Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Catching Up with "Flamin' Eamonn"
Senator Coghlan's Political Future Looks Bright
When Eamonn Coghlan came to town
The Southern Star, Cork, Ireland
20 December 2012
IT was a full house at the Friary Centre, Kinsale as Irish athletics world champion, Olympian and now Senator Eamonn Coghlan recalled the agony and the ecstasy of an amazing career as a runner, starting with victory in a cross country race at the age of 11 and ending as the first man in the world aged over 40 to break the four-minute mile.
In between of course, as outlined by MC Gerry Reynolds, ‘Flamin’ Eamonn’ won four US NCAA titles and ran a sub four-minute mile to set an Irish record at the age of 22.
Seven times winner of the Wanamaker Mile indoor race in New York, he broke the indoor world mile record on four occasions, as well as achieving a world best at 1,500 metres in a time of 3:48.45 at Meadowlands Arena, New Jersey in 1983 which stood until 2007.
He also set a record for the 2,000m. One of the greatest indoor athletes, he won 52 out of 70 races which earned him the nickname ‘Chairman of the Boards’.
The Dubliner finished fourth in the 1,500m at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, again missed out on gold in the 5,000m in 1988 Moscow games and also represented Ireland at Seoul in 1988.
Following silver at the outdoors championship in Prague in 1978, he won the 1,500m at the 1979 European Indoor championships in Vienna and was 5,000m champion at the IAAF World Cup in 1981.
He went on to delight a nation at a time of doom and gloom, by winning gold at the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki.
Fine Gael Senator Coghlan, who honeymooned with his wife Yvonne in Kinsale, said he was invited to the town by local councillor Dermot Collins when both attended the National Cross Country Championships in Santry in February where Dermot’s grand daughter Sarah Mary Collins was a winner.
‘Growing up in Drimnagh’, said Eamonn, ‘I played Gaelic football, soccer with Brian Kerr for Rialto and ‘lamp ball’ on the street. My father would take me to Santry Stadium to watch athletics and cross country races.
‘I joined his local club Celtic AC and as a skinny 11-year-old, competed in an U14 cross country race at Phoenix Park, won and went on to win many more medals that winter.’
In his teens, when U15 soccer and athletics events both took place on a Sunday, he made the decision to opt for the latter ‘because in soccer we were winning nothing and in running, I was winning everything, well nearly everything!’
Eamonn said he found school and college studies very difficult – explained many years later when he discovered, along with his son, that he was dyslexic – but running enable him to express himself and gave him a huge amount of self-confidence.
‘My dream was to go to America on scholarship as Cork athletes John Harnett and Donie Walsh had done’, he stated and thanks to European silver medallist Frank Murphy, who spoke to the legendary coach there Jumbo Elliot (Olympic champion who trained gold medallist Ronnie Delaney), the All-Ireland 1,500m and 5,000m champion went to Villanova University.
Things went very badly and he hated it.
Six months later, although injured, he was selected to run for Ireland at Cambridge, England in the World junior cross country championships. This served as his opportunity to exit Villanova.
After the race he told his family he wasn’t going back and got a job with PMPA Insurance.
Fortuitously, Jumbo Elliott, who saw his potential, phoned Eamonn’s father to ask his son to come back. Long-time coach and mentor Gerry Farnan advised the same, telling him it was about taking the right turn at the crossroads in his life and simply focusing on nothing else except his studies and athletics.
And there was similar advice, coupled with an ultimatum from his future wife Yvonne.
‘Aged 18, I went back to America and made that right turn. I took my time, rubbed shoulders, trained and socialised with the great athletes and after a while I went to another level and began to beat the guys and win championship races in America’.
Eamonn set the target of a sub four-minute mile and achieved it in 1975 in 3:56.02 at Pennsylvania. He won two more races, setting a European record of 3:53.03 in Jamaica. ‘All of a sudden I had gone from being a nobody to becoming a favourite for the Olympics in Montreal in 1976,’ he said. The Drimnagh man then spoke about the mistakes he made at Montreal. These were showing his ace by winning the heats, ill-advisedly shaving his legs for better performance and losing sleep as a result of scratching the night before the final and instead of focusing on his own race, thinking too much about the opposition.
He took the lead too early, instead of his usual sprint finish, lost energy, was overtaken by the winner John Walker, Ivo Van Damme and Paul Wellman and finished fourth.
‘I was devastated and cried my eyes out in the middle of the track,’ said Eamonn, but that night his coach Gerry Farnan took him out and said that for the next four years he would train for the 5,000m for the next Olympics but still run mile races and not tell anyone because ‘mystery was power’.
