She is Ireland’s latest sporting hero – but it’s been a long, hard trek for racewalker Olive Loughnane.
Today, at 33, she owns at last the major championship medal her outstanding talent deserves. As a world silver medallist, she is only the fourth Irish athlete in history to win a World Outdoor Championships medal – joining an elite club of Sonia O’Sullivan, Eamonn Coghlan and Gillian O’Sullivan.
She remembers, however, back in the early 1980s, being the smallest girl in her class at Carrabane National School, in Galway, struggling to compete with the bigger students. ‘I was a small little thing. With just four girls in my class, I used to hope that someone would be sick, or have something else on on sports day – so I could get a medal!’
But Cork-born Loughnane, who also recorded a fine seventh place finish at last year’s Beijing Olympics, says she ‘never gave up’ and, that by the time she got to 5th Class, she was starting to win. The lesson she learned, she says, was that ‘it’s not just about having talent’. A top athlete, she says, has to have ‘application, single-mindedness and tenacity. I’ve always been a fighter.’
Speaking before last year’s Olympics, Loughnane was adamant that she hadn’t yet reached her peak, insisting that racewalking is a ‘late developer’ sport, similar to the marathon, and that walkers can do well into their mid or late 30s. ‘It takes a while to get it right.’
She was proved right yesterday, as she claimed the silver medal in the 20 kilometre walk in the World Championships in Berlin. Loughnane finished just 49 seconds behind defending champion and Olympic gold medallist Olga Kaniskina of Russia, who won in one hour 28 minutes and nine seconds.
Loughnane dedicated the medal to her family, and to one member in particular. ‘I promised my little daughter Eimear I was going to bring her a medal so she will be very happy.’
Indeed she will. Because Eimear, in fact, is a very important part of ‘Team Loughnane’. Born in 2006, she’s happily taken a supporting role in the family business – right from the start. ‘I swam the day before I had her, and again on the ninth day after she was born,’ admits her mum. ‘I did some running and cross-training on the tenth day, and went back to racewalking five weeks later. I rest when she rests.’
Being a mum, says the Cork-based walker, does not stop her being competitive. ‘I wanted to get back, I always intended to get back. But it’s good to be able to walk away and have a little girl who does not know one race from another.’
A typical day, she says, starts at 7am, with an hour and a half’s cardio walking before her husband, Martin, goes to work. She might do 17 or 18 kilometres, or four sets of fast 3kms. She warms down on a treadmill in the house. ‘Eimear gets up at 9am. She sits in her high chair, eating and chatting away to a sweaty mum.’ After Martin comes home there is another workout – 40 minutes of gym circuits, some strength training, or maybe a session on the track in Cork city.