WHAT better way to announce your return to the track than by smashing a long-standing national record?
The fully-charged 800m runner Ciara Everard knows all about this, writes Trevor Spillane, having obliterated a mark which had stood for more than 20 years.
Better yet, the feat elevated her to the international stage - not bad for an athlete who practically missed an entire athletics season after an injury-ravaged 2012!
Even though it’s a few weeks since the European Indoor Championships in Sweden, where her performances made the athletics world sit up and take notice, but Everard is still glowing with satisfaction at how her senior international debut went.
“It was a really good experience,” she said. “I really enjoyed it - it was the first championship that I really, really enjoyed.”
The student had to hit the ground running in Gothenburg, adapting her tactics as the races dictated.
“I learned a lot from it because I had so many different types of races,” she explained. “The semi-final was so tough as things were really boxy while the heat was slow - I had to hit the gun pretty early. The final was a challenge in itself, but running three races back to back was the biggest task. It was a challenging championship but a really enjoyable experience all the same.”
It was a big ask, changing styles for three races in such a short space of time, but a determined Everard made light of the challenges. She dominated her heat, taking control with more than a lap to go as she won the race in a time of 2.04.33. Things were a little nervier in the semi-final, where she had to wait and see if her fourth place finish would suffice, before she enjoyed the final for what it was.
Mix things up
“It was hard to mix things up so quickly as you were just going from round to round of the competition,” she said. “I had never made it through the rounds of a major competition before so I didn’t know what it was like to be at the next stage. I felt confident that I could get into the semi-final, so I was just trying to get through the heat without getting in any bother. The minute that was over I started to think about the semi-final - I didn’t know what way that was going to go, so it was hard to guess what was going to happen.
“Once I was into the final I was really happy with that, but I had to sit down with my coaches and start to talk about the fact that it was in less than 24 hours,” she added. “We spoke of how I had to come up with a new plan as it was a new set of competition to go up against. It was tough to change and get into a different state of mind for each round of the race.”
With the races coming thick and fast there was no time to get nervous - not that Everard did in the first place...
“I was quite relaxed for the whole championship,” she admitted. “I knew there was no real pressure on me to do well so I was able to go there and enjoy the experience. Once you finish each race you’d spend an hour or two getting your massage and ice-baths. Before you knew it you were getting some food into you and going to bed, after which it was a case of waking up the next day and racing again. There wasn’t much time to get nervous inbetween!”
A big help was the fact that Ireland sent a close-knit team to the championships, which was reflected in the overall performances. Everard was part of an 11-strong team of Irish athletes, a squad which included former world indoor champion and three-time European medallist Derval O’Rourke. Ciaran O Lionaird and Fionnuala Britton grabbed their fair share of headlines, both winning bronze medals in Gothenburg to send everyone home on a high.
“There was a really good atmosphere among the team in Gothenburg,” Everard said. “It was really good to have someone like Derval O’Rourke, who always delivers in championships - she was very friendly and nice to talk to. It was disappointing what happened to Brian (Gregan, who ended his championships with nine stitches after suffering a leg injury in the men’s 400m semi-final) but Fionnuala and Ciaran did so well.
“You had so many people who advanced through the first stage, and when that happens it raises morale in the camp,” she added. “There was a good atmosphere there and I think everyone fed off it. Everyone was really supportive of each other; athletes went to each other’s races, so it was nice to have that team feeling, especially as athletics is such an individual event.”
Everard’s Swedish performances came at the end of a whirlwind of success for the Kilkenny athlete. She booked her place at the championships in style, shattering a national record which was almost as old as the athlete herself! It was a nice way to make an impact on the international stage.
“Breaking the national record was great - I didn’t even think I could get the time for Sweden like that,” she said. “To get it and break the record in the same day was brilliant, like killing all the birds with one stone. It was a great to go into the championships with that achievement behind me.”
The story is even more unbelievable. Everard wasn’t even planning to compete at the new AIT Arena in Athlone, which was the venue for the under-23 and junior indoor championships, on the day she put her name in the history books!
“I had paid to go to a meet in Vienna as there wasn’t a race scheduled in Athlone until a couple of days beforehand,” she recalled. “I spoke to Ned Nolan (her long-time coach with the Kilkenny City Harriers) and James Nolan (her coach at UCD) and both came to the conclusion that Athlone was a good decision.
Everard had only good things to say about Athlone’s Arena, Ireland’s first international standard 200-metre indoor running track. The venue can hold 2,000 spectators who can hear the pounding feet of the athletes as they complete laps on the track, which is sat on wooden boards instead of concrete.
