Saturday, September 25, 2010

W(h)ither the Irish Pipeline to US Colleges?

Running Out of Road on the US Route

ATHLETICS: For young Irish distance runners the American scholarship route isn’t yet completely shut down, and may well continue, if only for very small numbers, writes
IAN O'RIORDAN, The Irish Times
September 25, 2010

I REMEMBER when you could run a decent seven-mile loop around Belfield and not even pass any students. You came in by Fosters Avenue, circled the fields behind the football grounds, cut through woodland and headed up towards Roebuck Castle. You ran down to the open spaces around the Clonskeagh entrance, headed left towards the Donnybrook gates, past Belfield House and the running track, through more woodland, and finished up in the fields behind the old Merville House.

Indeed on this loop you were more likely to pass famous runners such as John Treacy or Jerry Kiernan than you were any actual students of University College Dublin. Times have a-changed, naturally, but when I went running around Belfield this week I couldn’t help thinking they paved this little piece of paradise, and put up a parking lot.

Plus, I continually ran past students, whole groups of them, and the annoying thing about that wasn’t that they upset my stride, but how impossibly young they looked. Most of them, I suspected, were first years, bubbling with enthusiasm as they sauntered back to their new student residence, a freshly-printed syllabus in their hands, their whole lives finally opening up before them. The sad realisation was that these first years would always turn back the clock on me, that every year they’d have the faces of angels.

Anyhow it’s 20 years now since I started college, not in Belfield, but across the pond in Brown University, Rhode Island. Yes, the Ivy League, the cream of America – as in rich, and thick. But I was not alone. Back in 1990, an American scholarship was the aspiration for every young distance runner in Ireland, and with a bit of effort was perfectly attainable.

Off the top of my head I can list over a dozen young Irish distance runners who went to America that same year: Niall Bruton, Nigel Brunton, Mark Carroll, Séamus Power, John Murray, Conor Holt, Declan O’Callaghan, Martin McCarthy, Ken Nason, Frank Hanley; young Irish women distance runners too such as Natalie Davey, Sinéad Delahunty, and Geraldine Nolan. I’d say over 20 of us left that year alone, and while most of us stuck with it, and only some of us went on to greater things (take a bow, Mark Carroll), our lives were only bettered by the experience.

It was the peak of the American scholarship era, and there must have been over 100 of us, spread across most of the 50 States. We were of course following in the footsteps of practically all the great Irish distance runners, from John Joe Barry to Ronnie Delany, and Eamonn Coghlan to Sonia O’Sullivan. Our dream was as real as theirs, even if our talent wasn’t. The American scholarship route has helped produce several more champion Irish distance runners since my time, such as Keith Kelly, Martin Fagan, Mary Cullen, even Alistair Cragg.

Now it seems this great era and tradition is coming to an end.

According to Brother John Dooley, the Irish authority on athletic scholarships, only four young distance runners have made the journey this year: Eimear Black, from Antrim, has started at Bryant University, in Smithfield, Rhode Island; Chris Jones, formerly of St Fintan’s in Sutton, at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas; Cheryl Nolan, from the St Abban’s club in Laois, at Arkansas Tech, located in Russellville, Arkansas (and not be confused with Arkansas University); and Tara Jameson, from Wicklow, at Iona College, in New Rochelle, upstate New York.

In distance running terms, that’s it for 2010, and they’re not exactly headline acts – although promising young hammer thrower Aoife Hickey from Kilkenny has also started at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa. Brother Dooley reckons in his 30 or so years of advising and supporting young Irish distance runners going to America that’s an all-time low.

“It’s unbelievable, really, how much it’s dropped back,” he says. “And it does look like the end of an era. There are lots of reasons, the main one being we just don’t have the depth of young distance runners anymore. I mean the inter-club cross country this year, back in March, was embarrassing, really. The junior women in particular. The junior men weren’t much better. The top three or four would be of decent quality, but it really drops off after that.

“The American college coaches are also more conscious of the risk of taking Irish athletes, given the increased costs. They might get two Americans for the same deal. They’ve tightened the whole scholarship system as well, and it’s more about financial aid now, based on family income. On top of that, American distance running has got great depth now. They’re putting the work in. In the past, for example, an Irish junior running 3:55 for the 1,500 metres would have been recruited. These days he would want to be running 3:48, because that’s what the Americans are running.”

In fact only the exceptionally talented can hope to be recruited by the traditional Irish breeding grounds such as Villanova, Providence College, and Arkansas. Down youngster Ciara Mageean is the one athlete who currently falls into that category, but has deferred her college options for a year, perhaps wisely so.

“The number of American colleges on to Ciara was incredible,” says Brother Dooley. “They were like bees around a jam pot. But she was the exception. Those more familiar colleges have become so successful, partly on the back of the Irish, that the world is really their recruiting village. Look at the Arkansas rooster now, for example, and they have seven or eight different nationalities, including Kenya, New Zealand, and Australia.”

The flip side of this, obviously, is that more of our young distance runners are attending Irish universities, now a real alternative. Paul Robinson from Kildare, who this summer ran an Irish junior mile record of 4:00.93, is joining up with the successful athletics academy at Dublin City University, as is promising young steeplechaser Emmet Jennings. In fact Deirdre Doyle is also starting fresh there again, having returned home after her first year at Bryant University.

There’s another underlying factor: athletics – and particularly distance running – has dropped further down the list of school sports, especially as rugby, soccer, and GAA tighten their grip. Brother Dooley tells a story from his teaching days at North Monastery in Cork which is even more applicable these days: “I had both Setanta and Aisake Ó hAilpín during my time there, and they ran cross country in first and second year. Once March arrived the coach from Na Piarsaigh would be down to tell them that was the end of the running, it’s hurling from now on. Both of those were unbelievably talented, and could have been very good distance runners. Aisake, I know, would have been very good.

“And from my information there are over 20 young Irish women on soccer scholarships in America. Quite a few young men as well, around 15. One went out this year, including a nephew of the runner Ann Keenan Buckley. Golfers too. I know of three Irish golfers at East Tennessee University, which is Ray Flynn’s old alma mater.”

For young Irish distance runners the American scholarship route isn’t yet completely shut down, and may well continue, if only in very small numbers. But the landscape it seems has changed, irreversibly so, and not only around Belfield.

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