‘For the next four years, I ran 100 miles a week and worked in the gym. Sunday was the easy day, just 20 miles straight! Fortunately, I did well, I graduated, got married and Yvonne and I came to Kinsale for our honeymoon,’ Eamonn smiled.
In 1979, he set the world record for the indoor mile with a time of 3:52.6 at San Diego.
Coming near to Moscow he upped his mileage and hard workouts but on July 7th, 1980, two weeks before the Olympics, he got very sick at the National Championships in Santry and didn’t know what was wrong and couldn’t run a step.
Although he shouldn’t have gone to Moscow, he did, told no one and unlike Montreal, deliberately eased through the heat and semi-final without winning.
Devastated again, Gerry Farnan came to the rescue and once fully recovered, told him to focus on winning the next World Championship and breaking the world indoor mile record but an Achilles injury kept Eamonn out of running for several months and he thought his career could be over.
However, said Eamonn, ‘Germany came to Ireland’s rescue’, courtesy of European champion Dr Thomas Vessinghage, whom he met at Cork City Sports and later Professor Klumper, a doctor in Germany where he was cured by his assistant using radiation cobalt treatment within a week and was back in training in 1982 ahead of the indoor season.
Proving the doubters wrong, success came at Madison Square Garden, New York in his first comeback race.
At the last meet of the 1983 American indoor season, live on TV, Eamonn, who had written into his shoes 3:49.06 beforehand, broke the 3:50 barrier at Meadowlands Arena in a time 3:49.78, a world record which stood for 24 years. Irishman Ray Flynn came second in that race.
In 1983, having read Denis Wheatley’s book ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’, he went on win the 5,000m world championship at Helsinki, patiently closing in at 300 metres to go on a Russian who at one stage, had been over 35 yards ahead.
Injury came in 1984 and he retired in the late ‘eighties but what brought him back was one unfulfilled ambition, to become the first man over 40 to run a sub four-minute mile.
In between times, he came home and got a job for a while as chief executive of Athletics Ireland, which didn’t work out well, but again using the ploy ‘mystery is power’ got back to running in his late ‘thirties clocking up to 80 miles a week.
In a four-mile race on his 40th birthday at Manchester, Connecticut, he got a hamstring tear connected to a bone in his backside, which caused severe pain.
The record for the masters’ mile was 4:13. He managed to run five races bettering this and reached four minutes one second in the last.
Working closely with physio Ger Hartmann in Florida, the pain disappeared and in a race organised by Ray Lump at Harvard University, he achieved, aged 41, the sub-four minute mile in 3:58.15 on the 40th anniversary Roger Bannister did likewise on May 6th 1954, and what’s more, at the request of sports photographer Victor Sailer, smiled all the way on the run in!
Despite pleas to carry on and an offer of $50,000 to race, I decided to retire because I wanted to go out on my terms, so that was the last race I won in my life,’ said Eamonn.
‘Sport has its struggles and disappointments but you come back each time and just go for it. I only ever wanted to win gold, nothing less and who knows, if I had won them, my life would have gone off on a tangent but instead I can look back with pride,’ said Eamonn who thanked his parents, his wife and family, Gerry Farnan and the many other great and positive coaches and other sports people he got to know.
The first involved visiting 171 schools following the Irish Sports Council survey on obesity, getting views, making a presentation in the Senate.
It was followed up with the establishment of a committee of experts from the Departments of Sport, Food, Education, Children and Health and a pilot programme in schools to commence next January aimed at giving all children, not just those already engaged in sport, a better understanding about the importance of exercise.
The other area the now Fine Gael Senator is working on is ‘The Gathering’ in 2013, in particular the Senator’s Trophy, a homecoming tournament for Irish university graduates from all over the world who are asked to bring their sporting friends to Ireland.
Eamonn and his wife Yvonne have four children, the youngest John a leading junior athlete. He works as a director of fundraising for Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin and is an athletics panellist for RTÉ.
He is chairman of the High Performance Committee of the Irish Sports Council and continues to train athletes.
Although well known, he said he is always well grounded most notably when he meets his friends in Drimnagh and Ballyfermot where he is greeted as ‘Senator Windows!’
Eamonn went on to field lots of questions from a wide-ranging audience, including members of Saile, local athletic, running and other sports clubs, schools, Kinsale Peace Project and public representatives at a stimulating evening hosted by the Prior Fr Frank McAleese at the Carmelite Friary and organised by Mary Evans, Dermot Collins and Gerard Timmons.