By Anthony Hennigan
This story isn’t so much about from rags to riches but from jeans to Japan.
And as he peered into the distance through the left window of his carriage on the Bullet train speeding its way from Fukuroi city to Yokohama, Daniel Kilgallon couldn’t help but spare a smile at the parallels.
There, appearing in all its perfect conical, volcanic form, was the colossal Mount Fuji. Instantly the scene had transported him back to Ballina and teenage days of catching the early train, and of seeing majestic Nephin stood tall to the right yet shrinking with every clickety-clack as Iarnród Éireann shipped young Kilgallon up the country for his latest athletics meet.
In shape, Nephin and Mount Fuji are not dissimilar but in height there’s five times the difference. A mirror, if you like, of Daniel Kilgallon’s rise from the day he wore denims in his first ever race at the Ballina Community Games nearly 30 years ago to when he took charge of Ireland’s 4×100-metres women’s team at the 2019 World Relay Championships in Japan. Different worlds.
“I remember the days of the shale track in Belleek, wearing leggings back when running tights weren’t popular and you’d have a couple of lads shouting at you, ‘Run Forrest, run’,” reminisces Daniel. You’d wonder who’s laughing now.
If a couple of things fall the right way, then the boy from the Greenhills Estate could this summer find himself back in the Land of the Rising Sun as part of Team Ireland’s delegation to the Tokyo Olympics. The boy’s done good.
Kilgallon is still coach to Ireland’s 4×100-metres women’s team, and the men’s too, although it’s the former who have the realistic chance of qualification. With only 16 places up for grabs, their first opportunity will come in Poland later this month where a top-eight finish at the World Relays – i.e. reach the final – would secure their ticket. In Yokohama two years ago they finished tenth.
“It could happen, things could fall their way. Anything can happen in a relay, a baton can hit the ground. I just hope it’s not ours,” says 40-year-old Kilgallon.
“You’re going up against the best nations in the world, Jamaica, USA, some of the top sprinters on the planet will be taking to the track, but we’d be quietly confident we could give it a good shot. We’ve been working hard over the winter and if we don’t do it in Poland, we have other opportunities lined up to hopefully get a top-16 ranked time.”
Ballinrobe hurdler Sarah Quinn is one of 10 women vying to make the 4x100m team and it’s the job of Kilgallon to settle on his final six this week. Irish 60m champion Ciara Neville, the country’s top hurdler Sarah Lavin and two of Kilgallon’s own protégés through his work as a coach at Tallaght Athletic Club, Rhasidat Adeleke and Patience Jumbo-Gula, are just some of the others in contention.
“The team has a realistic shot. Who will be on it? A lot can happen in the next week or so. We had a session last Saturday, we’ve a session on April 3, all the girls will be looking for their spot and that’s what you want.”
Fukuroi is where Team Ireland will base itself in advance of moving into the Olympic Village for this summer’s Games – and it’s there where six Irish sprinters had the magnificent Ecopa Park to themselves as they acclimatised and trained in advance of those 2019 World Relays in Yokohama, all under Kilgallon’s watchful eye.
“It’s the same stadium where Ronaldhino chipped David Seaman at the 2002 World Cup,” he points out. “I found myself standing by that goal, looking around and thinking about how on earth I had ended up here.”
To help explain that, it’s necessary to rewind to 1993 and a time when Daniel Kilgallon was manning a place on the half-back line of Ardnaree Sarsfields’ under-14 football team. An ever-present at all his games was mum Mary.
“She’d be saying after the matches, whatever about making it as a footballer you’d make it as a decent runner.”
Only a mother could get away with such honesty.
Of course, Daniel did what most teenagers do and ignored his mother’s advice – “Football was the thing,” he reflects – until one Sunday morning she returned from Mass with an announcement.
‘There’s Community Games on down at the track,’ declared Mary. ‘You should go.’
“I wasn’t too impressed to be honest but out the door anyway and down to the track. In them days you could have 40 or 50 lads under-14 lining up for the 100-metres. I actually ran in my jeans and got through the heat and ended up finishing third in the final.”
Boys by the names of Jason Cafferkey and Alan Kelly had finished first and second. Little was anyone to know the success that lay in store.
“I went home and thought absolutely nothing more about it until a couple of weeks later when there was a knock at the door on a Friday evening. It was a lady called Mary Langan, a stalwart of Community Games in Ballina. She said because I was third in the 100-metres, it meant I was picked for the relay team to go to the county championships in Claremorris the next morning. I wasn’t too bothered but I remember mam telling me to give it a go.”
