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Ciara Mageean is ready to make her mark at Rio Olympics

Ireland's Ciara Mageean celebrates her bronze medal in the Women's 1,500m final at this year's European Athletic Championships at the Olympic Stadium, Amsterdam

Ciara Mageean has experienced plenty of highs, and a few lows, in her career, but she is in the form of her life as she prepares to step onto the biggest stage of all. Malcolm McCausland looks at her journey so far...

THE smile on her face said it all as she received her bronze medal at the recent European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam. It had been a tough few years for Ciara Mageean, but she was back where she belonged - on the podium at a major championships.

It is a long way from St Patrick’s Park in Portaferry to the Engenão Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. But the journey to her first Olympics has been much longer for Mageean. Born into a family whose life revolves around hurling and the local St Patrick’s club, her childhood ambition could easily have been to represent Down in an All-Ireland camogie final at Croke Park.

It’s possible she may have spent her entire sporting career in the blue and gold of Portaferry had it not been for an astute PE teacher who spotted her athletic potential during her third year Assumption Grammar School in Ballynahinch. Mageean was then introduced to coach Eamonn Christie and her running career took off.

Growing up at the tip of the Ards peninsula meant she would begin her school day with an early morning ferry trip across Strangford Lough to catch the bus to Ballynahinch. On Tuesday evenings she wouldn’t come home at all, instead heading to Belfast after school to train under Christie at Beechmount Harriers before staying with her sister, who was at Queen’s University.

Most other nights, she trained alone on the Portaferry hurling pitch. Success came almost immediately as she shone over longer distances, claiming Irish schools and Athletics England titles over 3000m as a 15-year-old. She also won Ulster and national cross country titles in her age group.

The following year, 2008, saw further progress, but over shorter distances. Now firmly committed to the 1500m, the girl from the Ards peninsula collected a string of victories at provincial and national level. However, her first appearance on the international stage proved problematic.

She claimed the bronze medal in the 1500m at the Commonwealth Youth Games in India but came away from the 800m empty-handed after finishing fifth behind South Africa’s Caster Semenya and complaining of “Delhi belly”. The following year was not very old when she broke through at senior level in sensational style.

Still aged just 16, Mageean won her first Irish senior title at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast, chopping two seconds off the Irish junior 1500m indoor record with a 4:20.88 mark. Comparisons with the woman whose record she broke were obvious. Sonia O’Sullivan did not win her first senior title until she was 17, a feat many thought would never be equalled, let alone beaten.

That same year, and now turned 17, Mageean turned up at the Irish Schools Championships in Tullamore and drew further comparisons with the Cork legend when she won the 800m in a sensational time of 2:05.38. That eclipsed O’Sullivan’s record, which had stood for 22 years.

If that was not enough, she came out less than two hours later and won the 1500m by a full 10 seconds in 4:34.25. Her first international title followed shortly afterwards when she registered a gun-to-tape victory in the 1500m at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Tampere, Finland.

Her time of 4:15.46 was another Irish junior record and also bettered the championship best performance of a certain Gabriela Szabo, who had beaten O’Sullivan into second place in the 5000m at the Sydney Olympics. A silver medal followed in the 800m at the world juniors in Italy. She equalled that feat in 2010 with another silver medal, this time in the 1500m, at the World Junior Championships in Moncton, Canada, lowering her national junior record further to 4:09.51.

Her form tapered off in 2011, although she won yet another silver in the 1500m at European juniors in Estonia. That dip in form continued into Olympic year in 2012 as she missed out on selection for London, despite holding a ‘B’ standard time, before Mageean was sidelined with a heel spur injury that threatened to end her career.

Protracted medical treatment and a change of coach to Jerry Kiernan followed before she reappeared to win the Irish 1500m title in good style late in 2014. It has been a gradual ascent back towards the top since, but events in Amsterdam proved that, at the age of 24, she is ready to make a serious impact at her first Olympics.

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