Deirdre Gallagher was only 16 when she received the call to present herself at Gormanston College. A training camp for Ireland’s top five athletes in every track and field discipline had been arranged and Gallagher’s name was on the list.
This was 1990 and the Ballina teenager had won the junior walk in record time at the Irish Schools championships the year before. Now here she was in the company of Olympic royalty.
Jimmy McDonald from New Ross had competed in Seoul two years earlier and when landing to Gormanston had not long become the first race-walker on the planet to break the 11-minute barrier for the 3k outdoors.
He remains the youngest man to win an Irish senior road title — running or walking — when claiming victory in the 20k walk back in 1982, just 84 days after his 18th birthday.
“I was very inspired by his achievements and by training with him for the weekend,” Deirdre Gallagher recalled this week. “It really highlighted the gap between what I was doing and what I needed to do to make that jump to compete at international level.
“It was the first time I realised that this was something I’d really like to work hard at.”
It was that same weekend that the athletes were sat down and asked to put down in writing what they hoped to achieve from their sport in the next four to five years.
“In typical Irish style I cupped my hand over the page so no one would see what I was writing into my copybook,” laughs Deirdre now. “I wrote down that I’d love to compete in the Olympics.”
A year after Gormanston, Jimmy McDonald placed seventh at the World Indoors and when the next Olympics came around in Barcelona he gave what then was the greatest walk by an Irish athlete, finishing sixth.
The Wexford man won the national 10k nine times in-a-row and comfortably qualified for a third Olympics. And when on that balmy Friday night of July 19, 1996 McDonald and the rest of the Irish team walked into Atlanta’s 85,000 seat Centennial Stadium for the opening ceremony of the XXVI Olympiad, who too was marching behind the tricolour? Deirdre Gallagher. Six days after her 22nd birthday. The dream she had once kept hidden in a school copybook was being realised in front of a television audience of a billion.
Bridging a gap of 88-years, Gallagher was the first Mayo person to qualify for an Olympic Games since the legendary Martin Sheridan – and the first Mayo woman; a trailblazer in the truest sense of the word.
“I can still see that steep ramp down into the stadium and remember that feeling of entering for the first time. It was something you had dreamt about for years. It will always stay with me.
“It was a few days in advance of my race so it suited me to take part and I’m glad I did because I still see some of the clips on Reeling in the Years and can pick myself out.”
If there is such thing as a happy accident then Deirdre Gallagher’s introduction to the sport was exactly that. A competent cross-country runner from an early age, it was after a Connacht Primary Schools meet that she chanced a go at a walking competition that had also been organised. Her best was more than good enough to win the race. It just so happened that among the audience was Joe Doonan, Ireland’s race-walking coach.
“He came over to myself and my parents afterwards and said I was naturally quite good at it and encouraged me to keep it up.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Enrolling at St Mary’s Secondary School in Ballina, Gallagher and the cross-country team would continuously place in the top three schools in the country all the way through to senior level. But dedicating the summer track season to race-walking and the winter to cross-country could only work for so long. The time for a decision as to her future direction was always going to arrive. And yet in many respects there was no decision for making.
Having won the junior, intermediate and senior walks at the Irish Schools championships inside four years, and smashing the existing record each time, there was an obvious reason to specialise. Only 77 Irish schools champions have gone on to become Olympians; Gallagher is the only from Mayo.
By the time she was 17 Deirdre was on a plane bound for South Korea. Although she had already competed at the European Cup of Race-walking Championships in Hungary, this was on a different scale altogether; the 1992 World Junior Athletics Championships, in Seoul, the place where Jimmy McDonald, as Ireland’s first Olympic race-walker in 24 years, had lit that spark four years earlier.
Included in a small Irish team of six athletes, one of whom was another future Olympian in 800m specialist David Matthews, this was the Mayo woman’s first big international track and field meet. And she liked the taste.
“Because of the nine hour time difference we were advised in advance of going by the team manager Patsy McGonigle to start going to bed an hour later each night and getting up an hour earlier so that by the time we travelled we were having our meals at the local time. Even all that is an experience, you felt you were becoming more like a professional athlete and more focused on competing well and getting the best out of yourself. And to compete in an Olympic stadium was a huge honour.”
Deirdre stopped the clock for the 5k in 24:59.45m to finish 25th overall when still young enough for the following year’s European Juniors in San Sebastian.
So rapid was Gallagher’s progress that after Spain she would make the transition from junior to senior international in the space of just one year.
“I went from competing at the European Juniors in ’93 over the 5k distance to making the jump to 10k the following year and making the qualification standard to be selected for the European Seniors.
“The hardest jump was that first year, doubling the distance. I had also started in UCD and benefited from training with a group of other athletes; they brought me along a lot as well. But all that extra mileage in ’94, as well as balancing exams and all the rest, that’s what was most difficult.” And yet the rewards were there for all to see.
Along with finishing 25th at the Europeans in Helsinki, Gallagher had that year won Irish titles at 3k, 5k and 10k in the quickest times yet — but even better things lay in store.
The Penn Relays Championships in Philadelphia is the oldest and largest track and field competition in the United States, an event that attracts some of the best college athletes across the globe. The esteem in which they’re held is perhaps best reflected by Usain Bolt’s return to compete there in 2010 when he was already a triple Olympic gold medallist.
Back in April 1995, Deirdre Gallagher had become the first Irish athlete ever to win a gold medal there, setting a new Irish record for the 3k Walk. It was the perfect lead-in to that summer’s IAAF World Championships in Gothenburg where she set a new Irish 10k record as well, and the World Student Games in Fukuoka, Japan where she placed 13th. And yet that time of 46:00 in Gothenburg – which had helped her to 33rd position — was still 30seconds off the qualifying standard for the next year’s Olympics. There was only one thing for it. Postpone her final year at UCD and dedicate every waking and walking hour to qualification for Atlanta.
