Athlone IT was host to the 2009 National Community Games finals at the weekend, with the athletics interest being the eagerly awaited cross-country finals. This was the first time that the National finals were held outside their long-time home in Mosney and undoubtedly had some teething difficulties – but overall it seemed to be a great success and certainly the facilities in the college were far superior and more comfortable than their equivalents in Mosney.
It will take a while though for the legend of Mosney to be replaced by the new venue, but a new generation of participants, managers and officials will build their own legends in Athlone!
There were five cross country events in all – U12 girls relay (600m-400m-600m-400m), U12 boys relay, U14 girls relay (800m-600m-800m-600m, U14 boys relay and U13 mixed girls/boys 1200m race. The weather conditions for the semi-finals on Saturday started off ok but quickly descended into an unpleasant steady drizzle which never let up for the duration of the semi-finals. The cross-country course was already tough enough for the young participants without the rain. The recent building activity in Athlone had stripped the grass from some of the surface and the rainfall turned these parts of the course into a mud-bath which saw many an athlete take a tumble. Cross country purists would argue that these are the perfect conditions for cross country – but in this case, these young athletes were prohibited by Community Games rules from wearing running spikes or any type of studs which made the course extremely difficult under the wet conditions. Thankfully, weather conditions for the finals improved dramatically on Sunday, with the sun shining throughout – helping the clothes to dry from the day before!
With 5 teams to qualify from each semi-final, the plan was not to race too hard on the Saturday and try to qualify without expending too much energy. In the U12 girls’ age group, Galway had a very strong team comprising Grace Cahill (Athenry), Grainne McDaid (Craughwell), Laura Ann Costello (Milltown), Rachel O’Brien (Claregalway), Tara McNally (Kilnadeemna) and Shauna Hynes (Milltown). In the semi-finals, Rachel ran steadily in the first 600m leg, not getting excited when at the back of the field and steadily moving up the field to pass to Grainne in 4th place. Knowing that she was going to be rested for the final, Grainne ran a tremendous 400m leg moving the team up into 2nd place and passing to Grace who ran a strong steady pace to hand off to Laura Ann who led the team to a safe 2nd place finish.
In the final on Sunday, Laura Ann led out the team in a very strong first leg to lead into the hand-over to Grace for the 400m leg. Grace ran a fantastic leg and despite a slip just after one hairpin bend, she recovered and handed off to Rachel in the lead. Rachel sped off with the baton as the chasing Laois athlete narrowed the gap. Closing all the time, after 300m the Laois athlete moved ahead – we understand it’s a girl named Aoife Campion who finished 2nd in the AAI U12 cross country last year – and built a lead going into the final changeover. Tara grabbed the baton for the final 400m and settled into a strong pace. Behind by about 20m or more with 150m left, Tara went into a full sprint and had almost caught her opponent on the line but had to settle for silver medals in a fine Galway team performance. Shauna was substitute on this occasion and ran a very impressive race in the U12 substitutes’ race which was held before the final. For Shauna, Laura Ann and Grainne – this was their 2nd successive silver medal in this age group, having been part of last year’s medal-winning team also.
The boys U12 race was off next where again we had an exceptionally strong team of Aidan Conneely (Ardrahan), Colin Cotton (Ahascragh), David Carter (Moycullen), Jack Fitzpatrick (Athenry), John Maher (Salthill) and Keegan Kelly (Milltown). In the semi-finals, the team cruised to an easy 2nd place finish with David leading out the first leg and passing to Colin on the 2nd. Colin blazed around the first hairpin bend, swinging wide to pass an opponent and came down like a tonne of bricks on the slippery surface. Thankfully these Cotton boys are made of stern stuff and he bounced off the Athlone turf and back onto his feet to chase down the athletes ahead and move the team back into strong contention in 2nd place before passing to Keegan for the next leg. Keegan ran a strong race to put the team into the lead before handing off to Aidan, who ran off conservatively and displaying great maturity slipped back into 2nd place to easily qualify the team for the finals. The preparation for the final wasn’t entirely smooth as Keegan battled with nerves which made him quite ill beforehand. A quick switch of the running order to put him 2nd or 3rd settled things a little before deciding just before the race that he was good for the 3rd leg and the 600m distance – important for the team as he was the strongest runner. Jack took the first leg in the final and had the team well in contention by the end of the 600m, with John taking up the charge at that point and handing off to Keegan with the team in medal territory. Keegan moved into 2nd early in his race with only the Kerry athlete ahead at this point. The lead was substantial and Galway ate away at it slowly. When Aidan got the baton on the final leg, there was still a gap of 20 or 30m and while it may have closed a little, it proved too far a gap to bridge and the team ran home to another set of super silver medals.
