The next athlete in The Running Review hotseat is sprinter Niamh Whelan, who talks to James Sullivan about her background in the sport and her plans for 2012.

Niamh Whelan is an elite sprinter from County Waterford, Ireland. She finished 11th in the 200m at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona, missing out on a place in the final by one tenth of a second. A few days later she helped the Irish 4x100m team set an Irish record of 43.93 seconds, to finish 9th, missing out on the final by three hundreths of a second. With a personal best of 23.30 seconds, she stands 3rd on the Irish all-time list over 200m, behind Sarah Reilly (23.03) and Ciara Sheehy (23.21).

Competing in the 60m at the 2009 European Indoors in Turin

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

Niamh: Thanks James. Well I started athletics at 14 I think. I was in 2nd year in secondary. My Dad encouraged me to go down to the RSC track in Waterford and try it out. I wasn’t doing much sports-wise at the time. I was playing basketball, but I loved athletics, the training, the friends and the competitions, I got pretty serious about it quite quickly and haven’t really looked back since. So thanks Dad for that encouragement.

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

Niamh: From an Irish perspective it would have to be Susan Smith. She attended my secondary school and is from the area I live in. I remember watching her at the Olympics in Atlanta. I was only 6 at the time but I remember all the excitement around it. Her National Record for the 400 hurdles still stands in Ireland today which is unbelievable. Allyson Felix was also a huge inspiration for me. She is just such a talented athlete and I love watching her run. It just looks so easy and flawless.

James: What do you believe to be your strongest attribute with regards athletics, and what area do you feel you could improve on the most?

Niamh: Strongest attribute I suppose would be that I am a hard worker. It’s not about being naturally fast. A lot of hard work and dedication have gone into training by me and of course my coaches and family over the last few years. Another one would be that I tend to cope well under pressure I have run my best races when the pressure is high. I love running at top level competitions. I feel they bring out the best performances in me, I am not affected by big competitions and I like to challenge myself. I think you need to run against people better then you to run fast.

I think that if you are at the point where you have nothing to improve on then you probably aren’t going to go on to run much faster. I’d say if you spoke to my coach then there would be a long list, but for me I could probably improve on my overall strength in the gym (I am working on it) and become more consistent in the execution of certain aspects of my sprinting, for example my starts.

James: At the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona you finished in 11th place in the 200m, missing out on a place in the final by just a tenth of a second, and then went on to run a national record as part of the 4x100m relay team, again narrowly missing out on the final. Can you describe the experience of competing for Ireland in Barcelona?

Niamh: Barcelona was an amazing experience I loved every minute of it. With regards to the 200m, I went into the semi with no pressure at all because I was only just 20 at the time and it was all about experience for me. I had previously watched some of the older athletes who had serious pressure on them to perform, make finals and medal, but there was zero pressure on me so I went into the race and thought I am going to soak all this up and I am going to enjoy every minute of it and run my own race. It was my first senior championship and it gave me a little taste of what and where I want to be in the next few years. I did come away from the race a little disappointed at how close I was to making the final, only a tenth of a second, but that’s a typical athlete for you. Never happy, always want more.

Competing over 200m in the Barcelona Olympic Stadium

James: Outside of Barcelona, what other particular moments from your career to date stick in the memory?

Niamh: I suppose it would have to be winning a bronze medal at the European Youth Olympic Festival at Belgrade in 2007. It is the only major medal I have won so that is always going to be one that sticks in my memory. It was also my very first big major international. I had been to schools and Celtics prior to that but nothing that big. The whole experience of that championship was amazing because it wasn’t just an athletic competition, it was all sports.

James: What are your goals for the coming track season? Is the Irish record in the back of your mind?

Niamh: The Europeans in Helsinki for the 200m is the goal, hopefully a repeat of 2010 to make the semi, and of course if I make the semi final then I obviously would like to go one step further this year and make the final. Who knows what will happen in Helsinki but hopefully I will get some fast races in and make a stab at the Olympic standard. Having an Irish record would be a huge honour for me. My personal best is 23.30 and the National Record is 23.03, which is also below the Olympic A standard. It is definitely in the back of my mind and it would be great to achieve that goal.

