By Anthony Hennigan
Elitism. It’s unfortunate that is has become something of a dirty word because consider the Oxford Dictionary’s definition, ‘… dominance by a select group’, and there seems no better noun to describe the sort of company that Natalie Davey used to keep.
This year marks the 31st anniversary of a quite remarkable achievement by the girl from Charlestown, when she won a fourth consecutive All-Ireland Schools 1500-metres title. Junior champion in 1987, Davey had scooped the intermediate title in ’88 and retained that twelve months later to already become the first athlete in the history of Schools’ athletics to win a third straight Irish title, doing so in Belfield, Dublin on June 3. She had 10 seconds to spare over her nearest challenger. And yet the best was yet to come.
Winning the prestigious senior 1500m final was, however, only half of a quite remarkable double achieved by the Mayo teen in 1990, as that was also the year Natalie Davey won the All-Ireland Schools 3000m senior cross-country championship. It’s possible you’ve heard of the previous three winners – Sonia O’Sullivan, in ‘86, Catherina McKiernan in ‘87 and Sinead Delahunty in ‘88. One became Ireland’s greatest ever athlete, another won the London, Berlin and Amsterdam marathons and, quite remarkably, for four years running, placed second at the World cross country finals. Delahunty, too, was of a quality that she raced at two Olympic Games and two World Championships.
But O’Sullivan never managed Davey’s schools’ double, nor McKiernan for that matter. Delahunty did, a year previous actually, and together the pair would hop the pond to the United States to avail of scholarships at Rhode Island’s Providence College, never to return to the auld sod, save for the odd holiday.
“I do regret that,” admits Natalie now. “I am very, very happy out in Boulder but I do regret not being back among the people who were there in the beginning before I left. They’re all still there, thank goodness, but I often question if I should have gone back earlier and settled down.”
Situated 1,655 metres above sea level, which is higher than if plonking Croagh Patrick on top of Nephin, the city of Boulder is still only in the foothills of northern Colorado’s phenomenal Rocky Mountains. But it’s actually in Burlington, Vermont where Natalie takes the call to reminisce about her days as one of Ireland’s outstanding track and cross-country prospects. A med surgical nurse, and mother to 12-year-old Caelan, she availed of a travel contract to work in an area less impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic which has raged worse in America than most other places on the planet. 1,900 miles to the northeast and taking mum and son nearly a week to drive there, Vermont is almost as near to Charlestown as it is to Boulder.
“It’s hard to believe it’s 30 years, it only feels like yesterday,” reflects Natalie, who won Mayo Sports Stars Awards in 1988 and 1990 on account of a glittering underage athletics career that began when she represented Charlestown as a 14-year-old at the Community Games. Within two years she was representing the Irish Schools team in Sweden. Then came a bronze medal at a junior international in Brussels, selection for the World junior cross-country championships in Norway and her appointment as captain of the Irish team for the Home Countries’ International 15,000m in Santry. All by the time she was 17.
“I’ll never forget the day I won my first All-Ireland Schools. I was 14 or 15. The Track and Fields were in Belfield in Dublin and it felt huge at the time, it was really exciting. I have really fond memories of all the support I got from people.
“My dad got us all joined up with Claremorris Athletic Club and they were fabulous. I had a really good coach there, Christy Heneghan. There were the Sheridans from Balla as well, the late Mae Sheridan, she was very much involved, and her son John. The club was a huge part of my success. And my dad, of course, was wonderful and very supportive and really excited for me.”
Frank Davey was well known across the county at the time, as doctor to the Mayo senior football team that in 1989 ended a 38-year wait to reach the All-Ireland SFC final. Formerly a GP in Charlestown, Frank and wife Eileen have four children, Natalie, Neville, Gregory and Mary Frances. Neville, too, was a talented runner who also took up a scholarship in Providence, but at Brown University, and he ranked as one of Ireland’s top 1500m runners around the start of the millennium. Neville, like his older sister, has remained in the USA ever since.
Natalie hadn’t yet turned 18 when she crossed the Atlantic in 1990 to begin her freshman year in Providence College, travelling as a holder of twelve national and three international gold medals. The scholarship entitled her to free board, room and tuition for four years. She studied sports psychology and medicine.
To say her rise there on the athletics front was meteoric and her impact instant is something of an understatement. Before her first year was out, together with the more experienced Anita Philpott, Geraldine Nolan and Geraldine Hendricken, Natalie was part of the college’s all-Irish relay team that set a world record time of 17:22.30 for the 4x1500m at the historic Penn Relays. Their record stood for more than eight years until finally broken by Australia in 2000.
“It was daunting yet exciting at the same time, it just seemed incredible. I couldn’t believe that I could do this but I’m glad I did. I was very young at the time, only 17, so it was really important to keep a good head on young shoulders. That can be challenging for any 17-year-old. I just remember being super excited yet a little bit sad to leave what I was used to, but when I got to Providence itself they were very welcoming. There was a good international mix of runners and Ray Treacy had a nice little system there so you still felt pretty close to home. It felt very safe for the most part.”
Waterford native Ray Treacy has been coaching at Providence since 1985 having previously attended along with older brother John – yes, Olympic silver medallist John – in he 1970s. Indeed so revered on campus is Ray, the athletics track now bears his name. A more recent protégé, Knockmore’s long-distance runner Hugh Armstrong, who ran in the recent World Half-Marathon Championships, still counts Ray Treacy as his coach despite graduating from Providence some three years ago.
The world was a much less connected place in 1990 and a Mayo teenager bound for the US would have had fewer tools than nowadays to research just what lay ahead. Natalie Davey remembers how much of an exploration her first year, in particular, at Providence College really was.
