had coached many of the older girls for nearly 14 years – more than three-quarters of their lifetimes! It was so lovely to see them get to the highest level of team competition in Europe as they approach 20 years old.

At the victory ceremony at the end, the team celebrated like champions, proudly racing around the infield with the Irish and the Craughwell AC flags. One could be forgiven for thinking that we had actually won the competition such was the excitement amongst the team! 

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Our older group of athletes with coach Mike during the celebrations at the end
Siona, Lorraine, Aisling, Caoilin and Ciana (back) Arlene, Shauna and Laura (front)

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Team manager and team captain Aisling and Laura enjoying the celebrations

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Celebrations after the event with a few stray Leevale lads squeezing into the photo

 

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Ciana on top of the world supported by Lorraine !!

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Sinead, Aisling and Caoilin enjoying the celebrations

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Ellie and Freya looking a little wet after leaping into the steeplechase water jump !

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Eva, Lorraine and Arlene enjoying the celebrations

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Ciana and Laura enjoying the celebrations

After an hour of celebrations, we collected our 4m equipment bag and headed off back to the hotel on the bus and dropped the bag in the lobby as it was too big to fit anywhere else! And headed off in smaller groups for food as we were all starving at this stage as we were at the track for almost 13 hours.

A nice meal and a few hours later (a good few hours) we got back to the hotel around 2am. The most bizarre incident of the weekend then occurred.

At 2am in the morning, the older girls in our group were amazingly telepathically aware of a potential problem with our pole vault bag and cunninghamly hatched a plan that kept me and Lucy up late on watch outside the building by pretending they wanted to head off to a party in another hotel at 2am. A group of foreign athletes were gathered under the windows of our girls’ first floor rooms at this stage trying to encourage them to come to this party. Naturally we felt that it wasn’t safe – a group of strangers, in an unknown location, in a strange city. So the ploy worked to get us on guard outside the building watching the group of foreign athletes yelling up at the windows and while we were there, the strangest thing happened.

The Estonian team were leaving for home at 2:30am in the morning and had got onto their bus just outside the hotel lobby. They arrived out with a large bag of poles marked Estonia. Then the driver and the team coach arrived out with our bag of poles and put it on their bus!!! So I stepped into the bus and tried to remonstrate with them that these were not their poles. They had no English and I had no Estonian so the argument didn’t really go anywhere quickly except they were quite agitated and I was quite insistent that this was our bag – pointing out that my name was on an A4 sheet of paper attached to the bag. Finally after what seemed like 10 minutes, they said “okei, sul võib see olla” and picked up the bag and passed it to me at the front of the bus. I said thank you in my best Estonian accent and walked off the bus and back into the hotel where the night manager locked it into a room for me. These bags are large awkward things. I am not accusing anyone of theft but it’s hard to imagine that if you came all the way from Estonia with 1 bag that you forgot you only had 1 bag and thought you had 2 bags to bring home.

Shortly after all that drama, Rita passed by me and Lucy and said “its ok I’m back safe” and headed into the hotel. What? Was she taken by the Estonians too? I hadn’t spotted her on the Estonian bus! Only to discover the next morning that when we parents were all dining in the town earlier, we had left the restaurant and walked back without Rita, leaving her abandoned and lost in the city. We were walking back in two groups – the men with Joseph and the women with Mary and Mary thought Rita was with Joseph and Joseph thought Rita was with Mary! It took her ages to find the way back to the hotel – her first thought when she saw us outside was that we were part of the search party and hence the “its ok I’m back safe” comment to us and then was very puzzled by our lack of response as we coped with an international crisis!

Anyways all’s well that ends well, we had our poles/bag back, we had Rita back, the girls decided not to go to the party and a quiet word with the foreign lads shouting up at the windows encouraged them to leave!

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Chilling at the beach!

The next day was a down day … we had planned a trip to a water park and beach around a 40 minute bus journey away. People took the chance of a lie-in for the morning except a few who got up to watch the Ireland-Scotland rugby game. We had hired a bus at 1pm to go to the beach/waterpark in nearby Vieria. Unfortunately when we got there, we discovered a padlock on the waterpark – closed until next summer as it’s off season – a real pity their website doesn’t include that sort of information! But it was right beside a fine beach so we headed there, camped outside a beach restaurant and just soaked up the sun while some got into the water. The waves were huge and the locals said the water was not that safe so people only went waist high and let the waves bash them a bit.

After a lovely relaxing afternoon which was just what the doctor ordered after such a busy saturday, we headed back to Leiria around 5pm and some went shopping, others went to the hotel pool and later out for our final meal. Back to the hotel then as we had an early 7.15am start the next morning for the airport and a very straightforward journey back to Dublin.

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Back in Dublin

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And back in Craughwell courtesy of Jody's
(and thanks John O'Connor for the homecoming photos - the first chance Daithi got to get in a photo!)

And back to Jody’s in Craughwell where we had a lovely greeting party to welcome us home off the bus in miserable wet conditions! We left our poles behind in a secure room in the hotel – 2 poleaxed experiences are plenty for 1 weekend and Alison is going to organize a courier to bring them home during the week.

All in all it was a wonderful weekend for the club and the girls and one that all present will have fond memories of it for many years to come. The club would like to again acknowledge the support of Jody’s SPAR/Topaz and of Celia and Paul Miskella of PM Technical in sponsoring the trip, the support of parents and of team physio Sinead Gaffney, team manager Aisling Keady and press officer Daithi Cronin who accompanied the team at the event and the tireless work of coaches Mike Tobin, Lisa Thomas, Mark Davis and Eddie McNally in coaching and preparing the team for the event.

Onwards and upwards and hopefully the first of many European team adventures!

To see more fantastic photographs of before, during and after our wonderful trip, click on the flickr links below:-

 A massive thanks to both Daithi and John for the super photographs.

Monday the 21st. .