James Sullivan has been talking to Olympian Claire Bergin, currently a member of the Irish 4x400m team, about her experiences at the Vancouver Olympics and the recent Daegu World Athletics Championships, and her hopes for 2012.

Claire Bergin is an elite sprinter and bobsledder  from Dublin, Ireland. She was a member of the Irish bobsleigh team which qualified for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, and finished in 17th place. She is currently a member of the Irish 4x400m relay team which finished 12th at the recent World Athletics Championships in Daegu.

Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games

James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Running Review. Easy question first, how did you first get involved in athletics?

Claire: When I was in primary school I was pretty quick and by the time I got to 1st class I was the fastest in the whole school (all girls by the way!) and I continued to do “Santry” every year with the school and Community Games a few times with Foxrock. Then by the time I got to 6th class I was encouraged by another family, the Howard’s, also in the same primary school as me, to join DSD athletics club. I had been annoying my parents for a while about joining Blackrock Athletics Club then. I eventually (luckily!) joined DSD and have been there since.

James: Did you have a particular athletics idol growing up?

Claire: I didn’t really to be honest but I definitely did admire Sonia O’Sullivan, being a successful Irish female athlete, and in some ways I did aspire to be her. But with her being a long distance athlete I suppose I needed another athlete to look up to and for that reason I loved watching Marion Jones. But obviously in more recent years I have come to realise that she was not the best role model!

James: Over the past few years you have competed internationally in bobsleigh, and qualified for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. How did you get involved in the sport?

Claire: I actually had given up Athletics for a period of just under 2 years. I had decided to come back to athletics to get fit and enjoy it again at a club level. Aoife and Siobhain Hoey along with the Olympic Council approached me about taking part as a break woman for the Irish bobsleigh team, with Aoife being the pilot. I have always been up for taking on different challenges. As I was only returning to athletics and wasn’t sure how it was going to go I decided to give it a go and before I knew I had gone from doing a couple of track sessions with the bobsleigh on wheels out in Santry to a real life bob track in Austria! It all really did happen very quickly, literally a matter of weeks, but with anything it took time to get used to and to improve at, and of course to rid the nerves, although not really sure if they ever left!!

James: What sort of lifestyle changes were required to compete to a high level in a winter sport? Did you have to spend much time abroad?

Claire: I did spend a lot of time abroad. In the first season we spent a couple of weeks away at a time. Luckily I was in college at the time and was able to bring my notes away with me and study over there and honestly I did. Well at least I tried! I was doing a post grad so the work was fairly full on! We spent a lot of time on the road between training and racing venues and a lot of manual work, a lot more than people may realise. Between lifting the 200kg bobsleigh between 3 or 4 of us and getting it in and out of the van and on and off the track, keeping it up to speed, looking after the mechanics of it ourselves after and prior to races, as well as training. Aoife had spent many years doing bobsleigh before me so she obviously knew a lot more than me but I was keen to learn and keep our bob in tip top shape as best we could compared to other teams who had their own mechanics and technicians. It’s like the ice sport of Formula 1! Many a day we spent in DIY shops picking up things to keep our black beaut looking, sounding, and running smoothly! Somewhere I would not have frequented before then! My second season was Olympic year and even more time was spent abroad this year. Deloitte, where I work, were kind enough to take me up on my request for time off to try qualify for Vancouver. Without them been so willing, I would not have been able to have met that goal.

James: Can you describe the experience of competing at the Vancouver Olympics?

Claire: As anyone who has represented their country knows, it was a very proud moment. I think people sometimes take for granted how great it is to represent your country. I know I personally appreciate these moments more now, especially after I had some time off from sport, and have worked hard since I got back because I want it so bad!! Walking into the arena in Vancouver for the opening ceremony was particularly special as well as getting out of the sled at the end of each run, and seeing all the Irish flags at the bottom of the track was literally heart warming stuff! I couldn’t believe those people were there for us! As I stood at the top of the track before each run, I thought that these were the times that you dream of as a kid and wanting to do your country proud and for those who I knew were watching at home.