“They’ve put boards under the track which makes it noisier, but the whole facility is fantastic,” she said. “The grip on the track is fantastic but what I love most about the place is how close the spectators are to the track. The atmosphere for the national senior indoor finals was just amazing. You can hear everything - usually when I’m in a race I can’t hear people. In The Odyssey (Belfast) for example, people are so far up you’re distanced from everyone. “The Arena at AIT feels like you’re on almost on a stage with the crowd so close to you.
“I fed off that, having people so close to me,” she said. “I could hear James and Ned screaming at me - I could hear everyone. To come in and have that atmosphere there was brilliant. I really like that and having run there before you know what you’re getting - when you travel it’s difficult as you have other factors to contend with, so we said we’d go to Athlone instead.
“Thank God I made the right choice,” she added. “It could have been disappointing to miss out on that.”
You might imagine that breaking a national record is a great feeling, but Everard didn’t know much about it at the time...
“When I crossed the line there wasn’t a clock to look at my time,” she said. “When I finished the race people were saying ‘you have the record’ and ‘it looks like you broke the record’, but I was determined that I wouldn’t believe it until I saw it in writing. I told people “until I see this written down on paper I’m not going to believe it!
“It was ages before the new was official, I was in a complete daze,” she added. “I had gone and completed my warm-down and was actually ready to go home when James (Nolan) came up to me and said “You know there was a national record as well?” about my result.
“It was all a daze really; to be honest it didn’t really hit me until after I came home from Sweden as there were so many races to contend with,” she continued. “I had to get ready for the nationals - if I didn’t win that then breaking the record would have felt a bit of a farce. There wasn’t much time to take it all in before Sweden.
“To be honest, I didn’t even think I had gone that fast,” she said modestly. “I really didn’t think I had. I remember thinking during the last lap that I had a chance of getting the record.
“I felt really good and I felt strong, but I think I got the record because I finished quite strongly. I have worked a lot on my endurance this year - usually I finish races almost falling over the line, dying of lactic acid build-up, but this year I’ve worked on that. Even the races in Sweden, where I was able to finish strongly after three races in quick succession, I felt I could run without feeling too exerted.
“With all that in mind I felt I could have gone even faster in Athlone,” she added, proving her boundless confidence. “I had an idea I’d made the qualifying time for the championships in Sweden (athletes had to finish in 2.03.5 to meet the European standard), but that I’d just made it - to find out I’d gone a second faster than that was brilliant. I wasn’t even aware of what the record was.”
Athletes don’t go to race meetings with records in mind. It’s almost like ‘if it happens, it happens’. Everard is proof of that, especially as her exploits at the under-23 indoor championships in 2012 proved...
“The previous year, when I broke Sonia O’Sullivan’s under-23 record (Everard set a new time of 2.05.76 in the women’s indoors 800m event, beating the time of 2.05.90 set by O’Sullivan in Boston back in 1991) I broke the record and nobody knew it at the time!
“I was only when I went home that I realised I had broken the record,” she continued. “I remember thinking I had looked at that time a year earlier (in 2011) so I had it in my head that the 2012 finish was somewhere close to that time (O’Sullivan’s 2.05.90). It was only after I said it to my coaches that the news broke, but it took a few days - the reaction to record can be delayed a little!”
It’s a little ironic that breaking records by running so fast can take so long to become public knowledge!
“It’s not something immediate, not in Ireland,” she said. “If you’re racing in other countries they always have the times up on a screen straight away but here we check things to make sure they’re official before the times comes through. You never get that sensation of crossing the line in a record time - there’s always a delay.”
Starting 2013 on a high has been a welcome relief for Everard, who experienced the other side of sport in 2012. After a bright start to her season, the athlete’s world took on a darker note when a bike accident left her facing a length lay-off period and what would prove to be a season-ending spell on the sidelines.
“It was bad luck to be honest,” she recalled. “I was cycling home from training, just before the varsities and my exams. I had just had my last training session and was just about to start off the outdoor season. I was just turning into my house when a car came up. I skidded on the kerb and went over.”
Initially, it was thought that Everard had just suffered an arm injury, but one setback quickly gave way to another.
“I never fully recovered from the bike fall, which triggered so many things,” she admitted. “Everything was delayed; first it was an injured arm, so I was off running, then when I began cycling and started to run again the problems kicked in - I found out there had been damage done to my knee and ankle. Then I got some viruses, so it was like one thing after another - I went through a phase where I felt a week wouldn’t pass without something going wrong,” she said. “Injuries are horrible, but when most people have them it’s one specific thing. You have a rehabilitation plan, you can have a programme and know it’s going to take a specific time before you’re back to full health. For me it was like I was out for a few weeks with my arm, then I was out with my knee, my ankle - there was never one thing where I could say that ‘if I get through this I’ll be done’.
