Sophie Becker (centre)
National championships can produce surprises and strange twists of fate.
Last year Cliodhna Manning (KCH) went into the National senior championships as the underdog. She was recognised as an excellent under-23 athlete who represented Ireland at the Europeans, but was not yet established as the elite level.
Cliodhna, however, knew she had been running well and she was in the zone from the moment she went to the blocks. She returned to Kilkenny as National senior 400m champion.
Having already run 53 seconds this year, Cliodhna has qualified for the 2018 European senior 400m track and field championships. A good run in Manheim, some strong training sessions, things were definitely going right for this tall Kilkenny athlete in 2018.
She was all set to defend her National 400m title and top it off with a new PB. That was last week.
Then things went terribly wrong. Injury struck. That dreaded moment when an athlete’s progression is halted and all your hard work seems to be obliterated in one moment. Cliodhna was out of the Nationals.
But 400m running is good in Kilkenny at the moment. With Cliodhna not racing the county still had two other athletes in the senior ladies 400m. Both made the final.
Ciara Deely (KCH), who has already represented Ireland this year at the World Juniors and has managed to get her PB down to 54 seconds, was competing in the senior All-Irelands for the first time.
Ciara ran very well on Saturday to finish second in her heat to secure a place in the final.
Second finisher in the next heat was Sophie Becker of St Joseph’s AC. Thus Kilkenny had two finalists.
The two girls lined up for the final on Sunday. Both ambitious, both knew their own capabilities.
With Cliodhna out of the race, everyone’s pre-race favourite was Sinead Dennehy, Dundrum South Dublin. She had finished second to Cliodhna in the 2017 Nationals.
Sophie started in lane 3, with Ciara in lane 5. Sinead was between them in lane 4.
Sophie was first out of the blocks. By 100m she looked like she had taken the lead, eating up the stagger on Sinead Dennehy.
The 400m is a difficult race, the longest sprint. Start too hard and your legs can tie up. Start too slow and you just can’t make up the ground.
At the 200m mark Sophie still looked strong, retaining a marginal lead. Jenna Brommel, Limerick looked very strong in lane 8, pushing hard, unaware of how her competitors were doing.
Into the final home straight with 100m to go Sophie took the lead, still ahead of Dennehy, with Ciara Deely coming through strongly into fifth place. With 50m to go it was still Sophie in the lead.
Then came the surprise challenge, not from Dennehy, but from Claire Mooney, the one time 400m runner, now competing at 800m. Claire found that inner 400m strength and used her 800m training to work through the tied legs syndrome that 400m runners often experience.
She took one surge and at 40m had the lead; another surge and she was further ahead. Crossing the line it was Claire Mooney for her first national title with Sophie Becker, St Joseph’s second – her first national senior track and field medal.
Her time was 54.74. Ciara Deely (KCH) was 6th.
Who is Sophie Becker?
Sophie is from Ballykelly in Wexford. Her mother is the former Miss Tina Cody from Fatima Place in Kilkenny City. She started running at the age of 13 with St Joseph’s AC, in South Kilkenny.
A good sprinter, she competed at 100m and 200m initially. Her first big success at National level came when she was third in the National indoor 200m under-17.
At the outdoors that year she finished second in the 200m. The following year she won the 200m.
It was at this point that her coach, Pat Power, decided she should move up to the 400m. Her times improved steadily.
In 2017 she qualified for the European under-23 championships in Poland, racing in the 400m and the 4x400m relay. The relay team was 6th in the final.
In April in Belfast, Sophie achieved a new PB of 54.61 – an international race in Mannheim, Germany gave her new found confidence.
Sophie has not raced much since that 400m PB in Belfast, nursing an injury and taking care not to return to racing too soon. However, the progression of her times demonstrate her potential to further improve at this distance - 57.12 in 2015; 56.20 in 2016; 54.62 in 2017 and now 54.61 in 2018.
Her second place will give Sophie further cause to believe in her ability and perhaps reach her goal of the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.
And perhaps the bigger dream would be to have the two other Kilkenny ladies, Ciara Deely and Cliodhna Manning run with her on the relay. Dreams rank high in Kilkenny!
Brow fly the flag
While the girls were producing sizzling performances on the track, the throwers from Brow Rangers in Coon were wooing the throwing audiences.
Brow, well-known for their throwing expertise, are equally well known and respected at National level. With the weight for distance being introduced for the first time for women, Aoife Coady was not going to miss the opportunity.
Aoife finished a creditable 7th in this new event.
Padraig and Sean Maher took on the men’s weight for distance and finished 4th and 5th respectively.
John Joe Kelly finished seventh in the shot putt. To be in the top eight finishers in the Nationals is huge.
And when all four of your athletes are in the top eight, then you know there is something special happening with throwing in the hills of Coon. Fantastic performances.
Other Kilkenny athletes who compete at the weekend were Niall Sheehan, Gowran, who was 11th in the 5,000m heats and Shane Power, St Joseph’s, who finished 8th in the men’s pole vault.
With so many more talented athletes in Kilkenny, it is a shame the county did not have more competing.
Cliodhna Manning qualified for the European 400m in Berlin, but is nursing an injury. Kilkenny athletics wish her a speedy recovery.
Incidentally, her dad, county athletics treasurer, Michael Manning, is also out injured with a broken leg. He is wished a full recovery.
The Manning household is a busy place these days.
For more on Kilkenny People sport read here.