Kilkenny City Harriers athletes Aoibhe Richardson and Peter Lynch (inset) have enjoyed their time as students in America
Swapping Ireland for the American college lifestyle isn’t easy, but Kilkenny duo Aoibhe Richardson and Peter Lynch have made the grade in the States
College life is all about taking a step into the world - but two of Kilkenny’s bright young athletics stars have taken an even bigger leap!
For Aoibhe Richardson and Peter Lynch, America has been home for the past few years. The duo, accomplished members of the Kilkenny City Harriers athletic club, left Ireland to continue their studies with scholarships at the University of Portland and University of Tulsa respectively.
So far, it’s been quite the adventure.
“It’s been brilliant,” said Aoibhe, who has completed three years in the US. “I’m so glad I took the leap and went over there. You don’t know what it’s going to be like before you go, whether it will pay off, but I’ve loved every minute of my three years in Portland.
“I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity, which has opened up so many doors,” she added. “As an athlete I’ve improved way more than I thought I would, while I’ve also loved the whole college experience.
“I really love it,” agreed Peter, who has just finished his second year at Tulsa. “What I’ve really enjoyed most is the team aspect; you’re never doing a run by yourself as you always have someone or even a group to go running with.
“As a team we all hang out together so we’ve become a great group of friends away from the track.”
Being able to train and prepare for events in top-class facilities has also been a huge help.
“The facilities are another boost, as well as having full-time coaches and your workouts and runs detailed is something else,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect going out there, but it’s been incredible.
“The support the colleges have for athletes is unreal,” added Aoibhe. “Classes can be arranged around your training while support is in place if you need to travel for competition.
“Even things like physio are looked after,” she added. “The same levels aren’t in place here so it’s been great to experience that.”
The need for full-time support staff becomes apparent when you learn just how many people are involved in the collegiate sports programmes.
Aoibhe Richardson (centre) with her sister Grace (left) and mother Niamh (right) after winning the VHI Women's Mini Marathon Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
“There are 50 people on our track team,” said Peter, carrying on the attention focused on athletes. “That team has five coaches and a physio, all of whom are full-time. It’s very structured, with everyone training together.
“They are very committed to that job,” said Aoibhe. “They take it very seriously. Another big draw for me was the team aspect. Here I was training by myself most of the time, especially as I got older. As I moved up the age groups with KCH more and more girls my age stopped running.
“When I was 18 or 19 there weren’t as many people left to train with. Going to America there were 25 other girls on the team, all perfect training partners and my best friends.
“It has made everything so much more enjoyable,” she added. “I don’t know if I’d still be running at this point if I didn’t have that, let alone enjoying it.”
It takes some doing, but juggling study with sport is something Richardson has found to be highly beneficial.
“Keeping up a good standard of training while doing the Leaving Cert is a good life skill,” she said. “It teaches you how to prioritise your time and balance everything. It helps to give you some perspective.”
The pair have been just as busy in America, but that has helped keep homesickness at bay.
“Luckily I was so busy from the get-go that I didn’t have time for homesickness,” said Aoibhe. “Everything is so new, from training to classes, nevermind a new country. I was so busy that, before I knew it, it was Christmas time and I was coming home, so I never had a tough time adjusting. You can get lucky in the way you like the coach and the whole set-up; things can fall into place.
“There was a little homesickness in the first semester,” said Peter. “Randomly you’d miss your family or friends, but I’m always FaceTiming them so it’s easy to catch up. I’d miss my grandparents or friends who I wouldn’t be in contact all the time.
“Sometimes you just miss Irish people,” Aoibhe said with a smile. “There’s no other Irish people in my college - one of my best friends on the team is English so there’s a similar sense of banter – but you’d miss the chat with an Irish person.”
That said, it does offer the chance to talk to people from all over the world.
“There are people from many different countries on the team,” Aoibhe said. “They come from all over Europe, Australia and New Zealand, so you get to meet people from all over the place.
“It is a great cultural experience,” added Peter. “When you go to college here you tend to stick with your own friends. America offers a different culture, but that even differs with the States – someone from Texas is going to be completely different to someone from California. My college is 50% international and 50% American so it’s quite diverse.”
The Irish might be in the minority, but the Kilkenny duo still manage to catch up every so often.
“Even though Aoibhe and I are miles apart – ‘opposite ends of the country’ she interjected – we’ve seen each other at several events through the year,” said Peter.