“It was so frustrating,” she continued. “It was a difficult few months and so annoying to miss the season as I felt I had got myself into great form for it. I had only run in two races indoors and to have personal bests in them gave me motivation to train until the accident.
Despite the knocks Everard remained incredibly positive. Never giving up seems to have been a key to her total rehabilitation.
“I was probably a little crazy to think it, but I never gave up on making the outdoor season until it was over,” she said. “I was always thinking ‘next week I’ll get back for that event’ and then something else would go wrong. I had to stay positive - if I didn’t think that I’d be able to come back quickly then I probably would have gotten depressed over the whole thing. You have to keep positive - there’s no other way to get through when one thing goes wrong after another.”
It’s all change now though, with the injury-blitzed 2012 now a distant memory.
“I hope I can stay injury-free this year and carry on the form I’ve shown so far,” she said. “This year has been brilliant. I feel the times I’m getting now are more from the Summer last year paying off rather than my Winter work.”
Mention of work is all the more impressive when you consider that while Everard is clocking up the hours of athletic training to an international standard she is also a physiotherapy student. How does she juggle it all?
“I’ve always been quite academic and sporty so I’ve been able to balance it,” she said. “In UCD you have the Ad Astra scholarship - they’re really good for facilitating things, as I’m out on placement at the minute so when I’ve had to miss time in lectures they make sure I’m able to catch up. When you have a good discipline with sport you can usually apply it to other areas, but I really like it. Even after the time I spent in Athlone I was back to work on Monday, so it takes my mind off running - both help each other.
Physiotherapy has complement her running and training, she reckons, while running has also played its part on her chosen career path.
“Sometimes I think I’m very bad because you tend to ignore things or be a little more cautious because you know more about potential problems, but it has given me an insight,” she said. “Being on placement and dealing with patients you have a lot more empathy with people after being through things yourself.
“A lot of things I’ve learned from running have fed into physio and vice-versa, so they have complemented each other quite well.”
With a name like Everard, which has been steeped in athletics in Kilkenny, it was inevitable that Ciara would take up running.
“My mum (Lourda) has been involved with the Kilkenny City Harriers for I don’t know many years,” she said. “She was treasurer for years and has only just stepped back from that, but it’s been great to have her involved with a club like the Harriers.”
Even though she is now competing in the UCD colours, the Harriers still play a massive part in Everard’s life.
“I have to run for UCD now as part of the scholarship, but the minute I finish college I’ll be back with KCH, my home club,” she said. “Ned Nolan was my coach for 14 or 15 years and is very prominent in my current success.
“I still have a lot of strong ties with the Harriers - my brother Eoin runs with them,” she added, mentioning another family tie. “I want to go back there - the club has produced some fantastic athletes over the years, while the coaching is great. The amount of young people they have is incredible, and the work they have put in to develop people is amazing. It’s coming from parents getting involved, so it’s great to see more coming in and continuing the work.”
That Everard wants to come back to the Harriers is no surprise, especially seeing what the club has achieved over the years.
High calibre of athletes
“The club has produced an incredible amount of Olympians over the years, as well as setting plenty of national records,” she said. “It has such a high calibre of athlete coming in all the time. Even now there are so many good younger ones coming up through the ranks, who I could see as being great potential for the future. KCH has given us every opportunity, so it’s great to have had that - other than that I would never have been running.”
All that time with the Harriers led Everard to that national record and success in Sweden. Her work in the past has left her feeling optimistic for what lies ahead, especially over the coming months.
“The main competition I’ll be looking forward to now is the World Student Games in Russia in July,” she said (more than 10,000 student athletes and officials are expected to travel to the city of Kazan for the game this Summer). That’s what I’m aiming for at the minute, but I also want to race as much as possible. As for studies, I’m still unsure as to whether I’ll do a Masters or to go working, but hopefully I’ll make the right choice.
“Having such a good indoor season gives me the drive to give a bit more in training, but I want to keep my work in physiotherapy,” she said. “You have to keep updated with it - you can’t stop for three or four years and then take it up again - but even if I got the chance to do a part-time Masters and work at that alongside the physio work then that would be great.”
Ciara Everard - a glutton for punishment?
“Ah,” she said. “There’s no rest for the wicked!”