Kilgallon was picked to run the first leg on the team of Cafferkey, Kelly and Mark Barrett.
“We got first in our semi-final and won the final. Then we went up to Mosney a couple of weeks later and actually won the national Community Games title. That’s where my athletics started.”
From zero to hero in a matter of weeks, it had been quite the summer for young Kilgallon. Football was no longer the.
“I had found something that I really liked, there wasn’t the same politics as football. When the gun goes off, if you’re across that line first no one can dispute it. It’s fastest wins.”
Come September, Daniel Kilgallon was experiencing another first, that of life as a secondary school student. But entering the walls of St Muredach’s College wasn’t his only induction; Jason Cafferkey, Alan Kelly and Mark Barrett were already members of Ballina Athletic Club so it was only natural their newfound sprint buddy would put pen to paper too. In their first season of competition the quartet landed the All-Ireland 4x200m relay title – and a civic reception from the old Ballina Town Council for good measure.
“I was hooked at that stage,” admits Kilgallon. “It was a big achievement I suppose, for four lads from Ballina in the west of Ireland.”
Their victory was the first of many, Connacht and national, indoor and outdoor. Indeed so tight was the group that in 1996, a full three years after they had won their first Community Games national crown, they returned to Mosney with the exact same relay team and won the 4x100m again at under-17 level.
“We had a really strong team of sprinters who had a common interest and we enjoyed going out beating the best in the country at the time.”
It’s worth noting too, that throughout all these years Daniel Kilgallon was competing out of age, conceding a year to his teammates, which makes their achievements all the more impressive. What had stood the group particularly well was the structure and support provided by Ballina AC.
Danny Gallagher, his son Sean, John Conroy, Marion Mattimoe and others had created a solid club environment and an opportunity to compete. However, when Kilgallon, now in his late teens, wanted to try and advance his career to another level, as slowly his teammates began to drift from competition, he encountered one significant obstacle: coaching. Or more specifically, a lack of.
Individually he had dominated the 100m and 200m outdoor events in Connacht, and the 60m and 200m indoors, but he yearned for better. Yearning turned to learning.
“While there was great work going on, the club really hadn’t a sprint specialist coach and I probably needed that to move onto the next stage. I would always have been finishing fourth or fifth in All-Irelands, never really getting onto the podium. I remember in 1998 training with the endurance group two days a week and doing speed work on my own.”
Something had to change.
Kilgallon took himself up to the old town library, beside the fire station, and borrowed book after book about how to train, how to coach, how to perform. He read, he researched, he replicated… he went to that year’s national indoor championships and won silver in the 200m. He was on the podium, at last. And, if it wasn’t so apparent then, it is now: a coach had been borne.
Kilgallon headed for Dublin to study sports management at Inchicore College but kept his feet firmly on the track too. He counted future World and European medallist Derval O’Rourke among his elite training group but the draw of student life, not to mention basic commuting issues across the city, meant that some days he’d make training, some days he wouldn’t.
By 24, Kilgallon had decided to hang up his spikes and find a place among the workforce. An opening had presented itself in Foxford where for three years he coached athletics and basketball at St Joseph’s Secondary School. Local GAA clubs quickly began to hear promising things about the young man from Moyside and took an interest too.
Perhaps it was that Knockmore were feeling a little sore about their bitter rivals Ballina Stephenites having just won the All-Ireland Club SFC title in 2005 when their newly appointed manager Ray Dempsey turned to Daniel Kilgallon to train the senior team. In 2006, however, after the Stephenites had enticed their All-Ireland winning manager Tommy Lyons to retake control after a deserved break, who else did he secure as trainer only Kilgallon. But by 2007 Knockmore were poaching the poacher, with their latest manager Aidan McHale luring Kilgallon back to St Joseph’s Park.
“Of all the people I have worked with in the GAA, I found Aidan absolutely fantastic. I thought he had a very clever mind,” reveals Kilgallon, who also had a stint across the county boundary training Sligo giants Tourlestrane.
“The time I was with Ballina, they had four or five players in with Mayo who reached the All-Ireland final that same year. These lads might be amateur in title but they are so professional in approach and when I look back on my development as a coach, I think those days were invaluable.
“Whatever the sport, instill some various fundamentals and rules in your teams and you’ll get similar results.”
