Olympians showed pride but Paralympians were Ireland's stars of 2016

Glengormley’s Michael McKillop (left) won the T37 1,500m gold medal at the Rio Paralympics and Derry sprinter Jason Smyth took a third straight gold in the T13 100m event
Pictures by Sportsfile

2016 proved a mixed bag in terms of medals on both the home and international fronts for Irish athletes, but our Paralympians proved to be quite Rio-markable. Malcolm McCausland rounds up the year...    

RECORD participation numbers and races in places where there were not even places not that long ago... but few medals on the international stage was the summary in brief for Irish athletics in 2016. 

Performances at the Olympics and European Championships were encouraging - but it was Ireland’s Paralympic athletes who inspired once again. The Antrim International kicked off the year in style with Bahrain’s Aweke Ayalew dashing Ugandan Thomas Ayeko’s hopes of a hat-trick of wins in the men’s race. Kenya’s Alice Aprot also defied the odds to win the women’s races despite the presence of three former winners in the field.

There was an Ulster double at the National Masters’ & Intermediate Cross Country Championships in Dundalk. Cavan’s Cian O’Reilly scored the biggest victory of his career to date to claim the intermediate men’s title, while City of Derry’s Declan Reed turned in a virtuoso performance to retain his Masters’ title.

January ended with Springwell’s Neil Johnston winning the provincial intermediate title on home ground at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. Newcastle’s Shalane McMurray won the women’s race and Inishowen’s Pauric McKinney was the top Master.

The Armagh International was the outstanding fixture in February as Sara Treacy claimed a home win in a star-studded ladies’ 3000m. Aided by the relatively mild conditions, an unprecedented 66 runners broke 15 minutes in the men’s 5K with Britain’s Charlie Hulson swooping for a late victory.

In an unfortunate clash of dates, the NI & Ulster Senior Cross Country was decided just two days later with Newcastle dethroning City of Derry Spartans as men’s champions. Yet, the north-west club did supply the individual winner in Aaron Doherty. Shalane McMurray took the women’s individual crown and Beechmount took the team championship.

James Edgar from Friends School and Loreto, Cavan’s Clodagh O’Reilly were top of the form at the Ulster Schools Cross Country at Mallusk. Ciara Mageean starred as northern athletes picked up a hatful of gold medals at the National Indoor Championships. The Portaferry woman had set an Irish 1,500m record early in the month, but dropped down in distance to win the 800m in Athlone.

Letterkenny’s Mark English concluded his preparations for the World Indoors with a smooth win in the 800m, but fortune was to intervene as he broke a bone in his foot the week before he was to travel.

Annadale Strider Paul Pollock provided the highlight of March when he ran the race of his life to finish 14th in the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff. Irish racewalkers Robert Heffernan and Olive Loughnane were upgraded to Olympic bronze and World gold medals respectively after the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld appeals filed by the IAAF against Russian athletes.

May saw Kenya’s Joel Kositany gain his third victory in the 35th Belfast City Marathon after an exciting four-way battle for most of the distance. In the women’s race, the 2015 winner, Berhan Gebremichael from Ethiopia, led all the way to win the women’s race, but only had 29 seconds to spare over Kilkeel’s Laura Graham at the finish.

The Belfast International Meeting at the Mary Peters Track, organised by Beechmount Harriers, drew praise from all quarters after an excellent afternoon’s athletics. Irish 400m record-holder David Gillick continued his comeback and prodigal daughter Ciara Mageean received a warm welcome on a return to the track where she had cut her teeth.

The Irish Schools Track and Field Championships in Tullamore passed a significant milestone in June with the event celebrating its centenary. Nine schools competed in 1916, but this year close to 300 took part.

Ciara Mageean made light of the continuous rain and cool temperatures to power to a fast 800m at the Northern Ireland & Ulster Senior Championships. Poor weather conditions, and a timetable clash with the Republic of Ireland’s European Championships match with France, also took away from the usual atmosphere at the National Senior Championships in Morton Stadium, Dublin.

Mageean capped a memorable final day for Irish athletics at the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam. In possibly the slowest ever-continental women’s championship 1500m, Mageean (left) produced a lightning fast finish to snatch the bronze medal in the final few metres.

Thomas Barr narrowly missed out on bronze at the Rio Olympics  

All eyes were on Rio in August and, although there were no medals from our athletes, there were encouraging performances across the board. Waterford 400m hurdler Thomas Barr had missed the Europeans earlier in the year through injury, but he roared back to full form and an exceptional fourth place, missing out on the bronze medal by just 
500ths of a second.

Cork’s 38-year-old Robert Heffernan was an excellent fifth in the 50K Walk and, later in the year, collected the bronze medal from London in the event after a Russian had been disqualified. Letterkenny man Mark English also recovered from injury to make the semi-finals of the 800m, as did Portaferry’s Ciara Mageean in the 1,500m. Derry woman Aileen Reid improved on her disappointing London performance to take a creditable 21st in the Triathlon before emigrating to the Gold Coast in Australia.

Ireland’s Paralympic athletes lit up an otherwise quiet September. Limited to just one event in Rio, Michael McKillop and Jason Smyth delivered confident and impressive victories in their respective events. Orla Barry and Niamh McCarthy both struck silver, while there was a bronze for Noelle Lenihan - all in throwing events.

Orangegrove AC hosted arguably the best domestic fixture of the year in the NI & Ulster Road Relays with the four titles won by four different clubs and Derry Track Club setting a new record in the men’s race. The Dublin Marathon was again the highlight of the autumn road running season, with Laura Graham adding the Irish title to the half-marathon crown annexed earlier in the year.

The European Cross Country probably typified the whole of 2016 for Irish athletics with Fionnuala McCormack falling just short of a medal with a fighting fifth place in the senior women’s race.

Close but no cigar... except perhaps for those magic Paralympians.

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