Next into the fray were the U14 girls –Emily Gavin (Claregalway), Katie Carter (Moycullen), Lorna Hannon (Athenry), Marie Touhy (Athenry), Orlaith McGrath (Bullaun) and Sarah Molloy (Craughwell). In the semi-finals a day earlier, Katie had put heart and soul into the first 800m leg to put the team into 2nd or 3rd place and set them up for qualifying – with Lorna, Marie and Orlaith completing the line up to finish in 3rd place in the semis. The final proved a different story – Marie had a difficult time with nerves before the race but battled this to lead the team out in the first leg. Struggling a little in the early part of the race with a possible muscle strain, Marie ran a great 2nd half of the race to try to close on the leading pack and handed off to Sarah in possibly 7th place. The baton slipped from either Marie’s or Sarah’s hand right at the changeover as another county zipped past to move us to 8th place – although we only lost a couple of metres as a result. Sarah stuck to her task and held her position to pass to Orlaith who ran a very strong leg to close the gap and set Lorna up for a good finish. Lorna ran the race of her life in the final leg, overtaking again and again to move the team up into 5th position by the end of the race – a fantastic performance and very close to nailing 4th place which would have yielded medals for the team. Emily didn’t get to run in the main race but ran a very good race in the substitutes U14 race and is a runner with a lot more to offer in the future.
Final relay was the U14 boys – Conor Gillen (Athenry), Eamonn Mannion (Killererin), Keith Crehan (NBT), Noel Cotton (Ahascragh), Paul Fitzpatrick (Craughwell) and Shaun Collins (Cappataggle). A strong performance in the semi-finals saw Eamonn leading off in the first leg, passing to Noel who ran strongly top place the team in 2nd before passing to Conor who held 2nd place and onto Paul to easily qualify for the final. In the final, it looked like the other semi-final had all the big guys in it as some of the runners towered over our team. Eamonn led out the team in a tough first leg, with some very strong running by a few of the other counties setting Galway back. There was nothing that could be done in that first leg because some of these guys were men – not U14s. (I could have sworn I saw a few of them shaving before the race … rule 14 says U14s aren’t allowed to run cross country with beards or spikes J). Passing to Keith for the 2nd leg, Keith tore off on his 600m in fine style and passed to Conor for the tough 800m leg who ran strongly to hand off to Paul. I’m not sure at which leg we started to pick off runners but particularly noticed it in Paul’s leg – he ran a very strong race to close into 5th place by the finish line and wasn’t far at all from taking 4th. A fine team performance in a very tough race. Shaun Collins (Cappataggle) was the remaining member of the team but due to an injury came along to support the team and was unable to run.
They say they keep the best wine until last and so it was with the U13 mixed boys/girls cross country race. This is traditionally the toughest race of them all – an unrelenting 1200m race, the race no one used to want to run in Galway, the race where Co. Clare held a stranglehold on the National title for 9 years until Galway took it from them in 2007, the race where this year Galway had another exceptional team taking part. Unlike the other races, this is not a relay. It’s a regular cross country race with a difference – boys and girls run together. 10 team members with 4 boys and 4 girls to score. Galway’s team were Alanna Lally (Abbey), Cathal Reilly (Carherlestrane), Elizabeth Maher (Salthill), Emilio Burke (Killimor), Jamie Spelman (Craughwell), Keelan Ryan (Craughwell), Meadhbh Brannigan (Newcastle), Michelle Burke (Ballinasloe), Nicholas Sheehan (Oranmore) and Veronica Burke (Ballinasloe). We were quietly confident of a good performance as many of these team members do very well in AAI cross country. The semi finals went well with the team well up towards the front and having the luxury of taking it relatively easy for the final 400m. In the final, the race got underway at pace, with Nicholas and Alanna leading many of the Galway athletes out in a strong start. The race ran around 2 laps of the 600m loop and as the runners passed on the 2nd lap, it was clear that we were doing very very well. Nicholas ran a blinder of a race to claim 4th place overall. Alanna wasn’t far behind, coming in at 12th place and 2nd place in the individual girls’ rankings. The rest of the team followed closely – Cathal in 18th (a fantastic performance from a guy who doesn’t do much running but whose mum informed me that he won a National boxing title 3 weeks ago!), Meadhbh in 23rd place and possibly the 5th girl home, Keelan in 24th place despite a fall early in the race, Emilio in 25th place with a big improvement on his semi-final run, Veronica in 28th, Jamie in 31st, Michelle in 38th and Elizabeth in 50th.
This was a fantastic team performance which would normally be good enough to win the event. After an anxious wait for the official result of the competition, Galway was declared the winners with Sligo in 2nd place. Unofficially both teams were told their points total was 172 points for Galway and 178 for Sligo. However, an objection from the Sligo management resulted in the result been reversed and despite a counter-appeal from Galway, the team had to settle for silver medals – reportedly losing out by the margin of a single point, 171 Sligo versus 172 Galway. At the time of the counter-appeal, we believed that Galway had 169 points and should have won the event. This belief was not helped by the lack of transparency in the results as the practise is just to list the first four teams and not publish their total points or individual places. But on a closer examination of unofficial videos of the finish later that day, it looks like the official Galway score was correct and that we were correctly awarded the silver medals. The Galway team can be immensely proud of their achievement in winning silver medals in an intensely competitive National final. Congratulations to the Sligo team on their victory and they were right to appeal given the closeness of the result and the miscalculation of their points, as were Galway given our belief that our points total was also miscalculated.