Hurdler on the ditch

European silver for Derval O’Rourke in 2006 (Photo: Irish Runner)

Writing these blog posts about my marathon running, I find myself remembering long-forgotten scenes from my under-age athletics years:

Did you know that I used to be a hurdler?

My two brothers and I were members of the local juvenile athletics club when we were under ten years old. On Friday nights in winter our training was held in an old school hall with wooden floorboards. And I remember at least one night where three or four hurdles were placed around the hall and we did laps over them.

Fast forward to the following summer. Behind the school hall is a river and on the opposite bank is a football field. There, the town is holding its parish sports day and the line-up for the under-10 60 metres hurdles includes me. Because of where my birthday falls in relation to whatever age criteria the organisers use, as usual I have to run against boys in the class above me, including my older brother.

So far that’s all I remember. I didn’t win that hurdles race but I may have got a medal. I can’t tell you anything about the race itself, though I was never particularly interested in the hurdles anyway. Was I a model of lead-leg-trail-leg coordination? Did I knock them all down and chop my stride between? I can’t remember. Perhaps with more blog posts, more memories will reveal themselves…

Though even kids were doing it, hurdling is a complex and demanding sport. To do it well, you need great stamina, speed, technique and concentration – switch off for a split second and you’ll come a cropper. In the women’s 100 metres hurdles final at the 2008 Olympics, Lolo Jones of the United States was leading when she hit the second-last barrier, lost her rhythm and eventually finished well down the field. Remarkably, a similar thing happened to her compatriot Gail Devers in the same event in Barcelona in 1992. Heading for gold and with only one hurdle left, Devers struck it and ended up stumbling over the line. (The gold medal she had already won in the 100 metres flat may have been some consolation.)

And it’s not just the runners who can suffer disastrous brain farts. Organisers of a special city-centre athletics meet in Manchester recently were delighted when British athletics’ poster girl Jessica Ennis broke the UK record in the 100 metres hurdles. However, one of the other athletes noticed that there had only been nine hurdles instead of the regulation ten. Cue red faces for the organisers.

Had I continued with the high hurdles into adulthood, I would be racing 10 metres further than my female counterparts. Given that both sexes race the 400 metres hurdles (a truly awesome event that we’ll consider in another blog post) without any lady fainting or spontaneously combusting, the difference in distance for the shorter race feels quaintly anachronistic now. The hurdles in both men’s events are slightly higher than in the women’s races – again, perhaps another difference that may disappear in time.

In terms of major championship performances, Ireland’s most successful current athlete is a hurdler – Derval O’Rourke. The Cork woman followed up a successful student career by winning 60 metres gold at the 2006 World Indoors and then silver in the 2006 European 100 metres hurdles final in Gothenburg. (Two silver medals were awarded for that race instead of a silver and bronze: a photo finish couldn’t separate O’Rourke and Kirsten Bolm of Germany.)

Of course, it wouldn’t be Irish athletics without a fourth-place finish in a major final – in O’Rourke’s case, at the 2009 World Championships. But she bounced back to win another European silver in Barcelona the following year. And then she finished fourth again, at the European Indoors in Paris last year.

O’Rourke’s Olympic experiences have not been as rewarding as her Europeans. In Athens and Beijing she did not qualify from her heat. But aside from the Olympics, O’Rourke is known for pulling out a big championship performance after a relatively quiet season – she won her 2010 European silver in a personal best and Irish national record time, for instance.

So, Derval O’Rourke has brought home silver from the last two European Athletics Championships and ensured that an Irish woman has won a medal in every Europeans since 1994. She won’t be at Helsinki this week, focusing instead on London. Let’s hope that  O’Rourke can bring her past European form to the Olympics this summer.

Here’s that 2010 European 100 metres hurdles final, where Derval O’Rourke storms through in the second half of the race to claim silver:

YouTube credit: deptford

This entry was posted in European Championships, Irish athletes, School athletics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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