The gamble paid off when Deirdre, still only 21, found another 48seconds to hit the ‘A’ standard in February 1996 at a Grand Prix in the Isle of Man. She remembers the relief as much as the satisfaction.
“You don’t want to find yourself in the situation where you’re chasing times right up the last minute because there’s only so many 10ks you can race hard during the year. You have to be selective in the races that you pick.”
It was with that in mind that her coach Michael Lane from Mullingar Harriers had suggested they aim for an early race.
“That course in the Isle of Man is popular with race-walkers and I had competed there before so things just went right. Training had been going well so it was great to get it done early in the year and to guarantee — assuming that I passed medicals and stayed injury free — that I had my selection.”
The stifling humidity of Atlanta five months later was never going to allow for anything quicker than the 45:12 which had qualified Deirdre for the Olympics (that was to remain her best 10k time) and yet when placing 23rd in 45:47, it still represented more than three minutes of an improvement since her debut in senior competition just two years earlier. Second youngest in the race, her contentment at her performance was justified.
“Even how I handled my coach’s advice; they had told me to take the first 5k a little more conservatively and then race hard for the second half of the race, purely because of the weather conditions. It was amazing to see how girls who would have been ranked ahead of me got into difficulty with the heat.”
Spain’s Encarna Grandos, who had won bronze at the World Championships three years earlier, was among those not to finish the race. Five more in the field of 44 were disqualified, including Russia’s Irina Stankina who had won Gallagher’s 10k races at the World Championships the year previous and the World Juniors in ’94.
Deirdre ended up crossing the line just 45seconds behind Sari Essayah, the 1993 World champion and 1994 European champion. The Finn is now an MEP.
“A lot of good athletes either collapsed or struggled with the heat so I was very happy with my performance,” admits Deirdre.
The race had taken place on Atlanta’s roads but finished with a full lap of the Olympic Stadium. It was a proud moment not just for the athlete but for her family who had also travelled.
Garda sergeant Danny Gallagher had first acquainted his daughter with athletics when he coached at Ballycastle Athletic Club during the Ballina family’s six years domiciled in the seaside village. Mum Breege, sister Anne, brothers Seán and Donal, and Deirdre’s now husband James Clarke were in the US too, all to see their heroine take her place in history.
“As you progress and get more competitive, you’re not just happy to be there on the start line, you want to place as highly as you can. You learn to blank out the occasion and treat it as another race. You’re trying not to get nervous and put extra pressure on yourself.
“I still would have enjoyed every championship but you’re there to achieve something and to do the best you can and after that then you might relax and enjoy the atmosphere of it all a bit more.”
The ’96 Games are best remembered from an Irish perspective for the elation — and then the suspicions — surrounding Michelle Smith’s four goal medals in the pool, and for the huge sympathy towards reigning World champion Sonia O’Sullivan who totally misfired on the track in the 5000 and 1500metres.
O’Sullivan had made a run for the exit tunnel with two laps of her 5k final remaining and four days later she finished second from last in her heat of the 1500m.
“I really did feel sorry for Sonia having been at the World and European senior championships with her the previous years,” recalls Deirdre Gallagher. “She was such a good ambassador and to me, a genuine, clean athlete. It was heart-breaking for us all to see it crumble and not go to plan for her in Atlanta because she was so deserving of an Olympic medal that year.
“Michelle stayed in the village but not in the same house as us. I was at one of her races and there was great excitement at the time over her medals. The homecoming afterwards was all focused on that and on her victories.”
A year later Gallagher qualified for her second World Championships but injury in the run-up forced her withdrawal from Athens and by 1999 she had decided to call it quits. Retired at 25. Most race-walkers are still several years off their peak at that stage but Ireland’s finest had struggled physically to adapt to the demands of the women’s walk which had now increased to 20k, in line with the men..
“I raced a few 20k events, including the World Cup in France, but I found I was more prone to injury. The increased distance really required full-time training and at that point I had started to focus more on my working career,” says Deirdre, who works at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in Ballina.
“Looking back, you’d loved to have been at that level now where a lot of the top athletes train together or had the opportunity to go to training camps, the likes of which the Australian athletes were in at the time. We didn’t have that luxury, even though we had a lot of support. You don’t achieve anything in these individual events on your own; it’s part of a bigger package of family support and from your club and your coaches.
“There is the centre in Abbotstown now where dieticians and physios and all that is available to you while you’re training on campus. There’s very well organised warm weather training camps and all the rest. To have had that and to have seen the difference it might have made, especially on diet and strength and conditioning, and sports psychology, all that, would have been interesting. We’d have tapped into it a little but not to the extent that athletes do now.
“The whole area of sports science has progressed so much in the last 20 years. Were other athletes 20 years ago in the same situation that I was? Is it always a level playing field? Probably not at world level because other countries have invested monies into institutes of sport. But I think we have probably caught up a bit more in Ireland,” believes Gallagher, who now coaches Connacht’s top young middle distance athletes. She was also appointed coach to Ireland’s team at last year’s European Cup of Racewalking in Lithuania.
“You learn from what worked for you as an athlete. You’re always learning really. Different training styles suit different athletes so you have to tailor training to suit an athlete; some will perform better on a higher mileage programme while others might have a tendency to get injured easier. What works for one doesn’t always work for the other.”
It’s a knowledge that comes from hard earned personal experience. And what an experience it was.