With two major medals and an Irish record, Ciara Mageean has enjoyed the season of her life but it has not come without its challenges
Pain is something of a constant in the life of an athlete. There’s the physical agony which comes from pushing the human body to its limits in training and competition, but then there’s also the accompanying anguish of a race which hasn’t gone to plan, the lingering hurt inflicted by the dissenting voices of those on the outside or that nagging feeling of potential unfulfilled.
Ciara Mageean has experienced all of the above and knows which variety she prefers. She has been at the heart of some of the most memorable moments of this summer, coming away with Commonwealth and European 1500m silver medals after going toe to toe with Laura Muir and then following that up by breaking Sonia O’Sullivan’s Irish record at the Diamond League meeting in Brussels. Coming second in the Diamond League final in Zurich wasn’t too bad, either.
“It hurts but you don’t feel the pain until the end,” she says, trying to put into words what it feels like to push yourself like never before in the heat of battle, enveloped by a pulsating, packed stadium. “When it hits you with 150m to go and you’re absolutely filled with lactic it’s tough. If the race isn’t going your way, either, then it’s absolutely crushing.
“But I’d rather have the pain of having gone absolutely eyeballs out, laying on the ground than the pain of being disappointed that the race didn’t go well. To put everything out there on the line to feel that sheer pain of pushing your body to the max… it’s painful, but it’s the most exhilarating thing that I’ll probably ever experience in my life.”
As Mageean reflects with AW on the summer just passed, she is to be found in an airport departure lounge, awaiting the flight which will take her back to her home town of Portaferry on the Ards Peninsula in Northern Ireland.
Based just outside Manchester since 2017, the 30-year-old doesn’t get home as often as she would like. I ask if she’s expecting a hero’s welcome and she admits her preference would be to slide quietly off the ferry and back to her parents’ house.
She was a woman in demand, though. A string of TV and promotional appearances across Ireland came first and, by the time she did step off on to Portaferry harbour, there was a sizeable crowd to greet her.
Such things come with the territory of success. As the outside noise around Mageean has increased, though, her achievements in 2022 have brought some internal silence.
“I was a very good junior, winning a world junior silver medal and European junior silver, European Youth Olympic gold, Commonwealth Games youth silver and having that glistening underage success,” she says. “I always knew that it would be hard to transfer it to the senior level, but I carried a big injury out of my junior career and ended up having to have surgery, so I didn’t run at all as an under 23.
“There was always this little voice at the back of my head, saying ‘I don’t want to be a has-been, I don’t want to be that person who was just a good junior, I want to make it as a senior athlete’. There’s always been that thing of ‘she hasn’t reached her full potential’.”
There were “glimpses” of it, such as European 1500m bronze in 2016, a first senior medal, and a sizeable 1500m PB later in the season.
“I then had a couple of years trundling along but I guess the first glimpse of how good I really could be was my Irish 1000m record in 2020, when I ran 2:31.06 in Monaco,” she adds.
The plan was to build upon that performance ahead of the rescheduled Olympics the following year. Mageean’s body had other ideas.
“I tore my calf last summer going into the Olympics and to head into those Games knowing that I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to was heartbreaking,” she concedes.
The road to the summer of 2022 was just as rocky.
“Around Christmas I ran a five-mile race in the back end of nowhere in Northern Ireland,” she says. “It was a super hilly course but I ran a really good time and people who had run it before said ‘you must be in shape’.
“I thought I could do something really good during the indoor season but I tore my calf during my first race.”
Two calf tears in six months was far from ideal. Neither was the spring departure of her long-time coach Steve Vernon, who became endurance performance manager at British Athletics and was replaced by Commonwealth Games medallist Helen Clitheroe.
A bout of Covid in early summer then meant the difficult decision was taken not to compete at the World Championships in Eugene and to throw everything at Birmingham and Munich, instead.
“I knew Laura [Muir] was always going to be hard to beat but I felt like ‘if I’m out there trying to win a medal, I might as well try and win gold and then if I miss gold I might get silver, I might get bronze,” says Mageean, whose partnership with Clitheroe has proved to be a very good fit indeed.
“Helen also said ‘you might also get nothing’ but I felt I’d rather give it a lash. I’m glad I did because, on both occasions, going toe to toe with Laura and trying to beat her meant I was clear of the field. I got silver and I really pushed myself, which gave me a lot of confidence.”
With medals banked, Mageean pitched up at the Brussels Diamond League in early September ready to put that confidence into practice. Having been compared to O’Sullivan for years, the long-standing Irish 1500m mark of 3:58.85 had “always been a little bit of a monkey” on her back.
Victory in 3:56.63, her first time under the four-minute barrier, was the kind of affirmation she had been looking for for so long. Beating her previous best by over three seconds brought out the darker side of the sport, however. It didn’t take long for noises of suspicion around the legitimacy of her performance to emerge on social media.
“I have to say I’m really grateful to the team around me because they kept me pretty sheltered [from outside noise] throughout the whole championship season,” says Mageean, who has deleted Twitter from her phone. “I wasn’t aware of any of the any of the conversations that were happening.
“It was between Brussels and Zurich when people were saying ‘don’t worry about the comments people are making about you’ and I was like ‘what comments?’ I didn’t have a clue.
“I can be quite a sensitive person and I do find it upsetting. My boyfriend [fellow athlete Thomas Moran] said: ‘This comes with the place that you’re in, Ciara. If you run that fast, people will say things’. Unfortunately, it is part of it.”
It is one of athletics’ strengths that anyone caught breaking the rules is made an example of, which is one reason why Mageean thinks the outside view of her sport in comparison to others can be particularly unfair.
“I do see athletics as a sport that’s very honest. We hold our sport accountable and we hold the athletes accountable. We don’t hide it,” she adds. “Any cheating that happens gets publicised and that comes from within the sport, we make the world aware of it. I don’t see other sports being criticised about it to that level.
“If the Irish rugby boys win a Six Nations or beat the All Blacks, the headlines aren’t ‘Are they on drugs?’ and footballers don’t get questioned when they win.
“In fairness, their lives get scrutinised in many other ways that I’m glad we don’t have to go through, but it can be tough. To have people doubting you can be hurtful but I know I’m a clean athlete, I toe the line.
“Because I jumped from four minutes to 3:56 people are like ‘what was that?’ whereas I feel like I should have done that a long time ago. An athlete friend said to me ‘if you had run a 3:59 and then jumped to 3:56, people probably wouldn’t have noticed’.”
Mageean won’t deny it did taint her dream season a little but she will still head into winter training walking that little bit taller and thinking that little bit differently.
“To know that I can race the best in the world… coming second in the Diamond League final showed not only the world but also myself that I can be competitive on the world stage.
“Maybe now my mindset shifts from ‘my aim is to be a finalist’ to ‘you have the chance of being a medallist’ on the world stage. I’m now somebody that the girls will see on the start lists and they’ll take notice. They’ll maybe worry about me.”
» This article first appeared in the October issue of AW magazine