DCU leading the race in Irish athletics

The DCU Athletics Academy is one of the most successful clubs in the university and looks to be getting even stronger.

Since the programme began in 2004 a huge number of elite athletes have come through the academy, many going on to achieve international success. Athletes such as Brian Gregan and current European Cross Country champion Fionnuala Britton have all come through the academy based out of the Glasnevin university.

With numbers growing year on year, academy director Enda Fitzpatrick is confident that the rate of success will only continue to grow.

“I’ve got 50 new first years this year and I was probably only expecting maybe about 25,” he says.

“Of those that have come in I could definitely say that I’ve got 25 that are of the same or better standard than the ones that have just graduated.”

In the past, for an Irish athlete to achieve success, they had very little choice but to take up scholarships in American universities where facilities and training regimes were far superior to those in this country. However, DCU has been a pioneer in Irish athletics, producing world class athletes and proving that it can be done from this side of the Atlantic.

The academy director is quick to refer to Britton as a leading light in the process.

“When I look back at when the programme started in 2004, we were very lucky to have someone like Fionnuala Britton come in in the very first year. Having a European Cross Country champion for two years in a row come through the programme probably dispels the myth that you can’t succeed without going to America. She’s proved that you can stay at home and still achieve huge success.

“I suppose we’re giving students an option not to go to America. In the past when there was no alternative, kids would have no choice but to go to America.”

However Fitzpatrick, who used to train in America himself, says he fears that a reducing budget will make it more and more difficult for the university to take in the type of numbers that they are currently doing.

“I suppose, if I could find something negative, the continuing restrictions put on us in terms of finances certainly hurt. Although we had 15 or 16 people graduating, we had about 40 people coming in so if my budget continues to reduce, and you’ve got more and more kids wanting to come here, it’s going to be difficult.”

So will a reducing budget perhaps force more athletes to make the pilgrimage to America rather than the alternative of staying at home?

“That could most definitely happen. We can provide the service on our current budget, albeit that’s very tight, but if budget reductions continue to happen then decisions will have to be made. It certainly would be a fear I’d have, if I had half my budget I’d probably have to have half my athletes.”

Question any athletics coach or director and they will tell you that the Mecca for university athletics this side of the Atlantic Ocean is Loughborough University in the UK. The Leicester-based college is renowned for producing athletes such as Paula Radcliffe and Lord Sebastian Coe. It is a bold statement then, perhaps, that Fitzpatrick makes in comparing DCU to Loughborough.

“I’d probably compare us to Loughborough in the 70s and 80s. We’re probably where they were in the 70s with everything spiralling and getting bigger and bigger.”

The main focus currently for the cream of the DCU crop is the European Athletics Championships, which take place next summer. Economics, Politics and Law student Paul Robinson is considered to be a leading medal prospect in a number of disciplines.

“Paul’s times have been consistently been getting better year on year,” says Fitzpatrick. “He’s currently on a gap year and his sole focus is to perform at the European seniors next year. Paul is probably ranked in the top 10 in Europe now with a 3:35 at 1,500m and a 1:45 800m. Steven Colvert (sprinter) just missed out on the Olympics last year due to injury so he’d have huge ambition to perform there as well.”

With consistent success in intervarsity competitions becoming a regular thing for DCU, the word is being spread that the university is becoming the premier place to go for elite athletes. The former UCD student believes the emphasis that is put on the academic side of college life as well as the sporting side is very important.

“What I believe is beginning to happen is that word is out there that DCU is a good place to go for sporting opportunities. In addition I do believe that the academic side of things is huge. Your studies are priority; you’re not walking out of DCU without your honours degree.”

Fitzpatrick hopes that what is being done in DCU can act as a template for other universities around the country, leading to more competition within Ireland.

“If every university in Ireland could replicate what we’re doing here in DCU then there would be no doubt that we’d have no kids going to America, simply because the competition would be so good between ourselves. You want competition because if you’re just constantly winning everything people will become lackadaisical.”

Sports science or physiotherapy courses seem to be a favourite among students within the academy, something that pleases Fitzpatrick, who believes that an understanding of how the body works is essential in manufacturing the ultimate athlete.

“To excel in sport today you’ve got to embrace sport science. By coming here you’re learning about that all of the time. To make an elite sportsperson today there are a lot of people involved in the process. We also want the students to be totally comfortable in front of the media. What we’re trying to do is manufacture the complete sportsperson.”

Ruaidhrí Croke

Image Credit: Sportsfile

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