One of Ireland’s top athletes, Fionnuala McCormack, talks about preparing for her fourth Olympic Games, her love of cross country, avoiding the hype and her hopes ahead of the marathon at Tokyo 2020. 

I wasn’t someone who dreamed of one day being an Olympian. I don’t even remember watching the Olympics growing up.

In fact, the first time I ever thought about going to the Olympics was in 2007 when I ran a qualifying time in the Steeplechase at a tournament in Belgium. Even then, when it was pointed out to me that I could be going to the Olympics, it was a year away, so it didn’t quite sink in.

I’m competitive so I always wanted to be faster and better but its not like I ever stood back at any point and thought, “I’m really good at this.”  I just always had something else to aim for.

I had made it to the final in my first World Championships in 2007 but I hadn’t progressed enough over the following year to repeat that in the Olympics.

I just remember being so nervous in Beijing. Looking into the stands and seeing the thousands of people. Then I reminded myself, that no one there knew who I was and all I had to do was run my race. It was all part of learning as you go. The pressure should not come from the people watching you.

The whole experience was surreal.

The Olympic Village is a bit of a bubble. There are athletes there from all over the world, but you could literally be anywhere. Back then there was a computer room and that was the only contact with the outside world.

We went to the track and saw things unfold, like Usain Bolt running faster than anyone had run before and it was all just in the moment. Looking back on it now, you think, “Wow, we were there that night!”

2008 was the last time Olympians experienced that kind of bubble. By the time London 2012 came around there were smart phones and social media, and everyone was connected to what was happening outside.

Being from a small village, Newcastle in Wicklow, there were not many options in sport. When I was six, I couldn’t wait until I turned seven because at age seven you could join everything and I did – I joined Brownies, Badminton, Camogie and the running club in Kilcoole. Running was the one I enjoyed the most from the start.

I always loved being outside. My parents were not mad into sport, but we were always out hiking and cycling. We were active and it was brilliant to live that life. I almost feel sorry for kids now because they don’t have that easy access to the outdoors.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a footballer but thought I couldn’t “because I was a girl.”

The Best of TSC

There was a real lack of female sporting heroes then. I was much older when I started to become aware of Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan and what they were achieving at the highest level.

When I wasn’t running at the club, I ran along the grass by the stony beach near where we lived. When I was 12, I qualified for the All-Irelands, so I was one of the best in our club. But in secondary school I wasn’t even the best runner in the school. It wasn’t obvious to anyone that I would go on and compete in major championships.

I love cross country.

In our club we trained in a field with cows in it, so it was always going to be cross country.

There’s a lot of talk about technology in sport and how it gives athletes a competitive edge. I love cross county because technology has nothing to do with it. Its pure running. Its you against the other competitors, not even you against the clock. You can’t have shoes that will get you up hills quicker and get you through the muck quicker. You might have made all the mistakes in a race but if you win you win and that’s all there is to it.

My sister Una has been in the sport for a long time too. She had missed out on success at the big championships for various reasons. At the National Cross Country Championships last November, I won the race and turned around to see Mary Mulhare coming in second and coming up to claim third was Una. It was a very special moment. Not just to be on the podium with my sister but Mary too. We’ve all put in huge effort over the years.

Two weeks later we were all part of the Ireland team that won silver at the European Cross-Country Championships in Lisbon. That will go down as a career highlight just as much as winning European gold in 2011 and 2012.

The hype escalates in an Olympic year. This being my fourth Olympic year I have a bit more perspective and see it for what it is.

You have to know that its just the nature of the Games that it will be huge for a period and then your sport will return to being a minority sport. You can’t get caught up in the hype.

My whole family went to Bejing in 2008 to support me. I asked them recently would they have gone all that way if they knew they’d have an opportunity to see me at another three Olympics after that. They said that they would have gone regardless. I’m not so sure they would but you have to treat every opportunity like its your last and give it your all. You just don’t know what’s coming down the line.

Every so often I might think back on being at the last three Olympics and it feels a bit mad but then you immediately look forward and focus on how you can do better the next time. It’s always about improvement.

I became a mother to my daughter, Isla, in 2018. I expected things to be more different after Isla arrived, that there might be a change in how I think about sport and my perspective on training and competing but to be honest, not much has changed. I get to go home and see her and switch off for a while but other than that I still approach my running the very same way. I still over think things from time to time. I still put the same pressure on myself to do better.

During a marathon there are a lot of thoughts that go through your head that you would never predict so you have to be mentally strong. In the moment, you think you’re being rational but afterwards you might think, “I don’t know how that seemed logical at the time.” But you have to trust yourself to make the right decisions. It’s a battle with yourself so you need to work at the mental side of it during a race.

I love running for what it is. I’m a competitor so I love races but more than that I love the feeling of it when you’re just running on your own.

You have to love what you do. There are more hard days than great days in sport, so you really need to need to find what you love. There are lots of options for kids now so they’ve a better chance to find that sport that keeps them coming back, even when it’s tough.

As an athlete, you question yourself all the time, “Am I good enough?” Sometimes the reasons you don’t appear good enough are not what they seem. Being beaten by drug cheats isn’t going to put me off going back out to try to beat them again. It won’t tempt me to join them either because of the fact that I love the sport for what it is. You can’t stand on a start line thinking that its anything other than a level playing field. You can’t think otherwise in that moment. You just try to beat the people next to you. Plenty of time after the race to doubt some of the people in front of you.

In Rio I went to watch the women’s 10k. The world record was destroyed. I just came away from that saying, “I’m glad I wasn’t part of that.” It just didn’t make sense, but it doesn’t stop me watching either. Its hard that the sport is tarnished but it won’t stop me trying to do my best every time.

Going to the Olympics I won’t feel the pressure of expectation from the people watching. It means a lot to me to represent Ireland but the most pressure will come from the pressure I put on myself. Its one day every four years and you have to get it right.

My only hope is to cross the finish line in Japan knowing that I’ve done all I could. That’s all.



March 2020.

If you enjoyed Fionnuala’s piece you might like to read Catherina McKiernan’s – “Going With The Flow“.

The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.

You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.