“It was a whole different ball game starting out there. The different competitions and meets were in themselves a big adventure. Getting to see so many different parts of the East Coast and just adjusting to American life in general. All that was very different. I think I embraced it really, out of curiosity to see what was next, and to focus on the next race.
“There was a lot of pressure to perform for sure, but it was a good experience and I feel very grateful.”
In a demonstration of how good in such a short space of time Davey had become, the 4:17.84 she ran in Boston in 1991 remained the Irish junior 1500m record for 19 years. Current star Ciara Mageean had come within a second of beating it in 2009, having sensationally smashed Sonia O’Sullivan’s national junior 800m record a fortnight earlier, but Davey’s remained too tough a mark to beat until the exceptional Mageean finally got its better in 2010.
And yet Natalie Davey, a past pupil of St Joseph’s secondary school in Charlestown, had ventured on her scholarship to the United States with even bigger ambitions. In an interview in the Western People ahead of her departure in September 1990, she told Liam Horan how it was her intention to smash the Irish 1500m senior record by six seconds and reduce it to four minutes inside the next year.
It took someone of Sonia O’Sullivan’s quality to eventually manage that, and the 3:58.85 that the Cork woman ran in July 1995 remains the quickest any Irish woman has ever posted for the distance.
But Davey’s aspirations back then were based on very solid credentials, as Horan had outlined in that 1990 interview.
“Natalie’s greatest disappointment in four years of success came in February of 1989, when she travelled to the All-Ireland Junior Cross-Country Championships in Thomand College, Limerick. The hope was to finish in the first five to ensure inclusion in the World Junior Championships. The reality was a heart-breaking 19th, and no world championships. A heavy virus had taken more out of her than anticipated, but she made a swift recovery to full health. Two weeks later she went to the starting line in the All-Ireland Schools’ Championships, and demolished all opposition – Limerick first five and all – to record a victory which served to restore morale.”
Two excellent first seasons at Providence College were followed by what was to become a more challenging time for Natalie Davey, one where a stress fracture to her foot, borne out of simple wear and tear, impaired her focus somewhat.
“Those first few years, once you’re keeping up with that level of pressure and staying focused, it’s great. I’ll never forget that day in Boston, when Ray told me my time I couldn’t believe it, but when I got the injury I had a hard time with that. I feel as though I never really got back on track. Just being so young, I mightn’t have had full maturity to really stay focused on goals. It was hard to find my momentum and that razor sharp focus after getting injured.
“I think patience was the issue. When we’re young we tend to overdo things and not listen to our bodies so well. I think the older athletes are much better at knowing when to hang back or do things more in balance and not load up a week’s worth of training in a few days. Older athletes know that you have to put the time in and that you can’t just create a fast time in the space of two or three weeks.”
None of that, however, is to suggest the remainder of Natalie Davey’s time at Providence was not enjoyable or indeed fruitful on the track. She continued to place in the top five or six consistently at most of the NCAA’s biggest meets.
“It was good, just not as good as I had hoped for maybe, but I did the best I could at the time and overall they are just great memories that I have.”
By 1995, Davey’s time at Providence was done and even now, all these years later, its almost audible, that sigh of relief, as she remembers the release of all that pressure from having to prepare and perform at her peak, week in, week out. She headed for Boston and took a complete year out from running. And a visit to Boulder the following year was so enjoyable that she never left the place. But if it’s hard to take a man or woman out of the bog, it’s hard too to pull a runner off the track and for a born competitor to step away from a challenge.
By the turn of the millennium, Natalie Davey was back running. And back running seriously. It happened, in part, thanks to a four-time Olympian who, like Davey, had travelled from afar to set up residence in Boulder.
New Zealander Lorraine Moller’s international career spanned more than 20 years and as a bronze medallist in the marathon at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, silver medallist at the 1986 Commonwealth Games and winner of the 1984 Boston Marathon, her pedigree was impeccable. So when she took the Mayo woman under her wing for the first time in 1999, it wasn’t long until all Moller’s coaching and Davey’s training began to reap a dividend.
On a visit home to Charlestown in August 2001, Natalie Davey took a spin over to Ballina to run in the annual 10k road race. Having previously set the course record, Davey broke it again in a time of 33m50s. To put that into context, her time was just 20-seconds slower than ran by Olympic silver medallist Sonia O’Sullivan when winning that year’s Women’s mini marathon in Dublin.
And while Davey did see that Irish junior 1500m record of hers fall, another still stands. It might not be the most common of distances run nowadays but it remains the fact that no Irish woman has even ran a 12 kilometre race quicker than the 40:24 posted by Natalie Davey in Spokane, Washington in May 2002. Finishing third in the prestigious Bloomsday Run, she was beaten only by a four-time Olympian in Colleen De Reuck and by Theresa Wanjiku, perennial winner of some of the United States’ biggest road races and who represented Kenya in the World cross country championships. But then, injured. Again. Another stress fracture, only this time much worse than before.
“I never really got back my swing after that,” reflects Natalie now. “I had started to race really well and was really excited to do more, I wanted to come back and run in the Irish nationals and run for Ireland but it never panned out.
“I kick myself for not having continued but I was getting my nursing degree in Colarado by then so when I wasn’t recovering from the injury, I just put all my focus on my career and started running more casually. Before you know it the years just begin to slip by.
“I do regret that I didn’t keep going but I’m just one of those people, I get injured and I lose my focus and it takes a lot of effort to get it back.”
When Natalie Davey had it though, she wasn’t just good. She was the best there was.