James: There remains divided opinion as to the wisdom of holding a European Championships just over a month before the Olympic Games. What are your thoughts on the EAA’s decision to change the championships to a biannual event?

Niamh: I personally think it is a good idea. I know a lot of people who are using the European Championships as a competition to try to qualify for London, myself included. If you look at the American trials for the Olympics they are practically like a major championship. On the flip side it may be very hard to peak for Helsinki and then peak again for London. It will be interesting to see what athletes compete at the Europeans this year.

James: What are your favourite and least favourite training sessions?

Niamh: Favourite training session would be a speed endurance session. I hate thinking about it for the day but I love finishing the session and knowing I have done a good hard session. Only this year weights sessions have become another one of my favourite sessions. I don’t dislike any aspect of training but if I had to pick at the moment it would be speed tech sessions. I know they are very important but I like to get in, do the session, and go home or back to the library (I am in final year of college at the moment so I am living in the library).

James: With regards to speed endurance what are your key sessions?

Niamh: A key session coming into competition phase for the 200 would be 200 model sessions which could be 120, 80 or 150, 60 with 30sec recovery between runs. Anything with short recoveries is always tough but I always feel that the sessions I just mentioned help with the last part of the 200m when it comes to the race.

James: What is the worst injury you have had to deal with to date?

Niamh: I was very fortunate to not have a major injury until last year. I tore my hamstring at the national indoors in Belfast and had to watch both 60m and 200m finals from the sideline which was unbelievably hard. I was out of training for a full 6 weeks which drove me crazy but after copious amounts of physio, rehab and the dreaded aqua jogging I got back into training, only to be hit a month later with shin pain which was a suspected stress fracture. That was another 2 weeks off waiting for scans and I missed the AAI warm weather training camp. Thankfully it wasn’t a stress fracture but rather a bad case of shin splints. My 2011 season never really got going to be honest. The hamstring tear was caused by glute problems which I had issues with for the entire outdoor season. But after a lot of rehab and specific exercises and stretches to help the glute problem it is now all good and I am running with zero pain (touch wood it remains that way :-)).

One tenth of a second off the European final

James: You are well known as a 100/200 specialist. Do you ever see yourself competing over 400m?

Niamh: Maybe someday I will actually do 400s. It was considered this year for indoors but…. It’s always something I would like to see what time I could do for it. I did 300s for schools and Celtics back in the day and I have done a good few 400 relays. I may do an individual 400 this year. We will just have to wait and see, but I think for now I am going to stick with specialising in the shorter distances.

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

Niamh: This is a difficult question. I have run the B standard (in 2010), though obviously I have to run it again this year. I think they should send Bs. I think from a development point of view those who are under a certain age and have a B standard should be sent because it will only benefit them for Rio in 2016. The hard part is where do you draw the line, what makes you too old to be considered eligible to go on a B? I know in other countries like Norway they will send you on a B. A girl I compete against from Norway found it very difficult to understand why we won’t send B standards, particularly if no one else has qualified with an A in that event. I suppose the decision has been made for a reason and I don’t think it will change now but you never know.

James: What are your views on drug taking in athletics?

Niamh: I do not agree with it in any way. I don’t care what excuse is given, for example not knowing it was performance enhancing etc, it’s our job as athletes to know what is allowed and what isn’t and to ask questions. It totally takes away from the sport and is cheating of the highest level. I was surprised last year to find out that a girl who I competed against at European U23 (she won the 200 and was 2nd in the 100) tested positive. That was the first time I had heard of someone my age failing a test. I personally think those caught should be banned for life. I don’t think a 2 year ban is enough.

James: When not competing, do you enjoy watching athletics? What current athlete do you like watching the most?

Niamh: I love watching athletics. Whether it is track and field competitions like the Diamond leagues or cross-country, I just love watching any aspect of the sport. Granted I would prefer to be running at them than watching them. And again it would probably be Allyson Felix but I love watching the high jump. It’s my favourite event to watch.

James: That’s great Niamh. Thank you for your time and the very best of luck in this summer.

Niamh: Thanks a million.

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