Irish U23 women challenging for European Cross Country selection

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By Damian Lawlor

For many athletics fans the success of the Irish U23 Women’s team in Bela Vista Park in Lisbon in 2019 seemed like a once off. Not only had Stephanie Cotter (West Muskerry AC) climbed onto the podium having won the bronze individual medal after a gritty run over a tough hilly 6225m course, but Ireland had also won silver team medals. Stephanie’s teammates Eilish Flanagan (Carmen Runners), Róisín Flanagan (Carmen Runners), Fian Sweeney (Dublin City Harriers), Claire Fagan (Mullingar Harriers) and Sorcha McAlister (Westport AC) had combined to ensure that they were going to be on the podium too later that afternoon.

There were a huge number of Irish at the course on Lisbon’s outskirts evident not only from the waving of tricolours and the array of green getups but also from the roars of encouragement at every corner of the course. While many of those fans were dizzy with excitement by the end of the race it would have been hard to persuade them that four years later Ireland would have just as talented a crop of athletes available for selection in the U23 Women’s grade.

This summer though at the Leppävaaran Stadion, in Espoo, Finland at the European Athletics U23 Track and Field Championships, it became obvious that there is another remarkable squad of athletes available for selection in the U23 grade. With Sophie O’Sullivan (Ballymore Cobh AC) 1st in the 1500m; Sarah Healy (UCD AC) 2nd in the 1500m; Ava O’Connor (Tullamore Harriers) 8th in the 3000m Steeplechase; Jane Buckley (Leevale AC) 9th in the 5000m; and Anika Thompson 11th in 10.000m (Leevale AC) it was obvious that Ireland could be medal contenders in the Women’s U23 race in Brussels in December.

Jane Buckley is at present recovering from injury and is out of the running for selection and there has also been speculation about who else might or might not be available for selection. Speculation is all that it is though and all other athletes have been profiled below.

Irish U23 women looking to make European Cross Country team

Faye Dervan (Dublin City Harriers) – Faye had a good run at the IUAA Road Relays for DCU finishing just behind Sophie Jackman. Faye had raced the 9000m of the Dublin Cross Country the week before and was second lady home in a time of 35:25. Faye did not race much track over the summer but if she finds her 2022 form when she ran 35:37.26 for 10000m at the Raleigh Relays she could be a contender in Gowran.

Danielle Donegan (Tullamore Harriers) – Present in Lisbon four years ago when the Irish U23 Women’s squad were on the podium, as she was competing on Ireland’s U20 squad, Danielle has since then been consistently to the fore of Ireland’s cross country squads. Danielle competed on the U23 teams at both the European Cross Country in Dublin in 2021 and Turin in 2022 finishing 31st and 28th respectively. Over the summer Danielle improved her 5000m PB to 16:48.65 and 10000m PB to 35:14.73. In great form this Autumn, Danielle finished 9th in the Autumn Open International and at the recent IUAA Road Relays was the fastest competitor on her two mile leg. Expect 9000m of hills and mucky ground to suit Danielle in Gowran.

Hannah Gilliland (Annandale Striders) – Hannah finished 23rd in the trials last year in Donegal and she has continued to make great strides forward in the year that has followed. After finishing third in the IUAA Cross Country in March, Hannah ran 4:34.44 for 1500m and 9:45.14 for 3000m over the summer. This autumn Hannah finished 23rd at the Autumn Open International and 5th at the NI & Ulster and Bobby Rea International Cross Country.

Fiona Hawkins (Dublin City Harriers) – Fiona competed for Ireland for the first time last December at the European Cross Country in Turin. She has had a quiet 2023 but her 4:26.17 1500m PB in June was a indication that she was in good form at the time. This autumn she raced the Joe I Vigil Open Cross Country and finished 7th; Live in Lou XC Classic and finished 26th; and the RMAC XC Championships where she was 24th.

Sarah Healy (UCD AC) – Sarah opened her track 2023 season in Rabat, Morocco in May and raced right through to September. It is hard to believe that the young Blackrock athlete could imagine the improvements she would make over these months of competition. Her 1500m PB is now 3:59.68 over three seconds faster than her previous best. At every stage of her athletic career Sarah has been one of Europe’s fastest runners. She won gold in the 1500m at the European Youth Olympic Festival; two golds in the U18 1500m and 3000m at the European U18 Championships; silver at the European U20 Championships; and this year took another silver medal at the European U23 Track and Field Championships. In addition she also qualified for the World Athletics Championships semi-final in Budapest in August.

Cara Laverty (City of Derry Spartans AC) – Always a highly rated runner in her juvenile years Cara was probably best known for her blistering pace. In 2021 she ran 2:09.27 for 800m and won many national medals over the 800m in the last decade. This year she has moved up in distance and the 4:26.69 she ran for 1500m is a big step on her previous best of 4:30.96 ran like her 800m PB in 2021. Last week she came 58th at the NCAA Division I Northeast Region Cross Country Championships and is heading to the NCAA Division 1 finals in Virginia next weekend.