Save for pulling together a senior relay team that in 2003 won silver for Mayo Athletic Club in the 4x100m at the national outdoors and bronze in the indoors 4x200m, competitive racing had more or less become a thing of the past for Daniel Kilgallon when in 2010 he happened to visit Tallaght Athletic Club. Attending in his new role as a youths sports development officer with Dublin VEC, he was only supposed to be taking a few photographs to help promote the club’s new facilities but left having been coaxed into taking part in the next training session.
“I did and it wasn’t nice,” laughs Kilgallon now. But at 31-years-old he was to captain the club’s relay team to the National Division 1 title the very next season, earning promotion to the Premier League. What’s more, Tallaght’s wily old coach Tony Byrne had somehow, somewhere along the way, craftily managed to offload much of his work onto his Mayo recruit.
“The times I was running I was thinking that I could get back to where I had been but eventually I realised I had left my speed in my old spikes down in Ballina and I wasn’t going to get it back any time soon.
“I remember saying to Tony one evening that I was a bit disillusioned and he just said to me, ‘Look, you’ll be a good athlete again, but you’ll be a great coach’.”
The words of Mary Kilgallon all those years ago were suddenly ringing loud again. ‘Whatever about making it as a footballer, you’d make it as a decent runner.’
“Tony had become a good friend so I thought to myself that maybe I should think about this.”
Then aged in his 70s, Tony Byrne was obviously a good judge. Some of Ireland’s very best athletes and future Olympians now rest in the care of Daniel Kilgallon whose rise through the coaching ranks has been meteoric.
First catching the eye when steering Tallaght kid Keith Doherty to a national U20 record for the 60-metres in 2014, Athletics Ireland soon put the under-20 men’s 4x100m team in Kilgallon’s charge. A year later the team had reached the final of the European U20 Championships in Sweden and after that qualified for the 2016 World Championships in Poland where they broke the national record. His women’s 4x100m team claimed bronze at the European Youth Olympics.
By now the Ballina man had quit his role with Dublin VEC to work full-time with Athletics Ireland as Development Officer for the East region and in 2018 he switched roles again, this time becoming National Sprints Coordinator and striking an agreement that allowed him to also become lead sprints, hurdles and relays coach for DCU Athletics.
Among Kilgallon’s many responsibilities at Athletics Ireland is to arrange for some of the world’s most renowned coaches – people like Dan Pfaff – to mentor those who are nurturing Ireland’s top sprint stars.
“When I think back to my days in Ballina library, I’d have been reading about a sprinter called Donovan Bailey who won the 100m at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Dan Pfaff was his coach and I’d have read a lot about his training methods. Only two or three weeks ago we had Dan Pfaff on a Zoom call with Irish coaches, talking about coaching methods. It’s funny how things come full circle.
“It’s important that we have access to the top minds but dealing with these guys you also find that, yes, they’re great coaches but they’re in professional set-ups and can afford to give the time to their craft. Athletics Ireland was until the early 1990s an amateur organisation; it has a small but growing staff and we’re trying to do things.”
It’s a little over a month ago that Israel Olatunde broke both U20 and U23 national records for the 60-metres at an elite meet in Dublin to qualify for this year’s European Indoors. Kilgallon has coached him for the past two years having also guided Rhasidat Adeleke to win both the 100m and 200m at the European Youth Olympics in 2019. And Kilgallon has overseen the ascension of Joseph Ojewumi who that same year became the first Irishman in a decade to qualify for the 60m at the European Indoor Championships. Ojewumi won Irish titles and broke records at all levels from juvenile, U20 and U23 before capping it all off with the Irish senior indoors 60m crown.
“The more you think you know as a coach, the more you don’t know,” assures Daniel, who lives in Co Meath together with wife Cliodhna and daughters Aoibh (5) and Fiadh (2).
“One thing I never got to do was win a national senior medal individually but as a coach I have managed to do it numerous times with numerous athletes – and the thing about them all is that they’re all different characters. I’d still be discovering different things about them.
“Coaching in athletics is about fixing problems but it can take a while to find out what makes any athlete tick. One lad, he was suffering for the last year or two with injuries, little niggles, and we started looking at everything and realised, hey, this guy is just dehydrated.”
Tips that a curious and ambitious 18-year-old once learned from sifting through books he borrowed from a library in Ballina are still being used to shape and style a new generation of Irish Olympic hopefuls. And yet that’s not even the most important piece of this jigsaw; that’s still held by the woman who once spotted something in her son that no one else had.
Mother always knows best.