James: What are the similarities between training for the bobsleigh and training for sprints on the track? Is there much of an overlap between the two?

Claire: The strength and speed needed for Bobsleigh definitely overlaps with athletics. The endurance I need for 400m, not quite so much, but I believe the strength I built up over my bobsleigh career has been a big factor in keeping injuries at bay (touch wood!)

James: Since Vancouver your focus has switched towards qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics and you are currently a member of the Irish 4x400m relay team. Can you explain how the 2012 Olympic qualification process works for the 4x400m relay?

Claire: Relay qualification for London is based on the team’s world ranking and the Top 16 teams in the World will qualify for London. At the end of season 2011 we are currently ranked 13th so we are hoping we can improve on that next season or at the very least hang on to our current position.

Irish 4x400m relay team: Marian Heffernan, Joanne Cuddihy, Claire Bergin, Michelle Carey

James: At the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, the Irish team finished 12th in the 4x400m relay, and smashed the national record in the process. Can you put that experience into words?

Claire: It was a fantastic experience!! Earlier on in the season we had tried to break the national record but the conditions weren’t great so that made it special when we broke it by so much. Prior to running we had discussed with management about breaking 3.30 and maybe going 3.28 so I was nicely surprised when it came up as 3.27. When Michelle was coming round for the last 200m we knew we were on for a good time! She finished nice and quick and as soon as she crossed the finish line we all knew we had smashed it. I think we were the happiest team, even more so than those who had qualified for the final. I didn’t get to run in Barcelona at the Europeans last year, as I was the sub, so this was really special for me to get to run this year and I actually enjoyed every moment of the race and that doesn’t happen when I’m doing 400’s!! I literally thought as I ran around “I’m running in the World Championships!!”

James: Are there any specific races the team is targeting in the lead-up to the games to help secure qualification for London?

Claire: At the moment, as far as I know, the only plans pretty much set in stone to secure a position for London are the European Championships in Helsinki but I’m sure nearer to the start of the season next year there will be more discussions and plans in place to run even faster :)

James: What sort of relay specific work is done during the year? How often does the team come together?

Claire:  During the year, there isn’t that much work done for 4×400 relays to be honest. Everyone just works away on their own training throughout the year and then whoever the fastest 4 are at selection time get to run. But while we were out in Daegu we spent some time every day working on baton practice which was good for team bonding and ensuring we got the baton round as quickly as possible no matter what the situation.

James: Away from your event, how did you enjoy the experience of being part of the Irish athletics team in Daegu?

Claire: I really really enjoyed Daegu. The Korean’s put on a great championships and the facilities in the athlete village were excellent. Like with any food hall I got sick of it towards the end but there was plenty of choice. They had bikes to cycle around the village and the surrounding area. There was a gym and track on site as well as a coffee shop, newsagent and an arts and crafts area to keep us entertained. There was a shopping centre and other shops and restaurants in the vicinity too. The city centre wasn’t too far either which had good shopping and a great atmosphere. The Korean’s were lovely people and seemed to love us ‘whities’!!

James: Were you disappointed that there were no Irish broadcasters in Daegu to cover the championships?

Claire: Not really to be honest. There still seemed to be a good bit of coverage here at home. I knew before travelling out that there wouldn’t be any there. There were still some photographers and journalists so we got our pictures taken and had a couple of interviews.

James: From an individual point of view, what are your goals for 2012?

Claire: Pretty simple: Run faster, make sure I keep my spot on the Irish 4×400 relay and qualify for London and break that national record again!!

James: What would an average week of training be like at this time of the year, specifically in terms of key sessions? How does off-season winter training differ from spring and summer training?

Claire: This time of year, there’s a lot of long endurance type sessions. I do 2 hill sessions with different variations of distances, 2 long runs a week….now these are sprinter ‘long’ runs and not miles and miles like those crazy distance runners, ha!! I also do one speed session and a speed endurance session, 2 gym sessions, a yoga class and a strength and conditioning session.