Laura Mooney (Tullamore Harriers) – Nobody was surprised when in 2022 Laura produced a scintillating performance at Franklin Field in Philadelphia to set a new Irish U23 10,000m record of 33.23.95. Laura has been prominent in endurance events since 2020 and before the record her most notable performance was a 6th place finish in the 5000m at European U20 Championships in Tallinn, Estonia in 2021. She has gained significant experience representing Ireland at European Cross Country in Dublin in 2021 and Turin in 2022. This autumn Laura is improving with each cross country race and her 20th place finish at the NCAA Division I Northeast Region Cross Country Championships helped her Providence College qualify for the NCAA finals.

Lauren Murphy (Cilles AC) – Lauren has made steady progress in recent years. Her 800m PB has come down to 2:15.91, while her PB for 1500m has also reduced significantly to 4:34.65. This autumn Lauren raced the 2023 Colorado Springs XC Open and finished 20th having already raced theJ oe I Vigil Open Cross Country in Alamosa, where she finished 16th. A tough competitor the challenging conditions in Gowran will be welcomed by the Louth athlete. The biggest challenge is making that move up to 9000m from 800m and 1500m.

Ava O’Connor (Tullamore Harriers) – Throughout her years in juvenile competition Ava was always a precocious talent. Despite Covid 19 seeing some championships cancelled and Ava missing some as she was in the USA she won three U20 1500m titles and two U20 800m titles. This summer, still only nineteen she managed the tough transition to senior competition. In the 3000m Steeplechase she finished 8th at the European U23 Track and Field Championships in Finland and 3rd at the European Team Championships in Poland. Ava’s track PBs of 4:20.04 for 1500m; 9:16.59 for 3000m; and 10:01.34 for 3000m Steeplechase, have been matched by her cross country form this autumn. Her 5th place finish at the NCAA Division II South Central Region race was a huge run.

Aoife Ó Cuill (St Coca’s AC) – Aoife has raced sparingly this autumn but did race the Autumn Open International in October, where she finished 5th. Early in the year Aoife raced well at the IUAA Indoor Track and Field Championships in January, where she won the 3000m. Aoife returned to racing this distance in July when she ran a PB of 9:31.20 at the Mary Peters Track in Belfast. Earlier that month she had came 2nd in the 5000m at the Irish U23 Championships in Tullamore. She also raced that distance at the National Senior Track and Field Championships where she ran a seasons best of 16:20.30 to come 7th. An experienced Cross Country runner having represented Ireland at a number of European Cross Country Championships she should perform well in Gowran.

Niamh O’Mahony (An Ríocht AC) – Last year Niamh raced at European Cross Country and finished 35th. Niamh has been racing Cross Country throughout the autumn and on Friday raced at the NCAA Division I Northeast Region Cross Country Championships where she finished 102nd. Niamh has made progress in 2023 in relation to her PBs having ran 35:20.03 for 10000m as well as lowering her 5000m PB to 16:42.35. Niamh lines out in Virginia on Saturday coming.

Sophie O’Sullivan (Ballymore Cobh AC) – For Sophie O’Sullivan 2023 was definitely her breakthrough year. The stats are quite dramatic. Her 800m PB of 2:06.05 had been set in 2018 but this year moved down to 2:01.43. In the 1500m Sophie’s previous best of 4:17.54 was run in 2022 but now she has improved that PB to 4:02.15. Even her new 2023 3000m PB is world class, having ran 8:44.72 in Roverto in Italy in September. While times are one thing her success in championships matched them. She was a convincing winner in the European Track and Field Championships U23 1500m in July and just narrowly missed out of qualifying for the World Championship semi final in Budapest. Since returning to the USA, Sophie has continued to race well and last week finished 17th in the NCAA Division I West Region Cross Country Championships.

Anika Thompson (Leevale AC) – Anika has shown great consistency throughout the 2023 Cross Country season. Not only did she finish 12th in the NCAA Division I West Region Cross Country Championships last week in California, she has been a scoring member of the University of Oregon team throughout the 2023 campaign. Having won the National U20 race in Donegal in December 2022 Anika pulled on the green vest of Ireland for first the time at the European Cross Country Championships in Turin. She followed this up with a selection to compete at the European Track and Field U23 Championships in the 10,000m having ran 33:51.70 in March in Hayward Field. Her 11th place finish in Finland impressed Irish fans in the crowd as did her relaxed demeanour in the days leading up to the race.

Others that should be competitive include Holly Brennan (Cilles AC), Lucy Holmes (West Waterford AC), Amy Pollman Daamen (An Ríocht AC), Shona O’Brien (Cork Track AC), Aoife Coffey (Lucan Harriers) and Róisín O’Reilly (UCD AC).

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