From the tender age of 12 following on from winning his first All-Ireland cross country, Kevin McGrath was simply untouchable. He would go on to become a dominant force in schools athletics, boasting an impressive record of never having lost a track race in his six years wearing the colours of St Patrick’s Classical School in Navan. McGrath pinpoints that U12 victory as the moment the seed was sown for his love of athletics and his deep rooted addiction to winning.
“I remember thinking, this is like winning the Olympics, I want more of this”.
Gold in Tbilisi
The wins continued to come for McGrath throughout his youth, despite being desperately unlucky to miss out on World Junior Championships qualification in 2015. With the qualifying standard set at 3:50 for 1500m, McGrath’s 3:50.33 in Watford saw him come agonisingly close to seeing him book his seat on the plane to Columbia. The Bohermeen man, who has been coached by Joe Ryan since 2013, responded to that disappointment the only way he knew how, by winning gold over 1500m at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Tbilisi later that summer. Beyond the shores of Ireland, he had already placed a marker down in the SIAB schools meeting in Grangemouth in 2015 when beating Archie Davis into second in the 800m, Davis currently holds an 800m PB of 1:44.72. A year previous, McGrath placed 5th in a race won by now Olympic bronze medallist Josh Kerr over 1500m.
National youth record holder
2016 continued in a similar vein for McGrath at national level. After the initial disappointment of being narrowly ran out of the medals at the European juniors, in the space of 8 days in July, he had laid claim to the Irish youth records for both the 800m and 1500m, both still standing to this day. Despite the magnitude of becoming the fastest ever Irish athlete U18, he admits at the time he didn’t pay much heed to its significance.
“I remember Joe telling me I had ran the youth record of 1:48 but it went completely over my head, I was just running to win every race I was in”.
One of the personal highlights of 2016 for McGrath, was the praise he received from the late Jerry Kiernan on RTÉ’s live coverage of the Irish National Championships in Santry. After finishing 5th in the senior men’s 800m against the best in the country, Kiernan earmarked the then 17-year old as ‘one for the future’. A clip which McGrath says he has watched a number of times since as he fought his way back from injury.
Arriving at a crossroads
On the crest of a winning wave which included bagging his first national senior medal for 800m indoors, McGrath was dealt a cruel blow, a stress fracture of the tibia setting in motion an unfortunate chain of events that would significantly alter his progress on the track as he was gathering momentum. Around that time, a potential move to Villanova University in Pennsylvania also fell through, leaving him faced with a decision of whether to continue chasing the dream or look to an alternative path. The stress of the injuries coupled with finishing school, creating an undercurrent of uncertainty for McGrath.
“When I left school I was thinking I have to start making money and look for a house, I was stressed about everything and that kept building up causing a lot of tension in the body which in turn impacted my running”.
Keeping the faith
In the midst of his injury woes, McGrath fondly recalls an encounter with Jerry Kiernan at the Sport Ireland Institute while he was carrying out his rehab. Calling him over, Kiernan provided warm words of encouragement, urging him to “keep the faith, keep going and don’t give up”, acknowledging the struggles that the young athlete was facing at the time. To this day, those words have stayed with McGrath through some of his darkest moments in the sport.
“This year, I wish he (Kiernan) was still around just so I could say to him, I ran a PB, I’m getting there. In the back of my mind, I want to do it for people like that, who were always so good to me.”
A long road back
It’s been a long and winding road back to top for McGrath who is still only 23 years of age. It took until May of this year in Belfast for him to break his 800m personal best when running 1:48.19, five years since he had run his last PB for the distance, a small but significant step in the right direction. He also pulled on the Irish vest last summer at the European U23 championships in Tallinn, narrowly run out of a final place but getting one last outing as an Irish underage athlete. An achievement that was high on his list of priorities at the time in spite of the extra pressure it brought.
“I knew it was my last underage Irish team. I was thinking if I don’t make that, I’ll go into senior knowing that I won’t have ran for Ireland in 7 or 8 years”.
In a sense, McGrath has been forced to learn once more how to return to winning, something that had once time come so natural throughout his school’s athletics career. He believes that it is a matter of regaining confidence in his own ability, especially when it comes to producing his trademark kick, which lit up tracks all across the country in his younger days.
“There was a time when I was going to a race thinking, who’s going for second. When you start getting injured, you lose that confidence.”
McGrath attributes much of the resilience shown over last number of years to the support he has received from family, coaches and training partners. The influence of his brother Brian, who himself was an extremely accomplished underage runner, one of the main factors in keeping his focus fixed on returning to the track when it may have been easier to throw in the towel.
Joe Ryan and the stable of athletes he currently coaches have also provided a major uplift as the group continues to produce some of the finest talent in the country in an environment that McGrath speaks of in glowing terms, referring to the group as “like family and best friends”. The group consists of National 800m champion John Fitzsimons, European U20 1500m champion Cian McPhillips, Jack O’Leary and Jamie Battle, a member of the winning U23 team at last year’s European Cross Country.
“I have been with Joe since 2013, I’m the longest with him in the group, he’s seen me win for 4 or 5 years in a row to winning nothing for 4 years and it’s the same relationship, it hasn’t changed, he will give you everything, I don’t think people realise how good Joe is”.
Paying his way
McGrath has been in full-time employment since 2019, most recently making the switch from working in Dublin to Utmost International in Navan, County Meath. He admits it has been tough adjusting to the rigours of balancing work and maintaining a high training load, although no longer having the commute to the capital has been a relief.
“It’s scary the thoughts of going out to work full time, getting up early to go to work 9-5, you’re constantly thinking where am I going to fit my run in”.
He accepts however, that he must have a means to support himself sufficiently in order to be able to travel to races in both Ireland and abroad alongside having the necessary resources for optimising his recovery and performance.
“Any money I get now (from working) goes back into the sport for me. I’ll pay for nutritionists, physios, diesel to get to races, memberships or runners when I need them.”
Looking to the future
With the Irish National Championships set to take place at the end of June, McGrath is relishing the opportunity of toeing the line with the fastest men over 800m in Ireland at a time where he says he is really enjoying his running.
“When I’m running for time I get a little bit frustrated, let’s just race. In a championship race we only have one thing to look at, each other, and the only thing you want is the gold”.
Having been a close observer of friend and training partner John Fitzsimons over the last number of years, McGrath feels that sooner rather than later, he will also see the reward for his commitment to the sport and the consistency he has regained.
“John has been consistent now for around 4 years, he was 2 years running 1:48 and then he jumps to a 1:46 one summer. I’m hoping that this year that could be me”.
While building that consistency is at the forefront of his mind, McGrath is intent on fulfilling his lifelong dream of making it to an Olympic Games. Seeing friend and former rival Andrew Coscoran at last year’s games provided an extra injection of motivation to keep working to reach similar heights.
“I have the EYOF vest framed and I look at it every day and I think to myself, I want that to be the real Olympic rings someday, its everyone’s dream at the end of the day"