“We met in Wisconsin on two occasions and twice in Southern California,” she said. “It’s mad that it’s such a huge country but you get to meet at the same races in random places.”
The athletic life has been a step-up for both, especially in the level of competition they’ve faced.
“It’s really humbling to compete over there,” Peter said of the American scene. “When I went over I was almost last in the workouts, and that’s just in your team - never mind races.
“This year in cross-country I had a few races where I ran really well and was the first finisher in our team, then went out the following week and finished seventh or eighth,” he said. “Things like that makes you remember that everyone has good days and bad days and that there is such a high level of competition.
“In cross-country you might have up to 350 people in your race,” added Aoibhe. “It’s not like the top 10 or 15% are good and then there’s a drop-off - everyone is good and deserves to be there. It’s humbling, but it also makes you want to get better.
“The standard of athlete competing in Division One of the NCAA is probably comparable with European seniors standard in both track & field and cross-country,” she continued. “It’s a really good standard, in terms of depth and times people are recording.”
Better standards mean better results. Has the move been beneficial?
“Absolutely,” Peter said without hesitation. “My PBs have gone down, which is to do with a lot more training and the races I’ve been in, which have been a lot more competitive.
“It makes a huge difference,” agreed Aoibhe. “In some of the races, like the ones we’ve met each other at in California, if you’re running a 10k on the track you might have 30 or 35 people in the race - it’s like a big traffic jam where you can get towed along to a good time, whereas here there might only be 10 people in a race and if you get separated you won’t run as good a time. Having that competition, with loads of people at the same level, makes it easier to get those times.”
Peter Lynch (Kilkenny City Harriers) checks his time as his crosses the line to win the 5,000m at the County Track & Field seniors event at Scanlon Park Picture: Michael Brophy
The collegiate sports scene is huge in America and athletics is part of that. It’s not unusual for colleges and universities to travel cross-country for competitions - a new experience for Richardson and Lynch.
“We would fly to most meetings,” said Aoibhe. “When the Nationals were in Wisconsin we had two flights and then a three-hour time change, but you might go two days before the race and stay the night after to help you acclimatise. The colleges make it very easy in that sense.
“We fly if we’re going to California or places like that, but we’ve gone by bus to places like Wisconsin, Alabama and Cincinnati,” said Peter. “The college has these sleeper buses which are just like massive motorhomes so you have a bed each.”
The transport is one thing - getting to grips with the size of the country is another
“I don’t think we realised just how big the country was before going there,” said Aoibhe. “The Americans are so casual about it. If they think it’s a good race they’ll go to it - even if it’s across the country. They want to go to the best races where the best competition is. If that means travelling across the country they’ll do it.”
Life has moved at a slightly slower pace since the duo moved back to Kilkenny for the summer, but while away from college they are still as busy as ever.
“Classes and exams finish at the end of April,” said Peter. “There are a few more races after that, then you’re free to come home. When we go out in August we’ll be there a few weeks before classes start as we’ll have training to prepare for the new season.”
Lynch has been kept busy in his ‘down time’. Since coming home he won the 5,000m title at the county track and field championships and took the spoils in the Mile Marker 10 mile race in Danesfort.
“I got the qualifying standard for the European Under-23s in the 10K but it’s not for a few weeks so my coaches and I decided to take a break and build up for cross-country,” he said. “After my last track race I took two weeks off and started back running 40 miles a week, then building it up by 10 miles a week before adding in workouts in the coming days.
“We have an online training log we have to fill out every week, even when we’re in Tulsa,” he continued. “We get a spreadsheet of how everyone in the team is doing every week so there’s no hiding!”
Aoibhe has been just as busy, even finding the time to win the Women’s Mini Marathon in Dublin.
“I’ve been home a little later in previous years so I was never here in time for the Mini Marathon, but this year I got home a few days before the event,” she said. “I was so glad I was able to do it as it was great fun. I wasn’t expecting the reception I got afterwards so that made it even better.
“I never really get to run road races - it’s usually on the track or cross-country so it was great to do,” she added. “I’ve had a few other races, including events in Belfast and London, but I’m looking forward to taking a break.”
There will be time to rest and relax, but soon the pair will prepare to head back to the US.
“I have two more years in College,” said Peter. “After that I’ll decide whether to stay on and do a Masters.”
Aoibhe is also staying in the US, but will continue her American adventure at another school.
“I just finished my degree in Portland, but I have some eligibility to keep running in America so I’m going to do a Masters in the University of San Francisco in September,” she said. “I’ll be there for the next two years.”