In spring/summer there would be less hills and long runs and more speed and speed endurance work. Sometimes gym work can be put on the back burner if there is a lot of racing and travelling going on but I try not to let go completely!

James: How important is core strength work for a 400m runner and how much emphasis do you put on it?

Claire: I think core is important for any type of athlete. It is the main stability for the whole body. I do core when I’m doing gym sessions and at the end of at least one of the track sessions and then a specific core session on its own too. I should probably do some more but it’s the bit of training that I like least! I just want to run!!

En route to 12th place at the World Championships

James: Nutrition obviously plays an important part in the life of an elite athlete. What would be your typical dieting habits in the lead up to a big race?

Claire: I like to keep my eating habits as normal as possible prior to races, whether they are at home or abroad. What I eat depends on whether the race is in the morning, afternoon or evening time. It is rare for me not to want food but on race day I can barely stomach the thought of food so I usually feel like I’m forcing it down. For 400’s it’s important to keep the body fuelled so you don’t run out of steam towards the end, so some carbs and plenty of fluids coming up to the race is probably what I would normally have!

James: It seems that the challenge of competing on the world stage without funding is not always understood and appreciated by the general public. Do you feel that athletes in Ireland sometimes don’t get the credit they deserve off the Irish media when compared to comparable achievements by individuals and teams in the more popular and better funded sports such as rugby and football?

Claire: I think athletics is a particularly hard sport to achieve worldwide success in and I really admire those in Ireland who have got to that level. Athletics is a really easy sport to get involved with in the sense that it doesn’t really cost all that much money compared to other sports, and as it’s an individual sport (most of the time!) you don’t have to rely on team members. For these reasons people from nearly every country in the world can compete. In other countries there is plenty of money pumped into athletics. For anybody to get any attention from the media there either has to be controversy or a medal as those are the stories which sell and that’s the way it is! Competing for media time and space against other sports is always going to be a battle, particularly against team sports. I don’t think athletics success is comparable with some sports. When you look at rugby (which I do love by the way), there really are only a few teams in the world that play at the highest level and I guess you could say it’s great that Ireland are up there with them but if someone in athletics won a race against England, Wales, Scotland, Italy and France there would certainly not be as much hype as when Ireland won the 6 nations. Maybe I am being naive about the situation but I accept that is the way it’s going to be always. That’s sport, that’s the media and that’s life and we get on with it!

James: What can be done to help the sport gain more media exposure in Ireland?

Claire: I think that there has been a huge surge in numbers over the last few years with people taking part in marathons, 10km runs, fun runs etc and hopefully with the increased numbers this will push for more media interest in athletics. That’s the only way really for the sport to gain more exposure unless we win more championship medals!!

James: What are your views on athletes with B-Standards being sent to the Olympic Games?

Claire: I think there should be an age limit on people going to the Olympics with a B standard. As far as I understand the B Standard is there for developmental purposes. So for a junior, U23 or I think up to the age of 25 or 26 if athletes are attaining B standards then they should be sent so they can gain experience and bring that onto other championships and hopefully to the next Olympics. That does seem a bit harsh saying that someone who has trained their whole life and gets a B Standard for the Olympics in their late 20’s or early 30’s or whatever, this is their last shot at an Olympics, and to say no to them. But if it was me, and it would be me as I am 26 now, I don’t think I would want to go into the Olympics with only a B standard as the chances are that you will be knocked out in the first round. As I stated at the beginning it should be there for developing athletes and that’s my own personal opinion.

James: Away from the track, what one country in the world would you like to visit most and why?

Claire: I have been lucky enough to do some travelling in my own time away from sport but I still do have a burning desire to visit Africa and in particular Burkina Faso as I am sponsoring a girl there with Plan Ireland and would love to go visit her and her family and I hope to do that in the near future.

James: That’s great Claire. Thank you for your time and the very best of luck in 2012.

Claire: Thank you!

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